Read, Write, Run, Roam

A concrete reminder of Albanian history: the pillbox


They’re ugly: reinforced concrete “mushrooms” that are impossible to destroy. They’re everywhere: on mountains, beaches, random fields. They’re unmistakeable: they’re Albanian pillboxes.

An estimated 400,000-700,000 pillboxes were built under orders of Enver Hoxha, Albania’s ultra-communist, ultra-paranoid, isolationist dictator. While “protecting” Albania from foreign languages, news and ideas for 40 years, he built the pillboxes as part of a military defense strategy. It’s said that there is a pillbox for every Albanian family.

We spotted our first pillbox within 20 minutes of entering Albania. We continued to see them throughout the country, but it never became boring. The pillboxes come in a range of sizes. Some are large enough for 6 people; others could barely hold two. I even saw a triplet of small pillboxes connected through tiny tunnels. One thing is for sure: they weren’t made for comfort.

They weren’t made for pennies, either. Pillbox construction dominated Albania’s budget, leaving little for roads, housing, and industry. At least they were built well; it supposedly takes months of hard labor to dismantle the concrete domes. Some people have taken to painting them different colors, though we never saw those. It’s too bad, because I had visions of someone re-purposing pillboxes as Mario Bros. mushrooms or R2D2 helmets. Think about it:

Are there some great similarities here, or what?

Today, most pillboxes seem to be used as garbage dumps or outhouses, but there’s a small movement to find new life for these indestructible icons. Treehugger.com noted that some pillboxes have been turned into bar additions and eco-friendly hotel rooms. Yet it’s hard to imagine this

turning into this:

Let’s hope these pillboxes can find new purposes before they’re systematically removed. Albanians may see pillboxes as a nuisance, but I see them as passports to history.

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