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Asmara

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Africa : East Africa : Eritrea : Asmara
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Asmara is the largest city in and capital of Eritrea.

Get in

Asmara International Airport (IATA: ASM) (ICAO: HHAS). Asmara currently hosts the country's only operating international airport although technically there are two more in Massawa and Assab. Currently (2007) served from Frankfurt three times weekly by Lufthansa and twice weekly by Eritrean Airlines, from Sanaa in Yemen twice weekly by Yemenia Airways, from Cairo twice weekly by Egyptair, from Jeddah/Riyadh twice weekly by Saudi Arabian Airlines and twice weekly by Eritrean Airlines as well. Eritrean Airlines also flies twice weekly to/from Dubai, Djibouti and once weekly to Rome with scheduled dates to Milan as well.

Nasair, a private-state joint venture airline also serves Nairobi and Khartoum twice weekly from Asmara as well as domestic routes Asmara - Massawa and Asmara - Assab. There is an airport departure tax of $20 or 15 Euros. If you're coming on camel-back, you should probably give the camel a good parting gift for climbing all those hills for you (the city is up on 2600 meters above sea level, ie more than 8000 feet).

Get around

Asmara's has about 10 downtown bus-lines on distinctive Red Mercedes Benz buses with a sign in the front saying where they're headed (yes, even in English). The bus-stops are easily identifiable (there are signs and the obvious shelter with a bench) but the buses stop running quite early in the evening (at about 7PM). They run on 15 minute to half hour intervals during the day (every day), other than that, there is no schedule. It gets pretty jammed at rush hour (in the morning, midday and around 4PM in the evening). The fare is 1 Nakfa, the entrance is in the back where one buys the ticket, it is not necessary to have exact change but try to stick with the lower denominations. Line number 1 goes between the airport 3 km south of the city, and the zoo in Biet Ghiorghis 2 Km east of the city on the eastern escarpment where the windy road to the Red Sea begins. It passes through the main streets in downtown Asmara (Independence Avenue and Martyrs Avenue). All buslines that are number twenty something, run between the marketplace downtown and the surrounding villages. There are only a few a day. So leave early to be able to come home. Only the locals know the schedule (through word of mouth), if you're lucky one of them speaks English and will be very helpful. Some villages like Embaderho and Tselot are well worth visiting for their scenery and traditional lifestyle. There also white minibus-lines running on the main streets of the city, which also run on fixed routes but without stops or signs, they usually stop at the bus stops but you still have to hail them when you see them, just like a cab, ask them where they're headed, unless the ticket-boy (called fottorino) doesn't beat you to it by announcing it loudly, and let them know when you want to get off ("stop" is a universally understood word). The fare is 2 Nakfa.

Finally there are the cab-lines, basically yellow taxis with a big "taxi" sign which also run on routes on the main streets just like the white minivans. Same system as the minivans, fare is 5 Nakfa and you'll be sharing the ride with 3 other people no doubt. But not all cabs are cab-lines, some actually will take you personally to where you want to go, this is called kuntrat (khoon-tratt) and you will have to negotiate the price with the driver. These cabs usually hang out outside the airport when a plane is coming in, the city's main hotels (Intercontinental, Nyala, Ambassador etc.), the road to the right of the main cathedral down town and other obvious spots. They can also be hailed on any street but chances are that they are cab-lines with passengers already in them.

Renting a car is insanely expensive and fuel prices are the same as in Europe if not more. Renting a cab to drive you around town is equally senseless when considering the price, it could be worthwhile on a longer trip outside of town but be prepared to pay several thousand Nakfa (a few hundred dollars or euros), it is perhaps better to take the bus or contact one of the national tour groups (ask at the airport information when arriving).

See

Asmara's main attraction is its colonial Italian architecture. The palm-lined main street: Independence Avenue, colloquially referred to as "Kombishtato" (a creol of the neighbourhoods original name: Campo di Citta), is full of cafés, bars, shops and old cinemas, it makes for a nice mile long stroll between the north end of this avenue where the "half" stadium is (you'll know when you see half a bleacher) and the south end facing the Nyala Hotel, the city's tallest building. The city's colorful and bustling marketplace lies behind the cathedral on the road to its right (as seen when standing in front of the cathedral's main entrance on Independence Avenue). It's a great place to learn how to haggle and buy some souvenirs.

