The Tattooed Bunker: Colorful “Repurposing” in Shkoder, Northern Albania

In Albania, around 750,000 bunkers form a gray mushroom network across the country. This drab legacy of recent communism presents a creative challenge today. Albanians are transforming the bunkers into more purposeful structures, often with tourism in mind.

Remnants of a Paranoid Past

Built of thick cement and iron, the bunkers are phone booth-sized subterranean fortresses with rifle windows and cement dome roofs above ground. Communist dictator Enver Hoxha built them in the 1970s in paranoia of nuclear warfare and xenophobia toward the rest of the world. The bunkers were never used. When Hoxha died in 1985, the communist regime lasted about five more years and collapsed with the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Only two decades later, this history still haunts the present. Most of the 750,000 bunkers are still standing and crumbling slowly where they were built. Moving or destroying them is no small task. Each one was built with 5 tons of cement to withstand nuclear warfare. Myth has it that Hoxha hired the bunkers’ engineer by instructing him to shelter himself in the prototype while it was attacked by military explosives. The engineer survived, so Hoxha ordered almost a million of his bunkers to be built.

Creative Re-purposing

Today, Albanians face the question of how to address these scars from the past. Most are simply worked around, while some have been destructed by explosives in order to build in their place. While the majority of the 2-person pillboxes continue to blight the landscape with concrete and iron, a rare few have been “re-purposed” into worthwhile structures such as planters, cafes, playground equipment, and pieces of graffiti art.

The creative re-purposing of cement bunkers is a telling metaphor for Albania’s recovery from its recent communist past. One project, Concrete Mushrooms, has secured resources for the research and documentation of Albania’s bunkers. The organization works toward “inverting the meaning” of these symbolic structures by “giving bunkers value instead of having them as a burden.” Concrete Mushrooms identifies ecotourism-related uses for the bunkers, such as tourism information points, cafes, and even accommodation, as an area with real potential.

The Tattooed Bunker in Shkoder

On the highland road north from Shkoder to Tamare, where population is sparse, bunkers are also fewer and farther between. Here, a bright example of creative re-purposing can be found. A large bunker has been converted into a tattoo parlor. This one is easy to spot – the concrete is colorful, with “tattoo” painted on the outside dome in graffiti-style lettering.

For fearless tattoo shoppers, ink enthusiasts, or those who are simply curious, it is worthwhile to pull over and see this place and the tattoo artist, Keq Marku Djetroshan, who works there mainly during the summer season.

Having lived in the United States for several years, Keq is fluent in American slang. When his time in the U.S. ended, he came back to northern Albania with his tattoo business. He serves mostly Albanians and Montenegrins who cross the nearby border. Inside the bunker-turned-parlor, the walls display more graffiti and an array of dog-eared tattoo art magazines sit on the table in front of the couch. Keq’s arms are covered with layers of tattoos, perhaps a re-purposing of his own scars from the past.

To visit the tattooed bunker, go to Shkoder & Albanian Alps Hotels, a local connection, for accommodation and tour information about Albania’s northern region.

More about Albania

Reaching for Vuno’s clean beach at Jal, Albania
By Ethan Gelber – About 190 kilometres south of Tirana, Albania, between Dhërmi and Himara (Himarë) in the hills above the coast, the small town of Vuno isn’t on most tourist radar. Not, that is, unless they’re headed two kilometres away to two of the Albanian Riviera’s most beautiful waterside retreats: the Jal and Gjipe beaches.

Growing Farm Stays and Agritourism in the United States

Agritourism and farm stays are common in Europe, particularly Italy, where they play an important role in preserving rural food traditions and protecting small farm livelihoods. In the United States, however, farm stays aren’t as well known. Two organizations, The Farm Stay Project and Farm Stay U.S., aim to change that – we’re working to spread the word about farm stays in the United States.

The Farm Stay Project consists of a blog of news and reviews and an in-progress guidebook of Eastern U.S. farm stays from Florida to Maine. Farm Stay U.S. is a newly launched web directory of nationwide farm stays funded in part by a USDA SARE grant. The goal is to connect farmers and non-farmers in order to help protect family farms and bridge the urban-rural divide.

