This place played tricks on my mind. Was I in Italy or Africa? Was it 2018 or 1938? Eritrea was like nowhere else I’d ever been, and its people were as fascinating as its architecture. And why was the spaghetti so good here???
Getting old is starting to get tough. I tire out much quicker, and then when I finally do lay down to sleep, I wake up way too early. I miss being able to sleep for 10 hours on demand. This morning I’d landed after 4AM, gotten to sleep by 5 and, frustratingly, up at 8:30. Maybe it was the excitement. I was, in fact, in the country I was most excited about during this trip; an end of year Africa expedition that would have me jumping in and out of 16 countries in under three weeks. Eritrea had the most allure for me. I was so excited and I just couldn’t hide it.
I’d already caught the “vibe” here when I checked in. By sheer luck I stumbled upon the Albergo Italia a few months ago online. It didn’t show up on any hotel booking website; I already had my mind set on the fancy Asmara Palace, but somewhere along my scouring of all things Asmara (the capital) on Google, I stumbled upon this gem. I liked it because it was as central as you can get (while Asmara Palace was outside of the city center), and the pictures looked really cool—an old building with lots of marble, stone columns and chandeliers. The place looked so legit.
You never know what you’re going to get when you book a hotel in Africa; often even the big chains disappoint and the photos can be deceiving. It’s a completely different rating scale in Africa, so when I booked a place whose name is Italian for “hostel” (albergo), I could only hope for a decent place. I wasn’t even sure if they still had my reservation; I booked by phone and tried my best to explain I was arriving after 4AM and to please hold the room the night before. Thankfully, my room was indeed ready, and the property was nothing less than spectacular. I was dog tired, but downright giddy on just how amazing the Albergo Italia was, from its grand marble staircase to classic turn of the century room design, with high ceilings, crown molding, candelabras on the wall, and Italian furniture that looked like it belonged on the Queen Mary. I’d hit the jackpot, and only by chance.
RAMBLIN’ TIP: When it comes to lodging, don’t be cheap in Africa. Travel through Africa can be stressful enough: both physically and emotionally demanding. If you can afford it, splurge on a nice place. Budget accommodations can be far worse than lodging of the same scale back in the U.S. and other places. To each his own (some of my friends do some pretty crazy hostels), but I’ve learned the hard way–spend the extra money for hotels when in Africa. Feel free to use my special link for booking.com. I use them a lot and have been happy with their selection and service.
Prescription for Fun
I would have preferred sleeping in just a bit longer, but I was wide awake, so I threw on some clothes and hit the road. I hadn’t walked down the street but 10 feet when I spotted the neatest pharmacy, old from the outside and even older inside: with wooden and glass counters stretching the length of the store with glass jars of various products lining the top. What’s crazy was that so many of these things I saw looked to be in superb condition, down to the stickers on the jars—almost as if I was inside a staged “old time” shop along Disney’s Main Street. How could this be? Every hair on my body stood straight up as I had the feeling I’d stepped back in time. If it weren’t for the cars (even they were old), I could’ve sworn I’d been sucked into a time warp. It was 1937 in every way.
Under the (Italian) Influence
The only thing cooler than being part of a world that seemed so stuck in time, was being in an Italian world so stuck in time. Italy to Eritrea was what Portugal is to Moçambique. The Italians came, they ran shop, then went home; leaving all of their awesome architecture, recipes and even cars for the Eritreans. Of course not much was updated after the Italians went home, so what you have left is a dilapidated but charming city, whose structures were thankfully spared from the war, unlike other parts of the country.
In These Streets
I spent the entire day walking, first trying to conquer the lines of the street grid in a somewhat orderly fashion, but it didn’t take much time for me to get completely disoriented and need directions back to the center of town. But I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Some cities are meant for wandering. Asmara is one of them.
After stopping for a cappuccino and sweet bread at the Kit Kat Café, I stumbled upon a grand government structure, with a facade of lime-green tile covering a tower in the middle that rose up over the city center. You can get in a lot of hot water for taking pictures of government buildings in Africa but this one was just too beautiful not to risk it. I know, stupid; but I’d already exchanged pleasantries with the Kalashnikov-yielding guard, who seemed like a pretty chill dude. After I got the perfect shot, I couldn’t help myself from meandering in. The inside was even more amazing, with a grand marble staircase that led into a second-floor ballroom. I asked the receptionist if I could pop up and take a look and he said no problem. Inside the ballroom I snapped away, then toyed with the idea of exploring the rest of the building, but I figured I’d quit while I was ahead. After all, these were government offices.
I continued to walk and walk and walk and walk, finding my way down a hill and eventually at The University of Eritrea, where—you guessed it—I popped in for a stroll. There wasn’t much happening, but it was fun to cruise the hallways of this antique building.
