The isolated Albanian artillery base hidden in a cliff
By Stephen Dowling in Albania26 November 2018
During the Cold War, Albania’s armed forces built tunnels and underground bases in case of invasion. BBC Future visited one, hidden in a national park, earlier this year.
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Park with a past
Guide Elton Caushi took Future near the coastal city of Vlore, to the Karabarun-Sazan Marine Park, the first of its kind in Albania.
This area is of enormous interest, not only for its historical remains – including the ancient city of Orikum – but also its rich wildlife.
Established in 2010, the 125 sq km (48 sq mile) park is home to everything from golden jackals to loggerhead turtles, short-beaked common dolphins and sperm whales.
On the Karabutrun Peninsula there are no permanent residents, partly because the porous karst rock means there is little, if any, drinkable water.
Much of the time, the park’s flora and fauna are left to their own devices.
In the days of Enver Hoxha, the communist leader who ruled Albania from 1946 until 1985, this area was off limits. Nearby is the Pasha Liman naval base, home to many ships of the Albanian Navy. And, like countless other places in Albania, the peninsula’s slopes are guarded by concrete bunkers.
After hiring a boat from a local tour operator, we headed across the bay, intending to visit the seaward side of the peninsula – Caushi had said there were a number of bunkers arranged on the beaches there.
In the middle of the bay our launch was hailed by a boat full of park rangers. After a brief discussion, one of them, Nexhip Hysolakoj, climbed onboard to act as guide to show us something else.
Today, nearly three decades after the end of Albania’s communist regime, the fortifications it built are falling into disrepair. But there are other relics of the military occupation of this sun-baked landscape
A short walk away from our landing point were the remains of a naval guard post and bunkers – and the beginning of a wide track which skirted around the peninsula. No narrow trail, this track was wide enough for trucks.
There are a few people who are allowed to access the park, mostly local shepherds. One of them met us at the track, riding his mule to an animal shelter he was rebuilding further along the peninsula.
Hidden behind a gap in the cliff face was an enormous shelter carved into the rock. It was a fuel depot, now commandeered by local bats. Hysolakoj's headtorch barely illuminated its roof.
Built for battle
Much further along, however, and past the old stone animal shelter, was the peninsula’s real secret. Inside the headland of the peninsula, behind the limestone cliff walls, was a secret artillery base.
Here, a battery of Soviet-built 122mm howitzers – heavy artillery guns – were based, with a commanding view over the sea leading into the bay.
The gun emplacements were carved out of the stone by hand – most of the work is thought to have been done by political prisoners.
Each of the bunkers would have contained one artillery gun and the crew needed to fire it.
Crews would have likely been on duty around the clock. Communist Albania feared invasion not only from Nato, but from its neighbour Yugoslavia, and even its former ally the Soviet Union, after breaking off relations in the early 1960s.
The bunkers still sport slogans from the time – though since the fall of Enver Hoxha’s regime critics are no longer afraid of sullying his memory.
Words of warning
Inside the emplacements there are still traces of the instructional graphics for the artillery crews. In one of the disused bunkers there were formulas for firing at a moving target (like a ship) while another showed the crew what to do in the case of a nuclear attack. Another showed the correct way to lay mines outside the bunkers.
These reminders of the isolationist past are in far better condition than most in Albania’s derelict bunkers, mainly because the complex has had so few visitors – Caushi, who runs tours dedicated to the vestiges of Albania’s communist past, had no idea it was here.
It pays to go with an expert guide, however. Prompted by the diagrams of how to lay of anti-personnel mines, I asked Hysolakoj if the area had been properly cleared as we walked down to the slope outside one of the emplacements.