The term “farm stay” simply refers to accommodations on a working farm, including cabin rentals, tent camping, or a farmhouse bed and breakfast. Some farm stays offer guests the opportunity to help out with farm chores, while others simply offer a peaceful country retreat.

We believe economically viable farms are protected farms that won’t be as susceptible to development. From 1992-1997, according to the American Farmland Trust, 6 million acres of farmland were developed, an area roughly the size of Maryland. Compared to urban sprawl, farmland provides scenic open space and community character.

Economically speaking, farms are great assets to local communities, contributing taxes, jobs, and real goods. From an environmental perspective, well-managed farms are also valuable wildlife habitat; while eating local means fewer fossil fuels are burned to get that delicious sweet corn from the field to your mouth.

As proponents of agritourism, we feel it should be the right of every child to hear a rooster crow before sunrise, to pet a new spring lamb, and to pull a radish from the ground. We think there is nothing else quite like spending a few days on a farm enjoying fresh air and fresh food. We see farm stays as playing an important role in the local food movement – after all, the best way to really “know your farmer” is to spend a few days exploring a farm.

We’d like to urge everyone to explore the farm stay map at Farm Stay U.S. For those of you who live in the Washington, D.C. area (like this author), here are four Virginia farm stays that are within two hours of the city. These four farms have all have been protected from development in perpetuity by conservation easements. All are historic farms, some with family histories stretching back for 200 years. They’ve adopted diverse strategies to continue farming and stay viable, including selling directly to the consumer and hosting guests.

Smith Meadows Farm is a 400-acre organic, grass-fed meat farm that has been in the same family for nearly 200 years. The farm sells its meat, eggs, and fresh pasta made with local organic ingredients at nine DC farmers markets. The farm’s elegant and historic Smithfield manor house offers rooms and suites for $175 and up, double occupancy.

Weatherlea Farm is a 1700s-era farm owned by Malcolm and Pamela Baldwin, who are retired from careers in environmental law and the Foreign Service. The Baldwins now raise sheep and wine grapes on 28 acres, and host weddings and guests in their one-bedroom “milk cottage” rental, which can sleep up to four. Rates start at $110/night.

Hedgebrook Farm is a third generation, woman-owned and operated dairy farm near Winchester. Kitty Hockman Nicholas and her daughter Shannon Tripplett are proud to offer guests the opportunity to stay at the Herds Inn, a two bedroom log home rental. Kitty and Shannon also offer an innovative cow boarding program for milk lovers, where customers buy shares of one of the farm’s Jersey cows in order to be able to enjoy the farm’s fresh, raw milk. Rates for the Herds Inn start at $125/night, double occupancy.

Oakland Green has been in Sara Brown’s family for nine generations, and has been a B&B since the 1980s. Sara has raised beef cattle part time since she was a child, and started marketing her own beef direct from the farm seven years ago. Sara hosts up to four guests (from one party) in the 1730s log cabin farmhouse. Rates start at $110/ night, double occupancy.

More about the Author: Michelle Nowak

Michelle Nowak is currently writing The Farm Stay Handbook, Eastern USA, and she blogs at Michelle first fell in love with agriturismo while studying farm stays in Italy. Inspired by the local farm food and remarkable farmers that she met in Europe, Michelle knew she wanted to work to expand agritourism in the United States. Michelle has worked as a farmer and educator in California, Vermont, New Hampshire, New York, and Mexico. She also founded her own small business in Vermont, Aunt Shell’s Goat Cheese. Michelle has a B.Sc. in City and Regional Planning from Cornell University.

Michelle and Scottie Jones (of Farm Stay U.S.) will be presenting at the Ecotourism and Sustainable Tourism Conference 2010 (ESTC 2010) (September 8-10, 2010, Portland, Oregon, USA) on the panel “Creating and Promoting a Sense of Place.” Michelle and Scottie’s presentation will focus on farm stays and agritourism’s roles in protecting farmland from unsustainable development, which is crucial for both human and ecological communities. Join us in Portland to learn more about the Farm Stay Project/ Farm Stay U.S. and their efforts to support agritourism in the USA!