Miles of Smiles
At this point I was officially lost and had to ask strangers which direction town was in. Everyone on the street was pretty friendly, with lots of smiles and only a few people asking for money, but they weren’t aggressive. I think I met the town drunk who followed me for a few minutes yelling random things, but I was able to shake him pretty quick. I think the kids were my favorite, many of them quick to wave and shout “Hellooooooooo!” They wore big smiles and I got the impression children in Eritrea lived happy lives. At least I hope so.
Once I found myself back in a recognizable part of town, an older man approached me selling maps. I’d been advised to buy one from a fellow traveler, and it was a good tip. The map was made for people like me; it had icons and a legend that listed every building worth seeing. I would’ve never found the FIAT building on my own.
Ramblin’ Tip: Buy the map!
It was nearly three and I was starving and my feet were starting to throb. I’m guessing I picked the best place in the city for lunch: The Asmara Theater, whose lobby and entrance had been converted into a restaurant. The service was painfully slow, but I had a great view looking down to the busy street and that Eritrean bottled Coca-Cola hit the spot.
As I was getting up to leave, a woman and her friend approached me—fellow tourists—and asked if my name was Randy from the internet. Not gonna lie, I got a big kick out of that. Besides just one other time, at the airport in Instanbul, I’ve never been “recognized” out in public before from my travel blog. Kinda cool!
Danay Bustamante and I were actually Facebook friends and have talked before. She’s from Cuba, now living in Germany, and travels the world full time…she’s an inspiration, with an amazing travel style! She was there with her friend Tatsuko from Japan. The three of us grabbed a table inside, ordered juiced and chatted about each others adventures. I was so lucky to run into Danay and Tatsuko, by total chance!
Then it was back to the hotel for a quick napper, and over to Alba Bistro to meet another fellow extreme traveler for dinner. This meetup was planned. I could feel fatigue setting in, so the power nap was much needed.
Luckily, Alba Bistro was just a few blocks away from my hotel (more points for Albergo Italia), and it was a fantastic choice. Alba is one of the oldest restaurants in Asmara and was absolutely beautiful inside. The restaurant featured two levels and tons of beautiful reminders of Italy, from the marble bar tops, to the fancy ceiling moldings and the “Super Coni Gelati” ice cream cone dispenser. The place was in impeccable condition, the pasta was fantastic, and the company was perfect. Janice Lintz and I had been following each other’s travels for years now, and it was a cool coincidence that we were in Asmara on the same dates.
What I got a real kick out of was the Dubarwa brand mineral water packaged in old 7-Up bottles. This is Africa.
Alba Bistro was so awesome I ended up there for breakfast the next morning. The orange juice was fantastic and much needed, as I felt the crud coming on–I’d woke that morning with a sore throat and stuffy nose. Thanks to lots of vitamin C and rest, I was able to beat whatever was coming for me, and was back to normal in 36 hours. Close one. I’d hate to be sick during my trip!
Tanks for Everything!
I had just enough time to visit Asmara’s famous military graveyard before my flight out that afternoon. This is an enormous junkyard where all of the vehicles and heavy equipment from the war were dumped to rot. A permit is required to visit. I arranged the paperwork and a driver ahead of time. I’ve always loved to explore junkyards, and this one was on a whole ‘nother level!
Being able to not only poke around the graveyard, but being allowed to run free, open and close rusted doors and even climb up on the roofs of old tanks and trucks was this kid’s dream come true. It was so much fun!
Thank You Asmara
But adventure in Somalia was calling, and so was my flight. I had just a fantastic time exploring Asmara. The people were as fascinating as the buildings. So much to see, and I feel I made the most of my short time there. Note that there are some really cool places outside of Asmara, including an island off the coast of Eritrea with some amazing crystal-clear water. I hope to make it there next time.
Eritrea’s long awaited truce with Ethiopia has really opened up the country: there are now direct flights from Addis Ababa and getting a visa to visit is easier than ever. (Eritrea used to be a tough one). Special shout out to Almaz and the staff at the Eritrean Embassy in New York–best service from an embassy ever! Almaz actually called me just to let me know that my passport and documents were received, and then called me again days later to let me know I’d been approved; totally unexpected and left me very impressed (This never happens at embassies). The people in Eritrea were just as kind, friendly and helpful. Eritrea earned a spot in my top three list of favorite African countries, possibly first. I’m so happy for anyone who gets to have the pleasure of visiting this special place. There’s nothing like it anywhere.
Up next: If Eritrea was the country where I could wander about freely and without any stress, the next place I’d travel to couldn’t be more opposite. Armored cars, security convoys, big guns and a giant compound. Hold on to your hats kids, Mogadishu, Somalia up next.
And now…the REST of the (Insta)Story: