History sleeps with one eye open in Albania’s capital city. Concrete bunkers cover the streets of Tirana like bullet shell casings. Communist-era buildings redressed in vibrant colors tower with daring optimism. As Albania rises from the frontlines of empires and revolutions, a creative spirit stirs beneath the surface.

Downtown Tirana is a canvas of architectural curiosities and disjointed inspiration. I’d constantly lose my train of thought when passing by the graffiti-laced slopes of the Pyramid of Tirana; the aesthetically mind-numbing landmark is so unsightly and offbeat that it’s hard to look away. Originally constructed as a tribute to former dictator Enver Hoxha, the museum-turned-NATO base now rests in decay alongside the memories of its disgraced former patron.

A relic from the days when livestock and leather goods ruled the neighborhood, the ascending stone arches fortifying Tanners Bridge are now surrounded by souvlaki stands and secondhand clothing shops. The statue of folk hero Skanderbeg, esteemed leader of the 15th-century rebellion against the Ottomans, stands just steps from the historic Et’hem Bey Mosque. From the igloo-like urban bunkers to the double-take-inducing warped façade of the Archaea Tower, Tirana is a delightfully eccentric mashup of history and hope.

Albania’s national identity — that of fierce independence, rugged nationalism, and creative ingenuity — is as unique as its language. Predating the archaic dialects of classical Greece and Rome, Albanian is the oldest surviving language in the Balkan Peninsula. As the cultural descendants of ancient Illyria, Albanians stake their claim as the region’s original trailblazers.

Developing an ear for the distinctive language was beyond me, but learning a few basic pleasantries like “pershendetje” (hello) and “faleminderit” (thank you) earned me quick invitations to join the locals at the outdoor tables of the city’s countless cafes. We’d chat over cups of coffee and my phone’s Albanian language app, trading grim stories of the country’s past with promising dreams of a brighter future.

Caught in the undertow of the political turmoil gripping the Balkans throughout the 20th century, Albania endured on the fringes of Europe’s final frontier. Hoxha’s isolationist policies led to severed alliances with the international community; as modern capitalism spread through Eastern Europe, Albania shut itself off from the world, trapping the country in the shackles of poverty and propaganda.

Hoxha, a zealous tyrant with paranoid tendencies, oversaw a slew of toxic political initiatives, from North Korean-style isolationism to the outlaw of religion, famously declaring Albania to be the world’s first atheist state. His economically-crippling construction of over 170,000 dome-shaped bunkers, built to survive a potential nuclear war, now lay derelict and abandoned throughout Tirana and the surrounding countryside.

The granddaddy of them all is a massive fortress built five stories underground. Unknown and off-limits to locals until very recently, the bunker was built as a command center and survival outpost to house Hoxha’s military and political comrades during times of war. Recent renovations have transformed the military compound from a nuclear fallout shelter to an exceptional museum known today as Bunk’Art.

On the rustic outskirts of northeastern Tirana, down a cavernous single-lane tunnel, Bunk’Art is a living testament to Albania’s “never-say-die” spirit. I passed by a soldier’s regalia, stepped through a series of heavy doors and decontamination chambers, and found myself immersed in the chilling abyss of Communist-era Albanian history.

The labyrinth of passageways lined with cell-block rooms, dim lighting, and static noise evoke feelings of Alcatraz, combined with the atmosphere of a horror movie psychiatric ward. Recordings of military speeches and the synchronized steps of soldiers echo off the drab, grey walls before fading into an eerie, unsettling silence.

Antiquated maps and posters of nationalist propaganda deck the interior walls of each room, many now fashioned as wartime command centers, complete with outdated radio equipment and military-grade weapons. Others display old newspapers and historical photos illustrating the evolutionary history of modern Albania and Hoxha’s rise to power, reinforcing the narrative of Albanian nationalism as a rallying cause against foreign invasions.

It’s such a visceral experience that my mind began to slip back in time, imagining Hoxha rousing the troops from the stage of the assembly hall. But in true Albanian fashion, Bunk’Art has transformed the former communist outpost into a performance art venue, refurbishing the theater with plush red chairs, sprightly yellow walls, and richly painted bunker domes.

By and large, Bunk’Art is more than a museum dedicated to Albania’s 20th-century history; it’s a tribute to Albania’s capacity to take the broken pieces of its past and transform them into something beautiful. It’s an artistic tenacity that can be seen and felt all throughout Tirana today.

The colorful buildings of downtown Tirana are as uplifting as they are eye-catching. The city’s hand-me-down communist infrastructure has been revitalized with injections of color so tacky and alluring that I couldn’t help but find myself captivated by their quirkiness. Many of the formerly lifeless building facades have been converted into uplifting frescos of chromatic energy, capturing the vibe of Tirana in a nutshell: endearingly rough around the edges with a creative spirit and a tortured heart of gold.

The seeds of Albanian creativity continue to bloom in unexpected ways. A new wave of cartoon inspired street art is sprouting throughout Skanderbeg Square, showcasing lively images of pop-culture classics such as The Simpsons, Peanuts, Looney Tunes, and more. Ask around and the locals all smile with approval, however no one seems to have a clue who paints them or how many even exist. These animated heroes of youthful nostalgia invigorate the city with cheerful enthusiasm, and a photo scavenger hunt of these cartoon characters is one of my favorite ways to discover the city.

The footprints of Albania’s harrowing past remain etched in the fabric of modern Tirana like the cracks in the sidewalks. It is from these same metaphorical crevices that the Albanian spirit continues to rise and shine with the times, just as it has done since antiquity. Tirana, finally, is blossoming once again.

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Kevin Dimetres
Kevin Dimetres currently works as an educator and freelance writer in the Washington, D.C. area. His stories have been published on Passion Passport, Immersion Travel Magazine, GoNOMAD, Transitions Abroad, InTravel Magazine, and the Washington Post. A collection of his work can be found on Kataraxia.com.