Three Days in Eritrea
Written by Oryx
Fantastic modernist architecture, a lively coffee culture, and pizza; is this Italy or East Africa? As Qatar Airways commences flights to Asmara on December 4, join traveller Jordan Hargrave as he voyages to the country of Eritrea in the Horn of Africa.
Wide avenues lined with palm trees and modernist architecture greeted me as I drove into the city from Asmara airport. I had come to Eritrea for a few days to explore its unique architecture, history, and food.
What struck me most about Eritrea’s capital, Asmara, is the lack of hustle and bustle of many other African cities; it’s one of the most laid-back capital cities I have visited in Africa. The city centre is compact, making it very easy to walk around and navigate, while the climate is another draw: the city enjoys mild year-round temperatures of around 26°C.
Walking around Asmara you will notice a distinct influence in its architecture and cuisine. Eritrea was ruled by the Kingdom of Italy between 1882 and 1941, and was populated – mainly in Asmara – by groups of Italian colonists, who moved there from the beginning of the 20th century.
Due to the city’s heavy influence by Italian architecture – it was used as a test-bed for daring architecture styles – Asmara was known as ‘Piccolo Roma’ (Little Rome). As you wander, keep an eye out for the fantastic examples of art deco and colonial Italian modernist buildings from the 1920s and 30s.
One particularly fine example is the futuristic FIAT Tagliero service station, poised like a plane about to take flight with huge cantilevered ‘wings’ stretched out over open space. The local authorities at the time were not convinced the structure would hold, and requested that the architect Giuseppe Pettazzi support the ends with pillars. The architect complied with their wishes by putting in wooden supports. According to local legend, during the building’s unveiling he forced the foreman to remove the supports at gunpoint. The roof still stands unsupported over 75 years later. The nearby IRGA building and Cinema Impero are also great examples of the architectural legacy left by the Italians.
When it comes to Eritrean cuisine, pizza and pasta have found their way onto nearly every menu, and locals order macchiatos and cappuccinos in cafés. For those with a sweet tooth, visit one of the many bakeries lining Harnet Avenue, or for a cool treat try Da Fortuna Gelato Italiano, where ingredients are brought in fresh from Italy. Eritrea also has traditional food similar to that found in Ethiopia, such as injera bread served with tasty wats (stews), zigni (a beef stew in tomato sauce flavoured with berbere), and tibs (grilled meat).
Harnet Avenue is the main street through the centre of Asmara, lined with palm trees, cafés, cinemas, bakeries, and restaurants. Here, you’ll find the tourist office where you can arrange the permits required if you plan to travel outside of Greater Asmara. Come by again at sunset for the passegiata, an Italian ritual of taking an evening stroll and socialising before dinner, as locals come out to sip a macchiato and catch up on the day’s gossip with friends.
If you listen closely, you can still hear older Eritreans chatting in Italian, although Eritrea has three official languages: Tigrinya, Arabic, and English. There are nine different ethnic groups represented in Eritrea, all depicted on the Eritrean currency: Afar, Bilen, Hedareb, Kunama, Nara, Rashaida, Saho, Tigre, and Tigrinya. The Tigrinya are the predominant group in the highlands, while the Muslim Afar and Rashaida live along the Red Sea coast.
I hired a car and driver during my visit in order to visit Massawa on the coast. My driver Michael, an Eritrean-Italian, suggested we ignore the direct route in favour of the longer, more scenic route via Filfil. The Filfil road descends through multiple switchbacks with great views out over the valleys below, and on a clear day, you can see all the way to the coast. The landscape slowly changes as you descend, eucalyptus forests disappearing as the terrain becomes arid and barren. The coast is also much warmer than the highlands – nearly an 11°C difference. Locals here are from the Rashaida ethnic group, and the women wear distinctive colourful clothing. We drove on past isolated villages and herds of camels, to where the road eventually joined the main Massawa–Asmara highway.
Massawa is the main port for Eritrea and was the capital of Italian Eritrea before it moved to Asmara. Massawa itself is built across several islands and the mainland, and all are joined by long causeways to the port. Before the Italians, Massawa had been controlled by the Ottoman Turks, Egyptians, and even the British. There are still several buildings remaining from the Ottoman period in the old town, and the architecture style feels closer to Djibouti City than Asmara.
After a quick driving tour through town Michael dropped me off at my hotel for the night. The Dahlak Hotel occupies a great location right in the centre of town, featuring a bright lobby decorated with carved wooden doorways and paintings, comfortable air-conditioned rooms, and an open-air restaurant on the water. I dined on delicious freshly caught fish while I watched the full moon rise slowly over the old town.
Massawa was incredibly hot compared with Asmara, and the swimming pool looked very inviting after the long drive. Instead, I took an evening stroll through the old town, wandering among the crumbling arcades where locals had brought out beds to sleep outside and catch the cool night breezes.
I came across a restaurant where diners sat outside eating fish covered in spices and cooked Yemeni-style in an oven until it came out crispy.
The next day, the 100km direct route back to Asmara took around two hours, the route running parallel to the railway for most of the distance. As the road wound up the mountainside it provided stunning views of the surrounding countryside. We stopped at a scenic overlook in Nefasit to have a look across the valley to the Debre Bizen monastery, perched high on the peak of a mountain, before making our way back to the capital.
Asmara is one of the most pleasant African cities, and the culture, architecture, cuisine, landscape, and history of Eritrea will captivate you and make you yearn to return to this enchanting country.
The Eritrean Railway
The Eritrean Railway was built by the Italians to connect the port at Massawa with Asmara, and was quite an engineering marvel. It took nearly 50 years to complete, rising 2,400m via 39 tunnels and 65 bridges from the coast to Asmara, then continuing inland to Keren. At one point over 30 trains a day used to run the route. The railway deteriorated after the road was completed, but was restored in the 1990s without any foreign aid, a source of national pride. Tourist services now operate on most Sundays on the route from Asmara to Nefasit using steam trains and vintage carriages or in unique art deco Littorina rail buses. Tour groups can also charter trains to make the run all the way to Massawa.