At the café on the top floor of the Nyala Hotel, one has a great view of the city and a nice well chilled beer. The beer is exceptionally good in Asmara, aptly called "Asmara Beer". Behind the hotel on a more quiet street is the National Museum, with an impressive collection from the land's multimillenial history of civilization. On the outskirts of the city, on the Massawa road, lies the Biet Ghiorghis Zoo and Park area, famous for its scenery on the eastern escarpment. The Zoo in itself is a rather sad place. Further down the road one reaches Bar Durfo, a bar and café perched on a cliff overlooking the dramatic precipice of the Asmara - Massawa highway. You will need a car or taxi to get beyond the last stop of the No. 1 bus beyond Biet Ghiorghis to Bar Durfo.

Another place to see the dramatic highland landscape on the eastern escarpment as well as the traditional Eritrean lifestyle of the rural highlands is the village of Tselot (which means 'prayer' and is also famous for being the President's village). It lies about 20 km outside the city center and is served by one of the red city buses. The landscape essentially consists of an eerily quiet semi-arid plain in a valley, an extension of the highland plateau, interrupted by the dramatic chasm of the eastern ridge which the village center straddles. The dry season from December to April is distinguished by redbrown, rusty, beige or black stone and rubble-colors, resembling photos from Mars. The vegetation consists largely of shrubbery, eucalyptus, aloes, cacti and the odd explosively colorful specs of bougainville, jacaranda or other adorning plants in most villages and towns of Eritrea. The rainy season between May and September (hopefully) brings torrents of rain and needed nourishment to the land, which transforms itself completely from lunar/marsian-esque to verdant, emerald and grassy in the post-rain months of August to October. The rural highlanders lifestyle resembles biblical times. Stone houses, small plots, ancient temples (both christian and muslim), people farming and herding with traditional means using little technology, transporting their goods (as well as themselves) on mule and camelback.

Near the village, within walking distance is the Martyrs National Park, inaugurated in 2000. It is a mountaineous forest and wildife preserve at the ridge of the highland plateau. The views and scenery are spectacular, the horizon features chasms, gorges and mountaintops bathed by a sea of clouds attesting to the fact that one is very high up literally "above the clouds". Tselot can be reached by one of the city buses from a section of the marketplace called "Meda Eritrea". You should leave as early as possible because there are only a couple of buses per day so you have to make sure you have a way to get back.

Do

If you are in Asmara for a short stay, the best thing to do after you're done sightseeing in this city is to head for the outskirts where the scenery is stunning to say the least. Unless you come from a high altitude area yourself, you need a couple of days of strolling in Asmara to get your body used to the fact that it is 2600 meters (more than 8000 feet) up in the thin dry air. The dry air and midday sun is murder on your skin. Bring lots of sunscreen lotion but also a sweater as it can get really chilly not only at night but even when standing in the shade (temperatures can vary extremely from one side of the same street to the other depending on whether one is in the sun or in the shade). Oh and speaking of shade, most days are completely cloudless and the sun shines very bright in Africa, so unless you enjoy squinting, bring your UV blocking shades. If you like hiking, rock climbing and mountainbiking, the above mentioned areas outside of town are excellent places to do so, but bring your own gear (incuding bike) as there are no rental bikes in Eritrea and a very limited supply of safety equipments (shoes, ropes etc) in Asmara, although tents and mosquito nets are readily available at an affordable price in the marketplace downtown. Also consult the locals and bring a guide, because despite the very low-crime and relatively safe urban setting, it is good to have someone familiar with the place who speaks the language (and English) in case of an accident or any other eventuality (like what is legal and not legal). Taking pictures around any government installation or authority (police, airport, ministries etc.) is strictly forbidden.

Finally, take time to savor some good food in Asmara. Don't drink any "fresh" fruit juices or eat any icecream unless you want health issues to mess up your time, stick to the bottled drinks, unpeeled fruits and cooked food. The best Italian food in town is at Restaurant Castello across and a few blocks from Nyala Hotel. The best traditional Eritrean food can be found at Restaurant Milano by the American Library. But the best food overall in town (and priced accordingly) is at the Roof Garden Restaurant across from the NICE Insurance building.

Buy

Gold and silver jewellery is cheap in Asmara, definitely a bargain. So are frankincense and myrrh (if you have any use for it). Otherwise most of the souvenirs bought by tourists are the local home-spun and gold-thread embroidered cotton garments, traditional goat-skin rugs, olivewood carvings, clay coffee-pots and other traditional goods, all of which are found at the marketplace.

Eat

Eritrea is big on Italian food, due to having been an Italian colony between 1890 and 1940. There is a huge range of restaurants in Asmara serving Italain food with Castello being by far the best in quality. Most traditional Eritrean food is quite spicy, and consists generally of very hot meat and/or vegetable stews, eaten over the staple called "injera" a kind of sour-dough pancake or flatbread. Milano Restaurant has the best selection. If you miss McDonalds or KFC sorry to dissapoint you, but on the up-side there are many restaurants which make hamburgers using quality organic beef or lamb such as Top Five Restaurant, Portico (on Independence Avenue) and The Mask Restaurant. For Indian and Far East cuisine you can visit the Rooftop Garden, Red Dragon and China Garden.

