More background info:
In the long dark decades of isolationist and repressive communist
rule in Albania
under dictator Enver Hoxha
, there were dozens of political prisons and forced labour camps. Many thousands were imprisoned and often tortured for acts like alleged anti-communist “agitation”, frequently on the flimsiest of grounds. As usual, many prisoners were intellectuals and artists.
Spaç was a place that served both as a political prison, including solitary confinement, and as a forced labour camp. That dual role makes it especially significant.
Solid information about this place is somewhat scarce, but this is what I’ve managed to garner:
The prison was set up in 1968 and remained operational right until the end of the communist era, though some sources claim it was already closed in 1988, while others say 1990 or even 1991, when the communist regime finally collapsed. The site was abandoned a few years later and has been decaying ever since.
I first learned about this site when I found it on the World Monuments Watch
website where it was listed in 2016 as one of the most endangered memorial sites on Earth (external link, opens in a new tab), even though it had been officially declared a national monument in 2007. Some preservation and stabilizing work was carried out in 2017 by an Albanian NGO (and with financial help from the Swedish embassy in Tirana
). This also drew up a grand plan for converting Spaç into a proper memorial site with a visitor centre and further restoration and commodification
. You can see the proposal here
(external link, opens in a new tab).
But in reality, nothing else has happened at the site since then. Some of the signs and information plaques are already fading and some parts of the old buildings are in danger of collapse.
But back to history. Spaç also stands out amongst the various such places of internment and repression in that in May 1973 a revolt against the prison regime was staged, during which some prisoners hoisted an Albanian national flag without the then usual communist star in it, in an openly defiant act of rebellion. The uprising lasted for two days until it was brutally crushed. Four inmates were executed and scores of others had their prison sentence extended for many additional years. Yet it is this extraordinary episode of open rebellion against the repressive regime that is a key motivation for several former prisoners campaigning for the preservation of Spaç (see e.g. here
– external links, open in new tabs).
Accommodation in the prison cells was primitive, with 54 inmates sharing a cell and sleeping in three-tier wooden bunk beds “upholstered” with hay. Food was meagre and of poor quality. The remote location and harsh climate meant that no perimeter wall was deemed necessary. Instead there were just fences and a couple of watchtowers (now all gone).
Forced labour was done in a nearby mine, where primarily copper was extracted. In addition to the prison inmates there were apparently also some “free labourers” who were employed by the mine.
Mining conditions were primitive and dangerous. There were incidences of shaft collapses shutting prisoners off from the world for days. And several prisoners died in the mines too. The labourers also had to endure extreme temperatures in the mine of 40 degrees Celsius – while outside the mine temperatures frequently fell below zero.
There was allegedly (so I was told by a guide at the site) one initially successful escape attempt. But after a couple of days in the cold, without food and disorientated in the rugged mountain terrain, the prisoner returned and gave himself up. Better in prison than dead, he must have thought.
After the prison was closed in the 1990s the mine initially stopped operations too. But meanwhile it has been brought back into business by a private company (from Turkey
Some of the historic mine shafts/entrances and a few original buildings have been lost in the meantime. And the remaining buildings are in desperate need of preservation. Let’s hope that somehow the funds for this can be found, perhaps with further foreign financial support. But we have to wait and see. Better go and visit this unique place sooner rather than later!
What there is to see:
The site sits on a terraced mountain slope deep in a remote valley accessed by a rough dirt track, basically in the middle of nowhere. Hence I used this northern Albanian tour operator
who I found offered a guided tour to Spaç.
We were picked up, as arranged, at our hotel in Tirana
by our driver/guide and set off into the dense city traffic. But eventually we got to the main trunk road north and the going got faster. It continued along the newly improved dual-carriage route over the mountains towards Kosovo, until we had to leave the fast road and carry on along a minor road which quickly turned into an unpaved track (details for self-drivers below
). After several miles of slow and winding mountain track driving we came to the first part of Spaç.
We stopped by the former residential blocks that were for the “free labourers of the mine” as a brown tourist sign explained (in Albanian and English). Also at this spot is an overview plan of the whole site. This was already very faded and peeling but still just about legible (but won’t be for much longer if left to the elements without refurbishment).
Across the track up some steps is a stone plaque that was erected after Spaç was declared a national monument in 2007. Further up the steps another brown tourist sign informs visitors that this was the spot where “the portrait of the dictator Enver Hoxha was placed” (or maybe it was a bust or statue?).
