A derelict military base off the coast of Albania, with 3,600 bunkers built to withstand a nuclear attack, has opened to visitors.
Sazan Island is sited in the entrance to Vlora bay at a strategic point where the Adriatic and Ionian seas meet. Coveted for centuries by Roman, Ottoman and Greek armies, it fell under the control of Albanian communist leader Enver Hoxha at the end of the World War II, who opened it to Soviet allies in the 1950s.
‘From there I could control the Mediterranean to Gibraltar,’ said the Cold War era Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev in 1958 during a visit to the Pashaliman submarine base, also in Vlora Bay.
The two-square-mile island is still technically an operational military base, with two sailors stationed there to offer shelter to navies patrolling Albanian waters. But during the Cold War, some 3,000 soldiers roamed Sazan, living in constant fear of an attack. Its vast network of underground tunnels and bunkers show the extent of Albania’s Cold War paranoia.
Some tourists have already visited the island, where an underground cinema, school and hospital can also be found beneath the pine and fig trees that cover its surface.
Many of the island’s buildings are in a poor state, due to a lack of maintenance, and the former ammunition and fuel depots were looted and ruined in the late 1990s. But there are hidden gems to be found, including the villa of communist defence minister Beqir Balluku, who was executed by dictator Enver Hoxka as a traitor in 1974.
Says local tourism chief Auron Tare: ‘This is an island which can reflect the communist Albania – a beautiful area, but surrounded by barber wire, bunkers and military installation, and totally isolated from the world.’
He adds: ‘It’s not for mass tourism, it’s for the thinking traveller who wants to come and experience a time capsule.’