Asmara: out and about
The day starts early in the small locality of Accria, Asmara. The powerful calls of Adhan (calls to prayer) reverberate across town from multiple broadcasting mosques and serve as a communal alarm clock. These sounds are so melodic that some townsmen believe listening to them wholeheartedly will lead into conversion. The calls to prayer are an inevitable symbol of Accria, along with the reddish brown soil that colored most of the neighborhood.
Merchants go up and down the sloppy corridors of the old city, to amass around Edaga Hamus and Edaga Arbi (Thursday market and Friday market). Camels and donkeys hard at work carrying be-les (prickly pears) and other supplies, clouds of dust trailing behind them. During spring, tourists like to take photographs and watch the dynamics of the market with the sweeping sunrise as a background.
Early birds travel to the outskirts, to wander the small hillsides and to cycle/jog back in their bright neon outfits and teams of sweepers disperse throughout the city to keep Asmara one of the cleanest African cities, free of trash, pests and stench.
Locals usually eat breakfast at home, but then go out for cappuccinos. Visitors like to try out ful/shahan ful (cooked fava bean paste served with bread, shredded eggs, sesame seeds, olive oil, tomato and spices) costs from 20-40 Nakfa and the city’s famous fata (shredded bread served with tomato paste, olive oil, yoghurt, scrambled eggs, onions and spices) which, depending on the condiments added average from 25-45 Nakfa. The eateries encourage you to hand-shred the breads yourself, before they take them back to add the condiments, enhancing the dining experience.
Residents compare Asmara to a small town, but don’t mistake that for humility: they are talking about the small population, and its unhurried pace of life. They are open, warm and often appreciate an outsider’s view on culture and current events. And the city’s markets, especially the Shuk area make ideal spots for these types of conversations.
The markets are inside big, open air halls and each hall has its own specialties; it is organized in such a way that spices, fruits, vegetables, chicken, furniture and other commodities have their own halls. Talking to these vendors is the best way to understand how the city really works. Asking for price or directions would automatically spark a conversation, or an offer for a cup of tea.
Wandering through the city’s markets is a very visual experience, but you are unlikely to find real mementoes in the array of shops selling uninteresting souvenirs which seem to congest most duty-free shops in African airports.
Nonetheless, one will be able to find them scattered throughout the city in the forms of jewelry stores (tend to have well-crafted silver jewelry for up to 25 Nakfa per gram), Enda La-kah (where you might run into authentic handicrafts and colorfully woven baskets) or Nigussie, a popular shop that has been running since the 1970s (where high-quality traditional shoes, contemporary purses, Italian shoes and belts are sold for reasonable prices).
Thrill seekers often go to Durfo area (for hiking, sightseeing or street racing) or visit a Turkish style fortune-teller/palm reader around Tseada Tsergiya. Durfo is located on the outskirts of Asmara; it has a narrow asphalt road which snakes up and down a mountain. Tourists hike or follow the Old Italian railroads during the day, usually resting at the two bars Bar Ghilay or Bar Durfo .These bars are by no means fancy but they offer spectacular downhill views perfect for a late afternoon drink. On Sunday afternoons, youngsters and car collectors meet, to show off their cars or driving skills, sometimes partaking in unnerving street races on the already drifty roads.
Adventures are great. Exploring a new destination or browsing through Shuk can be fascinating. However, in Asmara, just relaxing in a café can be rewarding. Visitors are often surprised by the sheer concentration of cafes, and the café culture.
Cafes are more than just a place to get a warm drink; they are places for communities, and then ultimately, places for customs such as the Cake-Walk.
The Cake-Walk, as coined by a group of tourists who visited Asmara a few years back, is a two-three day activity where visitors attempt to sample cakes or hot drinks and cover most of the cafes in the city. Although this tradition is slowly dying, you can see a few tourists here and there circling or ticking off places from there maps.
The Cake-Walk might get quite expensive, but trying out the favorites is a must. Bar Vitoria, Asmara Sweet Café, La Dolce Vita and Bar Royal are quite popular with locals and visitors alike. They serve classic or Italian inspired pastry such as beignets, millefoglie, crostata, crema pasticcera, panettone, and dark chocolate cakes for a price that ranges from 8-25 Nakfa.
Just like cake, gelato is sold everywhere. Sweet toothed visitors swear by Gelato Italiano (Da Fortuna Gelateria), serving high quality Italian style gelato in classic and exotic flavours (40 Nakfa for two scoops). It is within perfect walking distance to Mai Jah Jah (falling waters) or Pushkin circle (a small park), and provides a pleasant resting experience after hours of sightseeing.
Asmara is no short of bars either, it won’t be an exaggeration to say that you will find bars everywhere, perhaps ten-twenty strides away from each other(on lively streets) or around a five minute walk (from any point in the city). Most bars would take you back in time with their retro designs, mahogany furniture and checker tiles.
However visitors basing their visit to Asmara merely on its potential nightlife would be putting themselves up for disappointment. Most places start quieting down as midnight approaches. Furthermore, the nightlife scene can be a bit unpredictable. On a good day, the clubs are filled with heaping crowds; to the point where reservations are required. But at times, they can get empty and void of people.
The most popular among expats and visitors are The Green Pub (live music on Wednesday and Friday, DJs on Saturday), Zara Bar (situated inside an art deco building from the 30s,the interior has part retro, part industrial, part modern feel to it with Turkish inspirations), Mocambo, Warsai, and Benifer.
The Hedmona is a traditional style nightclub (situated at the Expo compound, famous for its mes (honey mead), embilta (a meter-long musical instrument played by bowing air into it), and other cultural performances after midnight for a cover charge of 100 Nakfa).
For a more varied selection in music gigs and parties, aim for the smaller, hipper Diana bar. The bar looks like it belongs in New Orleans with its Blues Theme and fascinating collections which range from vinyl and antique musical instruments to ammunition and bizarre collectables. A bit edgy and out of place for Asmara but has captivated the younger crowd with its interior and music (which tends to range from hip-hop to blues and from indie rock to local gigs.)
Almost all bars sell Asmara Beer (the only local beer) for 20 Nakfa (it is government regulated) but liquors tend to have inconsistent prices. Ethiopian bottled waters and beer have penetrated the cities and sell within the price range of 15-22 Nakfa. And Nyala cigarettes have become quite a hit.
The softening relations of Ethiopia and Eritrea and the gradual ease in travel and trade restrictions, is another complex element added to the city life. Big trucks loaded with housewares, grains, cereals, teff and grocery items such as eggs, onions and potatoes amass around Menaheria area, creating a new market settlement.
Some crafty merchants (locals and Ethiopians alike) have worked out a system, equalizing the value of birr and Nakfa. These slick merchants then take back bulks of electronics (from smart phones to washing machines), raw hide (because there are no tanneries in Asmara), bicycles, bed ware and jewelry. This way of trading allows them to maximize profit, and compete with other merchants who trade by-the-book using dollars rates.
On evenings, the eye-wateringly slow internet connection keeps the locals from spending several hours in the virtual world; instead they go out for walks around Wushti Ketema (city center). For a romantic, wandering around the beautiful city, and winding up at the Cathedral‘s grand stairs for star gazing could be a perfect way to end the day.