By Mela Ghebremedhin. The New Year has just started and it’s another year where one makes a resolution or plans their next project or travel destination of the year. Indeed, traveling! Anyone curious to discover a yet discovered tourist hotspot will be surprised and won’t regret the choice to decide to travel to Eritrea. Yes, I am talking about this young nation with the usual international press and its exaggerated facts depicting a negative image of the people and country.
Nonetheless, Eritrea is full of treasures, between its people, the hospitality, the various landscapes and breathtaking views, the architecture, the history and archeology, the cultural diversity and its untouched sea coastline and islands. What else can one ask for, right? Indeed, recently the country has seen the picking up of tourism thanks to the efforts to add Eritrea and specifically Asmara into the UNESCO World Heritage list as well as multiplied historical and archeological findings for the delight of international scholars and researchers. Besides, there is a growing desire for new adventure and people are looking to travel while ensuring their safety. As such, Eritrea is an ideal destination.
Thus, while I was walking home one early evening these past days, I started thinking of how huge Eritrea’s potential is and how simple things, we, Eritreans take for granted but from the eyes of the foreigner, what we may take as simple is actually full of richness and uniqueness. Surely, once one travels outside of Eritrea, they can realize the immense potential and wealth the country and people possess. In today’s issue, hence, I am going to give some hints and reasons why your next destination for 2017 should be Eritrea.
Just close your eyes and imagine for a second. You are embarking on a flight to Asmara International Airport, the plane is full of young and elder Eritreans and visitors travelling to Eritrea. You board and notice that some people greet each other in surprise, long lost friends from the diaspora meeting again, youngsters looking at each other timidly and perhaps starting a next romance during their vacation while kids can’t wait to see their grandma’s and grandpa’s again.
Sooner than expected, you finally reach the destination. Departing the plane, you can smell the fresh air of the city located at more than 2000m above sea level. Passing by the customs, you see from far, people trying to see the arrival of their closed ones with impatience and you hear “yes, it’s him, it’s her…there she is, finally, elelelelel!” followed by hugs and laughter although it’s about 4 in the morning.
After a few hours of sleep, you are awaken by the smell of traditional coffee and you can hear your hosts or family whispering not to wake you up. You instantly forget that you only slept a couple of hours and you go and greet them again and you are just in time for the first sip of coffee, named awel, some popcorn, himbasha and a breakfast made of beans known as ful or kitcha fitfit (bread made of cereals and spices) to accompany your coffee. It is the time to catch up, laugh and enjoy the traditional coffee ceremony while the sun is shining in Asmara and you can hear kids playing in the neighborhood.
After a few hours at home, time to get out and walk around the city of Asmara. A city built at the plateau located in high altitude and at the beginning, you may be out of breath but quickly your body will get used to this air and before you realize it, you will be back in shape! Going through the streets of downtown, looking at the different houses and their unique architecture depicting different period of Eritrea and the creativity of Italian architecture coming at different times.
The history behind the foundation of Asmara is due to women of four villages whom decided to unify by setting one common church, the actual St. Mary’s Orthodox Church known as Enda Mariam, against the brigadiers. In fact the noun Asmara comes from the female plural verb of Asmera-Mismar literally meaning “they accomplished”. The very first neighborhood of Asmara is Arbate Asmara (meaning Four Asmara) on top of a hill in the Northeastern part of the city.
It is time to take a break for a macchiato and a pastry at one of the longstanding cafes such as Bar Vittoria down town before heading to the market areas and the recycling treasure of Medeber, a manufacturing and market center standing tall since 1900 and place where workers manage to create new items out of metal or wood materials. The various and vast number of workers combined with basic production facilities in use and the incredible resourcefulness makes it a ‘Must See’ to tourists.
Fervent of natural spices such as ginger or tea spices will find their treasures at the vegetable and fruit market or by the Edaga lekha where on one side you will see various spices and on the other side you can buy your favorite clay pot, handicrafts or little souvenirs illustrating Eritrean culture.
Many would also like some vintage items or second hands things as it has been becoming a fashionable thing in many parts of the world. So why not take your own unique vintage thing from Edaga Harradj before visiting the famous St Mary’s Orthodox Church, locally named Enda Mariam.
The imposing church was built on top of a hill and can be seen from almost all parts of the city. Built of red bricks with its large towers on each side while you can observe Byzantine paintings of angels and religious icons inside the church. The church features nine masses each month, on Sundays as well as for each Saint’s day/month. As the tradition dictates, visitors take off their shoes before entering the church while women cover their head and stand on the right side of the church and men on the left.
While standing by the church you will notice that both the mosque, the cathedral and the St. Mary Church can all be taken into one picture. Indeed, close by the Orthodox Church, you will pass by the main mosque in Asmara, just few meters away from the Independence Avenue. The Jamei al Kulafa, Al Rashedin Mosque was built in 1938 during the colonial period. The mosque features a large square in front of it for the delight of the faithful inhabitants while Arabic script decorates the inside.
Walking through the Independence Avenue and passing through the palm tree lining the large boulevard, young couples hold hands and chat, elders gather together and sit on one of the benches on the side of the street. Without realizing it, you’re already in front of the commonly known Asmara Cathedral and its imposing stairs and tower calling for the mass every Sundays in three different slots, Tigrinya mass, the Italian and the English for the delight of its faithful.
Already walking around the capital city of Eritrea, you will notice how clean the streets are and how elegant the dwellers are. In fact, what makes Asmara unique is the cleanliness thanks to those who clean the streets every morning. Also, the use of plastic and unrecyclable material has been banned from the country in early 2000s. Hence, as the rest of the country, Asmara is blessed by clean roads and fresh air coming from the trees.
The walk continues while arriving face to face with one of the Art Deco wonders of the city, Cinema Asmara. The Cinema, built on Independence Avenue with series of stairs on both side joining the cinema and its architecture, is a place to sip some tea while enjoying the view to downtown. For the lucky ones, there may be a cultural performance inside the cinema, adorned with its well-maintained décor and delightful painting on its roof reflecting Italian opera time.
In our next issue, we move outside of Asmara and uncover other wonders.