We then drove on to the main part of the Spaç complex and parked by a little hut at the top of the slope. Our driver/guide had made a phone call to a local guide, who apparently also works for the copper mine that you can see looming large on the mountain slope ahead.
It wasn’t quite clear but I think this person who then came down to meet us may have been a former prisoner. Anyway, he acts as the local “ambassador” for Spaç and can be summoned at fairly short notice to take visitors around the site; his employer is said to not mind if he leaves work for a while to fulfil this extra role. His name is Gjet Gjoni and he also features in this article about Spaç (external link, opens in a new tab).
On my visit, this local guide now took the lead. He spoke a little English but most of the time talked in Albanian and our driver/guide translated into English.
From where we had parked we got a view over the administrative block
built from light-coloured bricks. On the outer wall hang large panels
that once bore communist slogans
and Enver Hoxha
quotes. But they have faded so much by now that they’re more or less illegible (even if you know Albanian, that is).
By the sloping access lane a sign admonishes visitors not to do any further damage to the site as this is a site of great importance “for our national history”.
Passing the administration block we came to the spot where the main checkpoint and the gate to the prison tract would have been. Just like all metal fixtures this gate has long gone, presumably also having fallen victim to looters. The whole place seems pretty much picked clean.
Through the no longer existing gate on the left is a small building, very dilapidated, which, as our guide and another brown tourist sign explained, was where prisoners could be visited by relatives – but always with a guard present and separated by bars.
The upper terrace to the right, now covered with grass, was the location of the former isolation cells, of which no trace remains. However, in the middle of the grassy square stands a lone rusty mining trolley and a short stretch of rails. Next to it some remnants of rusty barbed wire can be made out.
Proceeding further down to the next lower terrace
we passed a structure on the left the inside of which is just about propped up by a forest of steel support poles. The space inside should not be entered, though there was no sign making this explicit (adding such signs would be part of the development proposal mentioned above
). A somewhat damaged brown plaque explains that this used to be the kitchen
and “dining hall” for the prisoners
To the left of this is another grassy terrace level and to its right a red two-storey building. This, as a sign points out, was a multi-function edifice containing a library, healthcare centre, storage rooms and “offices of low-rank officers”. The ground floor of this building is the only part of the entire complex that has intact windows and doors, painted blue. Obviously these have been reconstructed more recently. The doors were locked, but peeking through the windows we could make out rows of pew-like little blue benches. I assume that this is a space that is used for memorial events, especially on or around 21-23 May.
That was the date of the famous revolt at Spaç prison in 1973
). This is celebrated with a flagpole
flying the Albanian national flag and a dedicated large plaque
attached to the rear wall of the cell block opposite the red building. But its text is in Albanian only. However there are two further brown tourist panels too that provide the rough background story of the revolt, albeit in rather deficient and flowery English full of hyperboles and inaccuracies. For example the text claims that the revolt was not just anti-communist but also pro-western democracy, and even an expression of “the dream for Albania in the EU”. I wonder how that could have been possible in 1973, when the EU didn’t yet exist (it was still the EEC and the dream of a European Union was almost as distant in the EEC as that of democracy in Albania
at that time). Yet such little details did not stop both our guides from speaking in awe of the rebellious prisoners, so it is clearly an important aspect of this place’s and Albania’s history.
At the far end of the terrace is another plaque on a pole, again all in Albanian and badly faded, but I made out the year 2007, so conclude that it must have been put up when Spaç was declared a national monument.
Eventually we made our way through a passageway to reach the lowest of the terraces of Spaç. This was also the roll-call square – and another brown tourist sign describes the procedure as “deliberate sadism”.
On the edge of the slope to the left are the ruined remains of what used to be the prisoners’ latrines. And to the right stands the main component of the entire complex: the cell blocks, or as the sign has it: “sleeping-halls”. These are two connected three-storey buildings, with all windows and doors long gone. But wooden and metal supports have been put up to prevent the upper galleries from collapsing. A sign points out that each of the cells/halls inside held 54 prisoners.
We used the battered staircase to get to the upper levels to peek into the cells, which also feature lots of metal support poles to stop the ceiling from coming down. Our local guide pointed out some prisoner doodles on the walls in some of the cells. These ranged from people’s names scratched on to the wall, various lines in Albanian but also unexpected things such as Western brand names of photo films, razorblades and alcoholic drinks. There was also a drawing of a jet fighter plane with “USA” written on its side. A cowboy on horseback was perhaps another reference to the American dream.
