Before booking my flight to Eritrea, all I knew about this little country by the Red Sea is that it was once an Italian colony. Reading further, I learned that Britain captured Eritrea from Italy during World War II and placed the country under military administration until the 1950’s. Troubles started in 1962 when Emperor Haile Selassie decided to annex Eritrea. What followed was a 30-year war in which Eritrea eventually won their independence. After that came many more years of border conflicts. Peace between Eritrea and Ethiopia wasn’t achieved until July 2018. Whew! Eritrea and Ethiopia, two of the world’s poorest countries, spent hundreds of millions of dollars on war and suffered hundreds of thousands of casualties.
Today, Eritrea’s government is a one-party dictatorship. There are no national elections. The media is state-owned. Eritrea is ranked as having the third-least press freedom in the global Press Freedom Index, behind Turkmenistan and North Korea. Knowing all this, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was pleasantly surprised!
I flew into Asmara, the capital of Eritrea. Right away, I was impressed by the clean, tree-lined streets, the Italian Art Deco architecture and the inviting cafes and restaurants. (By the way, please click on any of these thumbnail photos to enlarge them.)
Asmara was spared during the Ethiopian wars and hasn’t seen any major construction in decades. So, the city is a living museum of pre-WWII Italian urban design. The futuristic Fiat Tagliero gas station (above left), built in 1938, is a good example of Asmara’s well-preserved Art Deco buildings,
Above right is the courtyard of the charming Concord Pensione where I stayed. This quaint and quiet pension cost me $25/night and was right in the middle of town. The next time I visit Asmara, I’ll bring una fidanzata and we’ll stay at the sumptuous Albergo Italia. We’ll feel as though we’ve been transported back a century to old Italy. The classic, antique furniture and fixtures belong in a museum.
With its Italian heritage, Asmara is where you’ll find delicious pasta, pizza, crepes and what may be the best ice cream in Africa. On my visit to the Fortuna Ice Cream Shop, the specials were Stracciatella and Nocciola.
Incidentally, one good thing about totalitarian governments is that the crime rate tends to be low. I was pleased to see that people can park their bicycles on busy sidewalks unlocked. While in Eritrea, I never worried walking around the streets day or night.
From country to country, it’s always interesting to see how people are dressed. Eritrea is half Christian and half Muslim. Yet, most girls and women cover their heads, not for religious reasons but for fashion, tradition and maybe as sun protection, too.
These three girls are ringing stone bells outside a church. The stone slabs chime when struck by another rock. It’s a primitive but effective traditional Eritrean musical instrument, probably thousands of years old.
Eritrea officially adopted Christianity as the state religion in the 4th century. In 615AD, Eritrea became the first Muslim settlement in Africa when Muslims facing persecution in Mecca escaped across the Red Sea, Both religions have coexisted peacefully and in harmony alongside each other for centuries.
Eritrean Christians are Orthodox, so they celebrate Christmas on January 7th. I timed my visit to Eritrea to attend a Christmas Eve service that I’ll never forget. The church was packed with a congregation of at least 1000 — plus four choirs, adding an additional 300 powerful voices. We sang carols in various languages for three hours. The service concluded with a thundering chorus of Handel’s Messiah sung in Tigrinya. That was a first!
Eritrea is about the size of Ohio. Roads are paved and distances aren’t great. I rode public buses which are quite inexpensive.
Besides Tigrinya, Eritreans speak either English or Italian and they love to talk to foreign visitors — of which there are very few. So, riding the bus was a great way for me to meet people and make friends. That’s how I got invited to a wedding and a birthday party.
Eritrea has more than 2000 kilometers of coastline and 3000-meter peaks. The geology is fascinating, the terrain is stunning and there are several micro-climates, The north is arid and mountainous.
Asmara sits at an elevation of 2400 meters, so it’s cool and dry. Here’s the view looking from the Asmara highway down towards the Red Sea. Coastal fog and rain blow in from the coast providing water for the farms and forests.
In the south, there are deep canyons, which have good hiking trails. On the walls of this canyon, there are petroglyphs of cows and gazelles painted about 2500 years ago.
Besides eating pizza and ice cream and drinking beer with new friends, there are some fun and unusual things to see and do in Eritrea. In the northern city of Keren, there’s a huge camel market every Monday morning. A strong young camel costs about $1000. They also sell goats, sheep and cows.
On Eritrea’s east coast is the city of Massawa. This was once one of the jewels of the Rea Sea. During the 1930s, this was a famous vacation resort town frequented by rich and famous Italians.
During the Ethiopian wars, Massawa was devastated. Much of this city remains as bombed out shells of formerly glorious buildings, such as the Banco Italiano shown here. Still, the city is coming back bit by bit. There’s one gorgeous old-world hotel that’s been restored. It’s the Dahlak Grand Hotel. What a wonderful place to enjoy a cold beer and a plate of pasta with the cool breezes coming off the Red Sea!
Cleaning up Eritrea after decades of war with Ethiopia is proceeding slowly. Just outside of Asmara is the so-called Tank Graveyard. It consists of several acres of Russian military hardware captured from the Ethiopian army. It’s now a eerie tourist attraction that reeks of the spoils of war.
In one of the villages I passed in my travels, I came across this armored personnel carrier. It now serves as a play structure for the neighborhood children.
All in all, I loved Etritrea. I was delighted to discover such an interesting, friendly, safe and colorful country. I also enjoyed being one of the few tourists here. Why are there so few tourists in Eritrea? Because …
- Getting a visa can be complicated. Contact Mr. Tekeste for help with your visa and travel permits. (Photo on the right, contact info below)
- Eritrea has no ATMs and credit cards are not accepted. You must bring with you enough dollars or euros for your entire stay, and convert them into local currency for all expenses.
- The internet in Eritrea is heavily censored and restricted. It’s the second worst internet in the world — after North Korea.
Eritrea was an eye-opening experience. I came here with curiosity and few expectations. I left thoroughly impressed. This is a lovely part of Africa. I might come back. Meanwhile, here’s how to reach Mr. Tekeste to arrange your visit to Eritrea: