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Eritrea: Asmara, a perfect capital city of secretive state – Travel

Asmara, a perfect capital city of secretive state

This short report is about Asmara, surprisingly organised and very pretty capital of Eritrea, reportedly Africa’s most secretive country. I visited early January 2008.

Asmara - Cinema Impero
Asmara – Cinema Impero

The State of Eritrea could have been Africa’s success story. After rightfully separating from Ethiopia, it had a great potential to become amongst the best destinations for travellers. It has miles and miles of coastline, a small archipelago of idyllic islands on the Red Sea offering superb diving, dramatic mountains with endless hiking possibilities, decent infrastructure, great cities, friendly and honest people, etc etc. It could have become a great competitor to Egypt. Has this potential been recognised by the government and the tourists themselves?



Italian art-deco architecture truly made me feel in Asmara as if I were teleported in space and time to 1925 Italy. It was incredible! Due to a lack of roaming agreement, my mobile did not work, so it definitely felt like I travelled back in time! I was sitting in a pavement cafe, bathing in the sun and enjoying absolutely perfect cappuccino and if was not aware that I was in Africa, I would never believe it. Perhaps the fact that the city was mega tidy would give it away. For Italy has not been a particularly clean place.



I was walking along the main street, Harnet Avenue, and really could not get over it. Red city buses (some of them from the Italian city of Torino) frequently making their routes, yellow cabs passing quietly (without the utterly annoying honking), cyclists on quality bikes, and regular cars – clean, in good condition, and sticking to the highway code.



Also, there were many young, and extremely attractive people in the streets, dressed in a less African way. There were a few women dressed in Islamic-African robes, but they looked very exotic among the others. They sat at the numerous pavement cafes, bars, patisseries, gellaterias, and chatted. It was so obvious that they really were very friendly and courteous towards one another. There were no beggars and travellers did not turn peoples’ heads.

 
Favourite spots:
Harnet Avenue
Harnet Avenue

Harnet Avenue was definitely my favourite. It was a long, wide avenue planted with countless, and giant, palmtrees. The avenue was lined up with the largest number of buildings representing colonial architecture in Africa! They were all in art-deco and modernist style making the street possibly the prettiest street in Africa (and I had been to 36 African countries by then, so I know what I am saying). The buildings were in perfect condition, so it really felt like I suddenly travelled in time and space back to a lovely town in 1925 Italy.



City Park, at the end of Harnet Avenue, was a great meeting point and a lovely place to have a cappuccino and ice-cream at sunset. It was a favourite spot for the Asmarans. Since there were few travellers around, none of spots in Asmara could be allocated to theirs and not locals’ favourite places.



The fountain at the entrance to the Methodist Church was great to watch people trade at the flea market there. One could buy anything there.

 
What’s really great:
Asmara markets
Asmara markets

People – I liked them the most. The Eritreans were great – honest, friendly, inquisitive and extremely attractive. The regime, triggered by the Ethiopa’s daily threats of war, did not treat them well, but they remained good humoured and welcoming.



I liked that the Cathedral in the middle of Harnet Avenue, large, red-bricked, and tall contrasted perfectly with the slim and tall minarets of the large mosque at the eastern end of the same street.

 
Sights:
Catholic Cathedral
Catholic Cathedral

1. Harnet Avenue – perfect for art-deco and modernist architecture, pavement cafes, little patisseries, cinemas, ministeries, palmtrees, restaurants…



2. Catholic Cathedral (Harnet Ave) – lovely Romanesque church, tall bell tower with a great view over the city.



3. Great Mosque – right off Harnet Avenue, near markets – mixed styles, large and overlooking a great plaza.



4. Enda Mariam Orthodox Cathedral – near flea market, large and intriguing – it is actually a great complex with a park, the church and schools. The flea market is where one can buy anything – parts for the old Fiat 500, plumber tools, antiques, etc.

 
Accommodations:
Othodox Cathedral
Othodox Cathedral

I stayed at Top Five Hotel for 200 nakfa (USD 13) per room per night. It was located two minutes from Harnet Avenue, and some 100 yards from the European Union Commission building. They had two other rooms, apparently larger ones, that cost up to twice as much. The ensuite shower was hot, hot, hot and clean, clean, clean. The room was petit but it had a window and it was tidy, squeaky clean!



The personnel was very friendly and professional. The adjacent bar was popular at night and there was also a restaurant.

 
Nightlife:
Great Mosque
Great Mosque

When darkness fell, the streets filled up again. I went out. I wanted to try a few bars and clubs. Asmara had many of them. For starters, I selected two, close one to the other, Zara and Zilli. When I peeped into Zara in the afternoon, at about 5pm, the bar was already open but empty. The bartenderess said that people would normally come at about 6pm. So, I came back at 7:30pm and bar was still empty.







Anyway, from all four states I visited on this trip; Ethiopia, Somaliland, Djibouti and Eritrea, the drink bars in Eritrea were the best. Somaliland had none, obviously. Those in Djibouti and Ethiopia were sleazy. Asmara’s bars were clean, orderly and mega safe. The only problem with them was that they closed at midnight.







At Zara, I tried the Asmara Rum. It tasted like the Zaladkowa Gorzka Vodka from Poland. It mixed very well with mango juice and lime. I had two and they were lovely.

 
Hangouts:
Pavement cafe
Pavement cafe

The Moderna was the best for cakes and coffees. They had a great selection of pastries, doughnuts, and tea cakes. It was Asmara’s most popular (and the best) coffee house. It was hard to get a table, so the sitting hostess kept packing everyone as much as she could squeeze. This way people had to mingle with random strangers. It did not matter that a couple was hoping for a romantic evening.







It had tables on the pavement up front, shaded with colourful umbrellas, which offered great people watching spot.

 
Restaurants:
Odeon Cinema
Odeon Cinema

Spaghetti & Pizza House, Harnet Avenue, opposite Opera House – a good selection of perfect pizzas and pastas, as well as seafood dishes. A meal with drinks (including an expensive fresh papaya juice) would cost approximately 200 nakfa (USD 13). And I could hardly finish that large pizza! The juices were made in a separate place, about 50 yards away, but I only became aware of that when I sat at the other place for a drink and noticed waitresses transporting the juices over to the restaurant.



Casa degli Italiani – open in the evenings, but the personnel was so rude and unhelpful that I decided not to eat there, eventually.

 
Other recommendations:
Opera House
Opera House

There are also three great cinemas: Roma, Impero and Odeon. Their next door, or inside, cafes are superb as well and great for meeting people. Their art-deco architecture is solid and text book. Lovely.



I also liked the city bus terminal behind the markets (fruit, food, meet, craft – non-tourist!, and utensils) and side streets, which housed great colonial villas.

 

http://www.globosapiens.net/travel-information/Asmara-2608.html


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