One of the most elaborate drawings was of a TV set showing two footballers in action. Our guide pointed out the name on the television set: “Iliria”. That was indeed the name of the Albanian home-produced TV sets in the communist
era. Also to be found were more predictable semi-erotic drawings and another football reference was a representation of the FIFA World Cup. On it the year 1990 was given. So this drawing must have been from the very final period that the prison was in operation.
After poking around the cell block for a bit we eventually made our way back to the upper terraces and back to the ex-checkpoint and the administrative block
. This time we also entered the latter. All fixtures had been ripped out here too, and some walls had big holes in them. The whole place was bare except for one room at the far end of the ground floor where we found a wooden bed – with blankets on it. Could it be that someone used this space for squatting? It certainly looked like it. But not a soul other than us was to be seen during our entire visit. In fact I asked our guide how often people come to visit Spaç and he revealed that my wife and I were only the second set of foreign tourists he had ever taken here (the first were from Norway
). So Spaç is still quite off the beaten (or even known) tourism track.
Back by the track where we had parked our car, the local guide said his goodbyes and rushed back (to work or home). But before we drove off too we peeked into the little hut
(a metal container with windows, basically). Inside
we could make out various intriguing items
, such as a cap with the communist red star on it, a small Enver Hoxha bust, some books and brochures, and two large panels with some info material about Spaç and communist Albania, though all in Albanian only. Still, shame the hut was locked so we couldn’t take a closer look at what’s inside, before heading back to Tirana
. I later learned that this hut is run by Gjet Gjoni, the local guide we had on the tour. Shame I didn’t know that at the time, otherwise I would have asked if we could take a look inside and see his collection.
All in all
, it was quite an investment in time and money to do this tour, but I found it well worth it. As a memorial, Spaç is still seriously underdeveloped, though the brown tourist signs are a start. Without them you wouldn’t even get any clear hint that this used to be a brutal prison. Indeed at times our visit felt more like an exercise in urbexing
, given the abandoned and semi-ruined state of most of the buildings. But that comes with its own form of thrill, of course. And it was cool for photography (see below
What also helped the grim atmosphere to make itself felt was the grey weather and the general setting of the place in this forlorn, remote mountain valley. If it wasn’t for the active copper mine on the opposite hillside, this would really feel like the end of the road and middle of nowhere
On balance, I’m glad I made it to Spaç, but I can imagine that it won’t be for everybody. If you want to learn about this place’s dark history you won’t get much of that at the site itself, but will have to do your homework online before and/or after your visit. That’s what I did. I do hope, though, that at least some of the proposed commodification
of Spaç can at some point come to fruition. The place certainly deserves more recognition.
Deep in the mountains of northern Albania
, ca. 40 miles (70 km) north of Tirana
(but over 60 miles/100 km by road).
Google Maps locators:
Access and costs: quite remote and only reachable by means of a fairly sturdy car, but the site as such is freely accessible; guided tours are much more convenient but quite costly.
To get to Spaç you either have to invest in a day tour with a driver/guide
, or else you have to have your own vehicle that can handle the at times a bit rough mountain dirt track for the last 5 miles (8 km) once off the main road.
Still, access has been much improved and made faster thanks to the new dual-carriage trunk road that now branches off from the main north-south road in the lowlands of western Albania
north of Tirana
. This new road, the E851, now basically a motorway (the continuation of the main A1 route), eventually connects with Kosovo to the north-east. But to get to Spaç you have to leave it at the exit signposted for “Reps” on the right.
The new road was not yet recognized by our driver’s Sat-Nav (GPS) on his smartphone, so he couldn’t follow the directions asking him to turn off left. And so once off the motorway he repeatedly had to ask locals for directions. Note that Google Maps also still gives directions that would no longer work!
Right at the turn-off is also a very small brown sign in Albanian for Spaç but chances are that you wouldn’t spot that (in time). Once you’ve taken the turn-off follow the small side road, which quickly becomes a dirt track as it passes under the motorway. Drive parallel to the dual carriageway for a bit until you pass under it twice again – so stay on this track and don’t use the bridge across the river on the right towards Reps.
