When most people think of Eritrea, they think of negative things-that is if they’ve heard of Eritrea in the first place! It is true that Eritrea has gone through several wars and disputes with neighboring countries-most notably and currently Ethiopia, whom it broke away from in the 1990’s. However, what people who think this don’t know is that Eritrea is the cleanest country in Africa. The capital sparkles in the hot, dry afternoon sun without the usual African eyesores of trash piles and other crap everywhere. It doesn’t have the usual thousands of stray dogs running around, eating trash and sullying up the sidewalks. Asmara has a rich European culture and heritage spawned from years of Italian occupation and influence. The evidence is everywhere on the streets of Asmara from the Italian style buildings to the abundance of Italian restaurants and the café culture. Eritrea is in a word, pleasant.
Eritrea had been a thorn in my side for years. It was smack dab in a corner of Africa where I had been to every surrounding country and the connecting flights weren’t exactly the most desirable, cheapest or easiest to get there. However, it worked out this time and I was able to take Egypt Air to Asmara, the delightful capital of Eritrea. I stayed at the lovely Crystal Hotel just off the main drag called Harnet Avenue. The hotel was clean, reasonably priced and included a decent breakfast. It’s a perfect tourist class place to crash and a good place to set out exploring Asmara.
Asmara itself runs along palm tree lined Harnet Avenue (above) and has some side streets that lead to the hotels and mosques in the background. The main part of town isn’t very big and is a breeze to navigate and see everything you want to see in a few hours…and that’s pushing it.
The main sight is the Catholic Cathedral (above) which is visible from everywhere in town because of the highest structure in Asmara, the bell tower. The cathedral is very well kept and has a nice courtyard for school children to play. The game of choice I noticed was push the tire and run after it as you can see below. The kids are so cute and they are always so curious to talk to you and have you take pictures of them and show them on the digital screen. In order to get up into the bell tower for some nice views of the city there is some shady homeless looking guy who hangs out in the courtyard who has a key and leads you up there. All you have to do is give him a small tip afterwards. Asmara is very affordable.
The other sights are basically a collection of some of the nicer buildings in town plus the grand mosque and several cinemas which the Eritreans take great pride in. They always point out that Cinema Impero seats 1800 people (below). I have no idea how many a big theater in the States fit but I’d imagine 1800 is still a lot of seats regardless of the country.
As I said there is a huge café culture in Asmara that was left over by the Italians and no place is more popular than Café Impero located conveniently right next to the cinema of the same name. Eritreans gather there to sip coffee and tea and drink filthy Asmara gin and the OK at best Asmara beer. They eat pastries but mainly use the café as a place to meet and catch up with each other. Eritreans don’t seem to work much and I was told they got hit very hard in the global economic crisis, although you wouldn’t know it from their friendly attitudes and demeanors.
As far as restaurants, I ate at 2 places of note at night. The first night it was Pizza and Spaghetti house-aptly names because that’s all they serve. It is located right on the main drag and the pizza isn’t bad and the spaghetti was ehh at best. The second night, I ate at Al Sicomoro which is located slightly out of the center, about a mile walk from the hotel. It is supposed to be the top place to eat in Asmara. It was overpriced and OK at best. The lasagna was good, not great, overpriced and very small. I wouldn’t go out of my way to get there but I was told the tortellini if they have it is pretty good-they didn’t have it last night! All in all, I was a little disappointed in the Italian food as I was expecting a little better.
One of the negative things about Eritrea is bureaucracy. The government is notoriously overbearing and poor and it goes down the bowels of the system. Foreigners need permits to leave the capital of Asmara and you must cite exactly which cities you would like to visit. The only way to get these permits is from the tourist information bureau in the center of town. That is if you can get there when it’s not closed. If it is open, you will undoubtedly see some guy sitting around doing nothing and then acts like he’s never given a permit before when you ask him for one. The process is annoying and cost a few bucks but nothing too bad. The problem is simply getting them to actually do something.
Apparently the permits, while applied for and prepared at the bureau, are actually then sent out to the big boss’s office somewhere out of town. So the possibility of getting a seemingly useless piece of paper immediately is out the door and there is no rush service-it is Africa after all! To make a long story short, the permits come back at 11am the next day regardless of your pleas. After a severe 2 day hassle finding a driver after the original driver ended up in the hospital and agreeing on a price-we were off to do the Filfil loop.
Simple tasks in Africa can take days or weeks. It’s all a part of the African experience. This is where the phrase TIA or “This is Africa” comes from. It’s really enraging, frustrating, humanizing and in fact amazing. As I always say, “In Africa, what appears to be simple, simply cannot be explained.”
Filfil is a relatively insignificant village in the middle of their green forest region. What this means is that it is the only area of the country where it is considered a forest and there are green plants and trees that weren’t planted by man. It is also the best drive in the country with amazing views and harrowing hair pin turns. The drive in total is about 200km or 120 miles. It takes about 5 hours with stops for photos and rest stops so the driver can smoke and you can have a warm coke and pee.
The views however, should not be understated (very top picture, even though pictures cannot do it justice), they are truly awesome and the reason that I love Africa. The wide open spaces and panoramic vistas to me are the reason why Africa is so wonderful to visit. Following every hassle and dealing with every seemingly incompetent person, there is an amazing view that leaves you speechless and breathless. Africa is untouched beauty but you have to leave the cities to see it. In Eritrea the Filfil loop gives you that feeling and I highly recommend it. Better yet, they even have guard rails and traffic signs so you feel safer than in most African countries and with most African drivers. If you do find yourself in Asmara and need a driver, go to the tourism bureau and ask for the taxi driver Bahane who lives right behind the bureau. He is very nice, affordable, speaks good English and drives very safely.
Eritrea, all in all, was much better than what I expected. I expected crap to be honest. I was very surprised that Asmara was so pleasant, the people were so nice and that it was so clean. I still can’t get over how clean it was and how little poverty and beggars I saw. It was a revelation as far as I am concerned for Africa and a true hidden gem in East Africa. Hopefully soon their government can get it right with the rest of the world, especially Ethiopia, open itself a bit more with the restrictions, although it doesn’t look good from what I hear, but who knows.
I am in the Egypt Air lounge right now on my layover in Cairo uploading this and about to fly to Istanbul for a day and night of sights and great food before a Sunday journey to Iraq! Should be interesting, stay tuned!