In the case of Eritrea immigration, the whole is more than the sum of its parts…. Italian efficiency combined with African bureaucracy….. amazing new levels of ineptitude :-)! I was first in the queue to passport control and 45 minutes later I was the last out, and my kiwi passport had been scrutinised by everyone in the building. Oh well, I still beat most people out as I didn’t have any bags.
Eritrea is a former Italian colony, famous for having the best collection of modernist buildings anywhere in the world. The entire town of Asmara is a modernist experiment. Historically (and fortunately) they haven’t had the funds to build skyscrapers, and now they are applying for world heritage status to protect and restore the buildings.
I was extremely jet lagged from my 1am wake up to get on the flight, but the light was fabulous when I got into town at 7.30am, so I headed out for a stroll. First up, the most famous building in Asmara – the Fiat garage – shaped like an airplane. Gorgeous!
Then I wandered along to the cinema Roma, I couldn’t resist a macchiato from the ancient coffee machine, and I was even invited into the theatre to see a kids play. The theatre gets put to good use with screenings of the UK premier league matches most days.
Asmara is at 2200 m, and it has a delightful climate, a blessed relief after ten days of sweating, so it was the perfect day for a long wander. The buildings are remarkable. Hartnet ave – the main drag is a bit like Las Vegas back in the day – pastels, Art Deco and palm trees.
I meandered around the religious quarter where the mosque, cathedral, synagogue and two types of orthodox churches live in peaceful harmony. My favourite was the Enda Mariam Orthodox Cathedral.
And then I just wandered around the old quarter looking for a postcard for a friend who has a daughter named Asmara. The post office was stunning but sadly only had six abysmal postcard options – oh well, beggars and choosers. Then I checked out Mah Jai jai and the market. I punctuated the days wanderings with excellent macchiatos in the many cafes in town.
Eritreans are beautiful and stylish! Fine cheekbones and chiselled features. They are definitely modern, and this is the first place in two weeks I have seen women, lots of them, wearing jeans! The old men are nattily attired in hats and jackets and make a full time job out of walking down the street chatting to people and drinking coffee.
The city vibe is laid back and friendly, totally unlike all other capitals that I have experienced in Africa. Cars stop traffic to say hi to friends coming in the other direction – it’s like small town New Zealand. I had zero hassle day or night, and the locals took pride in telling me I could walk around at midnight with no problems. Too bad I am too old and boring to consider being out at midnight.
Eritreans are also extremely polite! The best example is watching the queues for the bus. Rather than stand in line, you leave a bag or a rock in the queue and then you can wander off for a coffee or sit in the shade. Unimaginable in most African countries, where queuing feels like being in a mosh pit at a concert and you certainly wouldn’t leave your bags unattended in the street.
I was up at 5 my second day and wandered up to Kidus Michael Church to watch the sun come up over the city and see the dawn church service. It is a lovely sight watching very devout old ladies perform their morning prostrations – no doubt it keeps them flexible. And then I went for a wander around the Italian cemetery, which is extremely ornate, though I couldn’t figure out why there were cow horns and hooves strewn around in one corner – either a bizarre ritual sacrifice ceremony or perhaps just a lazy garbage man.
After breakfast I wandered up and down lots of random streets with no real plan. Every street had wonderful architecture, honestly this place is a modernist dream. For lunch, I met up with the delightful Tekeste…- the worlds friendliest guide (see more on him here). He has developed quite a following from the worlds travellers as is one of the few Eritreans with the connections to easily sort out a visa for you.
He treated me, and a French writer who was on one of his tours, to a fabulous local lunch with wonderful injera and spicy meat. And then I treated them to the best gelato in Eritrea at the Fortuna gelateria! Outstanding!
More wandering in the afternoon, honestly the streets are endlessly lovely and I happily strolled for hours. Then I rounded out the day with Arabic tea and a custard slice at the sweet Asmara cafe.
Asmara is delightful – easily my favourite capital of all African cities. If you like modernist architecture come quickly while the buildings are still standing. The hospitality is amazing, and I had one final act of kindness from the lovely Tekeste who got up at 4 to drive me to the airport. I will be coming back!
– I can’t recommend Tekeste highly enough. He was amazing, hospitable, and can sort everything out. I only used him for visa support but next time would book everything through him. His agency is asmara grande, or contact him directly on firstname.lastname@example.org
– I stayed at the crystal hotel. It was clean, and the staff were lovely. The downside was that the restaurant was not great and with the marble floors it was very noisy in my room
– My favourite coffee spots were the Impero, the Roma and the Asmara Sweet. Best pastries were at the Sweet. Best gelato at the fortuna which isn’t on google maps, but it is across the road from the Omar Bin Abdul Aziz mosque (which is on google maps)
– It is mandatory to exchange with authorised dealers, however they no longer control this at customs. The official rate is 15 nakfas to $1, but you should be able to find someone willing to exchange for 23 (not on the street). Note there are no ATMs in Eritrea, bring plenty of USD with you, and only change to Nafkas as you need
– You can easily fly you to Asmara from Cairo and Dubai. I flew flydubai which departed at an uncivilised 3.40am. Note You can tell a lot about a country by what those coming home bring on a plane. The Eritreans set new records on the amount of duty free bags I have ever seen, with a ratio of 5 bags per person, principally composed of bulk boxes of kit Kats. Get in early if the flight is busy and you want your bag in the overhead locker
– The government here is extremely oppressive and apparently their freedom of press scores are worse than North Korea. Best not to discuss politics with the locals in public.
– Heading out of Asmara is possible but requires permits which you can get (eventually) from the tourist office. Next time I will visit Massawa