Leaving the motorway behind you, continue on this increasingly winding and rough track for ca. 5 miles (8 km). When you get to see the six-storey former “free workers” residential block (see above
and photo below
) look out for a turn-off on the right leading uphill. Again there’s a very small brown sign but confusingly it says Spaç for both directions (the left one is for the village of Gurth Spaç – that’s not what you want). There’s also a sign for Tete Albania (that’s the copper mine). Take that turn-off and you first get to the said housing block and a bit further on to the main prison part. You can park next to the little hut by the road – but make sure not to block any of the road in case mining vehicles need to pass.
, total driving time is about two hours, or a bit less if the traffic isn’t too thick in the city (though it usually is most of the time).
At the site of Spaç prison you are free to explore at no cost, but make sure you get there and back in daylight. You wouldn’t want to drive that mountain track after dark. Also take good care when clambering about and especially if you want to explore the upper floors of the cell block. There are no handrails (long since looted) and it’s quite a drop from the top floor. Also stay away from the inside of the kitchen block. It’s unsafe. Make sure to wear sturdy enough closed shoes/boots. This is not a place for flip-flops or heels.
The alternative to making your own way to Spaç is arranging a day tour with a driver/guide
. Not only does that take the stress of driving and navigating out of the equation, a guide can also make up for the scarcity of information at the site and provide more background. The outfit North Albania Tours
offers such tours and they were the company I used when I visited Spaç in April 2022 – see this sponsored page
Such a tour is not cheap, though. We paid 80 euros each in April 2022, and meanwhile I’ve seen that the price for the tour has gone up to 85 euros per person, probably to cover increasing fuel prices due to the current geopolitical situation (well, the war in Ukraine
). Yet I found it a worthy investment, especially since it does away with all the driving. And remember the tour, including driving time, lasts about six hours in total, so that’s under 30 euros per hour. That’s not unreasonable at the end of the day. And there’s also the added bonus of getting the local guide to take you around (see above
The drive to Spaç these days takes about an hour and a half to two hours each way from/to Tirana
, a bit longer from Dürres, less from Shkodër. We spent well over two hours at the site, but some people may need less – or more – time, depending on how extensively you want to explore the place.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
The northern Albanian town of Shkodër has a so-called Site of Witness and Memory museum
inside another communist
-era prison – see this media article about it
(external link, opens in a new tab). I’ve not seen it myself yet, but I know that North Albania Tours
can offer tours of that as well (see this sponsored page
, the capital of Albania
, there are also sites related to the brutal repression under dictator Enver Hoxha
during the communist
era, in particular the former HQ of the security service, now a memorial museum called “House of Leaves
”. Related to this is also the BunkArt2
underground museum beneath the Interior Ministry, also turned into a dark tourist attraction now.
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
The drive to Spaç is already rather scenic, at least the second half of the route from Tirana
, though Albania
has lots of yet more scenic landscapes to offer, as well as cultural and culinary adventures. North Albania Tours
also offer a lot in those categories, including a wine tour (Albanian wine can be very tasty indeed, I found!) – see also this sponsored page
And see under Albania
in general too.
- Spac 01 - housing for the free workers
- Spac 02 - main prison part
- Spac 03 - faded map of the complex
- Spac 04 - administrative block with faded communist-era slogans
- Spac 05 - old mining relics and current copper mine in the background
- Spac 06 - multifunctional building
- Spac 07 - pews inside
- Spac 08 - kitchen and dining hall
- Spac 09 - square with revolt memorial at the rear of the cell block
- Spac 10 - main cell block
- Spac 11 - stabilizing efforts
- Spac 12 - desperately trying to prevent collapse
- Spac 13 - staircase without handrails
- Spac 14 - inside one of the cells
- Spac 15 - prisoner doodles
- Spac 16 - lone ranger
- Spac 17 - other prisoner fantasies
- Spac 18 - on an upper level, with the local guide in the background
- Spac 19 - high above the remains of the latrines
- Spac 20 - a losing preservation battle
- Spac 21 - former gate and checkpoint
- Spac 22 - former visitors meeting room
- Spac 23 - inside the administrative block
- Spac 24 - looks like a squatter made use of this space
- Spac 25 - looking out
- Spac 26 - little hut above the prison
- Spac 27 - inside the hut
- Spac 28 - commie-era hat
- Spac 29 - lots of inaccessible info inside the locked hut
- Spac 30 - Enver Hoxha bust
- Spac 31 - where an effigy of Enver Hoxha used be at the outer entrance to the complex