x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

The horn of plenty

Feature For a country steeped in conflict, Eritrea is a surprisingly tranquil and laid-back place to visit.

Italian architecture, such as the Cinema Impero, abounds in Asmara.
Italian architecture, such as the Cinema Impero, abounds in Asmara.

This cannot be Africa. That is the first thing both of us think as our taxi drives into the heart of Asmara, the capital of Eritrea. We have flown in from neighbouring Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa, your typical African metropolis full of noise, chaos and pollution. In Asmara there is hardly a soul on the streets. Strange, too, how well groomed and clean these streets are. No potholes, no rubbish, no traffic jams. And where are the hawkers and beggars? Asmara's most defining feature is its stunning architecture. The city was planned and built by the fascist Italian colonists in the late 1930s and was meant to be the jewel in the crown of their east African empire. Top architects from all over Italy flocked to this mountain plateau 2,300m above sea level in the northern Horn of Africa. The result was an African-Italian city full of wildly experimental buildings mixing modernism, novecento and art deco. Architecture adepts lovingly call Asmara the art deco capital of the world.

We soon find out why. Our driver, a local 6ft-plus muscleman called Mussi, 42, drops us at Pension Africa, a villa with huge windows, high ceilings and a bronze statue of Julius Caesar overlooking the garden. We are almost the only guests. As we walk to nearby Liberation Avenue, Asmara's palm tree-lined main street, we pass the Scuola Elementare Italiano. The enormous turquoise building has the allure of a Tuscan castle and is still the most elitist primary school in the country. No kids today, it is Saturday. We head for Bar Royal, not far from the brick cathedral that characterises the city's skyline. The dozens of men that fill the fluorescent-lit bar watch English Premier League football on television. West Bromwich Albion has just taken a 1-0 lead against Hull, we find out over an excellent cup of macchiato from an antique red coffee machine - Italian gastronomy never left this country. Not that many Eritreans can afford the pizzas and pastas of Liberation Avenue's posh restaurants. The implosion of Eritrea's nascent economy following its last war with Ethiopia in 2000 has all but finished nightlife. Nightclubs such as Shamrock, located along a small alley parallel to Liberation Avenue, are empty even during weekends.

A notable exception is a bar and restaurant called Hidmo, a 30-minute walk off Liberation Avenue. We are invited by Sara, 29, a consultant from Asmara who works in neighbouring Djibouti. As we settle on a couch, waitresses with traditionally braided hair dressed in white robes serve us injera. The spongy yeast pancake made from the Ethiopian grain tef is topped with lamb and vegetables. The huge plate of food, from which we eat using our hands, tastes surprisingly sour. The country's staple diet is a meal one has to get used to. The food comes with local wine called mes in drop-shaped glasses and, as we are enjoying our meal, a live band led by a hyperactive percussionist starts playing. The dance floor fills up with restaurant staff and customers alike who start performing Eritrea's national dance.

After about 12 invitations we try our luck. Predictably, the staccato jerking of shoulders and neck, combined with fast rhythmic footwork, are way beyond our skills. Slightly embarrassed, we return to our table. Regardless how much Sara likes evenings like this, the fact remains that she is one of many Eritreans who escaped the country in recent years. Eritrea's president, Isaias Afewerki, 63, a former leader of the country's heroic independence struggle against Ethiopia (1961-1991), has isolated his country. In the last decade alone Eritrea has had tensions with all its neighbours: Ethiopia, Sudan, Yemen and, most recently, tiny Djibouti. The only way to enter Eritrea, a country that has made itself an African exception by refusing foreign aid, is by air. Despite their isolation, Asmarino's are making the best of it. La bella vita is their way of life, which is best symbolised by the ever-popular passegiata, the traditional see-and-be-seen stroll around sunset. As we join the crowds along Liberation Avenue one evening, we pass elderly men, moustaches perfectly groomed, dressed in suave suits and sunglasses. The Eritrean girls and women, some robed traditionally, show off their famous beauty.

The architecture surprises us time and again. As we meander through Eritrea's capital, we come across gems such as Cinema Impero, with its bright red façade dotted with white lamps, and the strangely round-shaped Bar Zilli. We cannot decide if the wide concrete wings of the Fiat Tagliero building, a high point of the futurist school, look more like those of a stealth bomber or a manta ray. The next day we go bowling. This is vintage at its best. At the entrance a gallery of stained black and white photos depicting tournaments in the 1960s and 1970s adorn the wall. Sunlight comes in through large windows of multicoloured glass and sets the bowling alley in a cheerful light. Strike! After every throw on the polished wooden lanes, teenage boys put our pins back up by hand and roll the balls back to us. In the lane next to ours, a group of schoolgirls ­cannot stop giggling. Overseeing it all with a grin that splits his toothless face is the manager Emanuel, 72, who has been working here since the opening in 1966. He proudly shows his woollen sweater. The words "Free Eritrea" cover his chest. Facing Emanuel on the wooden benches next to the lanes sits Tewodros, 42, a man with a friendly smile and a fierce moustache. With his soft voice he tells us about his experiences in "the field", as the Eritrean resistance fighters used to call the front lines. "The fighters were incredibly dedicated. Four, five days of battle without any food was common." Tewodros himself took up arms at the age of 15 and manned a captured Russian T-54 tank until Eritrea's liberation in 1991. Since then, Tewodros says, all he really wants is to enjoy a calm and peaceful life. Another encounter with Eritrea's past is a ride on the country's only train. At Asmara's deserted train station, where weeds have long overgrown the tracks, Elias, an 86-year-old machinist, dangles casually from the side of a black-and-red steam locomotive. It was built in 1938 by Gio Ansaldo & Co, a rail manufacturer from the northern Italian city of Genoa. A peek into the antique machine reveals Elias's colleague Mohammed, 82, sweat pouring down his face as he shovels coal in the red-hot mouth of the boiler. Both men wear overalls of the Eritrean railway company, their employer for over half a century. In its heyday in the 1940s, the train annually transported half-a-million passengers all the way to the port city of Massawa, passing 39 tunnels and 65 bridges. But during decades of war, resistance fighters demolished kilometres of steel tracks to reinforce their bunkers and trenches. Although much has now been rebuilt, the train only runs to the nearby town of Nefasit. Elias and Mohammed are among the very few capable of running the archaic machinery. Producing a loud whistle, Elias lets the engine blow off clouds of steam. Time to leave. The locomotive sizzles and stamps as it rolls into the Eritrean highlands. At every turn, our wooden compartment squeaks so heavily that we are sure it will fall apart. Because the train never goes much faster - and often much slower - than a bicycle, we have time to watch the barren landscape unfold. "There used to be forests here", says Luam, 19, our hostess. "But the Ethiopian troops cut down the trees to deny the resistance fighters shelter."

Every now and then, we pass heavily packed donkeys walking along the tracks. More than once we are sure the train will hit the animals, but each time a well-timed hit with a stick makes the donkeys move away. When we pass through the middle-of-nowhere villages that dot the route, kids scream, wave and run along with the noisy train. Once back in Asmara we seek out one of those addictive Eritrean macchiatos. At the New Fork restaurant just off Liberation Avenue, where we have breakfast every morning, we enjoy the sun on the terrace. As cyclists on antique bicycles pass by, we can't help but wonder how Eritrea, a country with such a violent and disturbing history, can be such a tranquil, laid-back place.