The mountainous little country looks out to the heel of Italy's boot, and for the last century, has played out as a field for war, foreign occupation and annexation, and the enactment of fantasies of next-level paranoid dictators.
Its capital, Tirana, is a mishmash of architecture ranging from Bronze-age fortress to Ottoman-era mosques and Soviet Brutalist monuments. But the contemporary symbol of Albanian architecture is no skyscraper or soaring minaret: it's its bunkers.
During the Cold War, Communist leader Enver Hoxha went on a 20-year bunker-building spree until the 1980s — some say there are 60,000 around the country, others put an extra zero in that figure. Like the number of goats in the country — who knows?
These grey, concrete domes jut out of Albania's soil in the most unlikely places. I find them on busy street corners, amid mountain pastures, in graveyards and hotel courtyards, in a range of sizes, shelter against a threat that never came. Most are sealed up, some are havens for litters of street puppies and flocks of goats, or make cubbyhouses that are, literally, bullet-proof. I hear some have even morphed into tattoo parlours, barber shops and cafes.
In Tirana, two subterranean bunkers have been transformed into modern art galleries: the Bunk'Art galleries' grey walls are papered with the sepia photographs of citizens murdered by the state. Their silenced eyes look down on me as I descend a long staircase into the underground gallery beneath the Ministry of Internal Affairs, just off the city's vast Skanderbeg Square. Here, a series of damp rooms house tools of torture and surveillance gear. In a dank cell, a sign invites me in to be 'decontaminated'. I decline.
Bunk'Art's rival for the title of Albania's most challenging museum is the House of Leaves: The Museum of Secret Surveillance. To get there, I take a short walk between the chic cafes and shops of Blloku, the former elite neighbourhood of the Albanian politburo.
A sign at the entrance of the pretty mansion sets the tone: "This museum is dedicated to those innocent people who were spied on, arrested, persecuted, convicted and executed during the communist regime."
Once a doctor's surgery then a maternity hospital, the stately building housed the Gestapo through World War II. It was an easy transition to an interrogation and torture centre during the Communist period, which lasted 47 years until 1991.
Inside the Ministry of Spies, the air is cool and the museum is almost silent in the country Lonely Planet named in the top 10 countries to visit in 2020. But today, I spy only one other couple — also foreigners — moving among the rooms whose walls are lined with names of the dead and disappeared, with black-and-white photos of loved ones, and of the bureaucracy that pushed them between prisons and forced labour camps.
"Whispers of people and rustling of leaves... in a regime that aimed at the total control over the human bodies and souls," reads the painfully elaborate signage.
There is no punch-pulling here. One blood-red room is set up as a small movie theatre, spooling state-produced propaganda movies featuring rugged, square-jawed good guys (the Communists) dusting their knuckles against the weak chins of effete enemies (the capitalists and everyone else). In a bizarre aside, Albania later forged an alliance with Communist China, which supplied much of its spy technology, and for decades, the country's only tourists were Chinese film fans, flocking to the shoot locations of the propaganda movies.
Walls are covered in realms of the names of convicted political prisoners, neatly printed on black paper, and a pyramid chart near it lists the hierarchy of the Sigurimi, Albania's feared state security, intelligence and secret police service. It's hard to think that just 11 years ago, people were still being tortured in this house.
I leave the sad mansion, wiping my hands of the scent of evil. It's been 29 years since the people pulled down the towering statue of Hoxha in Skanderbeg Square. Today, the gelateria are busy and the outdoor cafes are full: life is for living, but the past is carefully catalogued.
Bunk'Art has two galleries – the larger gallery on the edge of Tirana, and the smaller in bunker and underground, bunkart.al
The House of Leaves is open daily, at muzeugjethi.gov.al
Intrepid Travel's 15-day Kosovo, Albania & Macedonia Explorer begins and ends in Tirana, Albania, from $2754 a person, twin share. See intrepidtravel.com
Australians don't need a visa to visit Albania for stays of up to 90 days.
Belinda Jackson was a guest of Intrepid Travel.