Drink

Drink a lot because Asmara will dry you out. Mineral water is there in abundance and that is really the only water you can drink. Don't drink the tapwater if you value your health. There are also a lot of bottled fruit juices which for the same reasons are a lot healthier than the tempting "fresh" juices at the juice bars and ice-cream parlors. Eritrea is not a big wine country even though once upon a time back in the "good old colonial days" it used to have a wine-making tradition. But on the other hand Eritrea is a big beer-drinking country and the Eritrean beer is definitely a good one if you like lager, pilsner or dark beer (all three of which are made by the country's only brewery, right in Asmara and aptly called "Asmara Beer"). Eritreans, especially Asmarini love their coffee too. Like so much else it is imbibed Italian-style and the city's favorite coffee drink is the macchiato (makyato) ie. 'stained' (that is coffee stained with a touch of steamed milk-froth) which is definitely worth a try if you like strong, sweet coffee.

Nightlife in Asmara is worthless. But on the positive side, Asmara is an extremely safe city, safe enough for a stroll in the middle of the night. Most people are genuinely friendly, without wanting anything in exchange, beggary is not as common as in some other countries and neither is tourism. Most people will not approach you unless you approach them and then some speak basic English, the elderly might know some Italian and a few others also know some Arabic. Dress modestly.

Sleep

  • Intercontinental Hotel out by the airport. The odd spaceship-looking ultramodern hotel probably has the comfiest beds. But why commute from so far away at such an outrageous price when one can get just as comfy for much less in the middle of the city where there are plenty of cheaply to moderately priced hotels ranging from $10 a night to $60 a night?
Some examples are:
  • Keren Hotel, by the central post office.
  • Nyala Hotel, (the city's highest building on Martyrs Avenue).
  • Embasoira Hotel, behind Independence Avenue (on the east side).
  • Hamassien Hotel, right next door to the Embasoira. The Swiss-cottage-looking building.
  • Sunshine Hotel, near the Roof Garden restaurant.
  • Selam Hotel, a few blocks away from the Presidential Palace and the National Museum and has a nice garden.
  • The Buon Respiro is a very cosy Bed and Breakfast in an ornate Italian villa with a nice patio in the middle of the city just a few blocks from Cinema Odeon.

Get out

To leave Asmara to go anywhere else in the country you need a permit. If you intend to leave by Air, see the "Getting In" section. There are two domestic flight routes as of date and they go to the port cities of Massawa (half an hour's flight and only 110 Kms away) and Assab at the southwest tip of the country at the borders of Djibouti and Ethiopia (an hour and half's flight and nearly 1000 Kms away). There are roads heading in 4 directions from Asmara. At Asmara's city limits on each of these roads, there are also military-police roadblocks (called "blocco" locally) where you will be checked for your ID and travellers permit. Always carry these or certified copies of these with you. The blocco for the road towards the coast is placed past Durfo and is called "blocco Batsi" (Batsi is another name for Massawa). The blocco for the road heading west towards Keren and the western lowlands (near Sudan) is called "blocco Keren" and the blocco for the two roads heading south is called "blocco Godaeif" (Asmara's southernmost suburb) which later divides at a fork with one road towards the southwestern highlands and the Mereb river border crossing (now closed) to Ethiopia and the other road towards the southeastern highlands and the "Zalambessa" border crossing to Ethiopia (closed). The Ethiopian border lies behind a 25 km "Temporary Security Zone" monitored by United Nations troops and entry into this zone needs to be authorized in advance with the UN and Eritrean authorities in Asmara. Besides the bloccos, there are also mobile and random checkpoints on the roads and both inside and outside the limits of nearly all towns and communities in Eritrea. So you will be asked more than once for your papers. Buses run to all main towns and villages from Asmara, some several times a day, others only once a day or a couple of times a week, requiring you to sleepover for one or more nights there or even on the way, before returning. Buses don't run after dusk because of road safety (Eritrea is a very mountainous country) and mist can severely delay traffic as well. Buses are the main means of transport in Eritrea other than camelback or your own car. Renting a car or chartering a taxi is possible in Eritrea, but both cost about the same and are extremely expensive, as is the price of fuel. There is one narrow-gauge train line, from Asmara to Massawa, but it is driven by a slow steam-engine which only runs for chartered tours.

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