If there is a country that has ever deserved the overused titles like "hidden gem" or "overlooked jewel", Eritrea is it.
The mere name of this country along the Red Sea coast of East Africa tends to provoke blank looks from most people:
What... err... where is it, actually???"
History is partly to blame for sure. Under foreign occupation for centuries, Eritrea only appeared on the maps as an independent country in 1993, when its people have voted for leaving Ethiopia after decades of armed struggle. And ever since then, it has only hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons.
So that is why Eritrea is largely unknown to the World, but what makes it a gem?
First and foremost, its capital Asmara is the single most beautiful city in Africa, and an eternal favourite of all those who have been there. Its history as an Italian colonial town has blessed it with an architectural legacy that would draw praise even in Europe. Beautiful buildings apart, the Italians have also left behind their impact on the local culture: cafeterias, pizzerias and fashionably dressed locals (including Africa's most beautiful women) make you feel far removed from the hectic, poverty-stricken and polluted cities of the rest of the continent. To further ensure a pleasant stay, Asmara's climate is as pleasant as it gets, with cool, dry, sunny weather throughout the year.
Wishing for something more exotic?
Asmara may feel like a piece of Italy, but out in the country you will find an amalgam of African cultures at their best. The highland plateau of southern Eritrea shares the ancient Orthodox Christian traditions of neighbouring Ethiopia, the peoples inhabiting the deserts to the west and along the Red Sea coast exhibit Muslim culture at its most colorful, while animistic, tribal Africa is represented by the Kunama and Nara of the south-west.
The landscapes range from lush, cool highlands to the hottest, most desolate deserts anywhere, towns and villages exhibit a curious mixture of traditionally African and Mediterranean influences, and wildlife, while nowhere nearly as abundant as in Kenya or Tanzania, is varied and includes many rare species.
Nevertheless, what really gives a lasting impression of Eritrea is her people. Eritreans are among the most educated, dignified and hospitable people I have met anywhere, and the begging, thievery and hassles encountered elsewhere in Africa quickly fade into distant memories here.
I visited Eritrea in 2004, as part of a three-month-long tour of North-East Africa, that also took me to neighbouring Ethiopia, Sudan, Djibouti and Somaliland. Due to Eritrea's relationship with these neighbours getting here required quite an amount of persistence and determination, but once I arrived, I felt it was all worth it. Eritrea has immediately became my favourite country in Africa, and I can only wish to return for a longer stay in the future.
If you are at all thinking about visiting this country, think no more - go!
The capital of newly independent Eritrea, Asmara is one of the most beautiful and pleasant cities in the whole of Africa, if not anywhere in the World.
Situated at an elevation of 2400 metres above sea-level, its climate is pleasantly cool, but also dry and sunny for much of the year. Architecturally, it is a real feast for the eyes. Having been the centre of Italian colonial efforts in Africa in the first part of the 20th century, Asmara was blessed with beautiful buildings that would only draw praise in Italy as well. Even after the Italians were gone, the city has managed to escape the ravages of third world development, and has amazingly even survived the wars with Ethiopia intact. Current government policies also prevent it from become yet another sprawling, polluted African capital ringed with slums.
Not only is Asmara beautiful, clean and pleasantly cool, it is also a very safe and relaxed city, where one can walk around at any time of the day or night without having to worry about safety, or even more minor hassles like beggars.
The locals are a very cultured lot who seem to pride themselves on their city's Italian heritage, fondly call it "Little Rome", and cafeterias and pizzerias do a roaring trade along the city's main avenue.
And in case you start wondering whether all this comes at a price, you might be delighted to hear that Asmara is also among the cheapest capitals in the continent!
Not surprisingly, this is one of the few places that visitors almost invariably fall in love with instantly.