In the coastal town of Tale, about 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the Albanian capital of Tirana, 10 German and 10 Albanian university students are at work on a unique tourism project. They're converting a former bunker into a hostel that will provide space for up to eight people.
Tourists will be able to gaze out on the beautiful countryside through the bunker's gun slits, and dream beneath a concrete dome 1.3 meters (4.3 feet) thick. Perhaps they will even spare a thought for the dictator who had hundreds of thousands of these bunkers built, and made Albania one of the world's most isolated countries.
Albania's former communist ruler Enver Hoxha had around 750,000 igloo-shaped bunkers constructed across the country in the 1970s and 1980s. Hoxha feared foreign invaders and built the concrete structures to offer his people shelter in an emergency -- or as a place from which to attack potential enemies. The bunkers reflect the dictator's unparalleled paranoia.
Now, Iva Shtrepi wants to repurpose these redundant gray concrete domes. Her degree dissertation for a German university -- titled "Bunkerkunft," in a play on the German word "Unterkunft" ("accommodation") -- presents a way for this booming tourist destination to benefit from its bunkers: by converting them into hotels. For the time being, the plan is only to renovate a single bunker -- but that could soon change.
Markus Pretnar, Shtrepi's professor at Mainz University of Applied Sciences, liked the idea so much that he's turned the theory into practice. The students in his seminars took up the topic, drawing up designs and establishing initial contacts in Albania. "The dissertation has developed into a research project," says Pretnar, a professor of interior design. He sees Albania as overwhelmed by the current tourism boom: "You only have to look at the built-up landscapes along the Adriatic coast, in neighboring Montenegro as well, to see that too much has been built, too fast."
The German-Albanian tourism project is meant to primarily benefit local residents. The bunker that the students are currently transforming into a cozy igloo-style hostel -- with wood floors, mattresses for lounging on, a shower and a kitchenette -- is just a prototype. If backpackers like it, many other bunkers could be converted into accommodation in the same way. "They're all over the place," Pretnar explains, "in the Albanian Alps, in nature reserves, in cities and in the country." Officially, the bunkers belong to the country's Defense Ministry, but usage rights have been granted to the private individuals who own the property on which they stand.
Others interested in the project can adapt the idea and design bunkers of their own, under two conditions: They must credit the universities in Mainz and Tirana with the original idea, and all bunker hostels should be under local management. A stay in any "Bed & Bunker" hostel should also cost less than €8 ($10) per person per night.
'Perfect Conditions for Backpackers'
Albania's economy did not immediately recover after the fall of the Communist regime in 1990, and the population suffered terribly as a result of the Kosovo War in the late 1990s. Recently, though, the Balkans have become a hot tourist topic, with people from all over the world discovering the region as a travel destination. Albania is especially popular with solo travelers.
"We want to see Tirana and go to the mountains and the beach," says Artur Schock, a 26-year old bicycle courier from Berlin, who will be packing his backpack in a few days and heading for the Balkans with two friends. They will be the bunker hostel's first guests, and Schock is looking forward to this unusual form of accommodation. "It's practically on the beach -- a prime location," he explains. It's sure to be a better night's sleep than staying in a tent, he adds.