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Asmara – the Rationalist, Modernist, Futurist African Capital

Thursday, 15 March 2018

Earlier in March I visited Eritrea and its World Heritage capital Asmara. Architects frequently describe it as Africa’s secret modernist city, but futurism, rationalism and assorted other architectural buzzwords have also been applied. It’s all a result of its period as an Italian colony, a time when Mussolin described Asmara as La Piccola Roma, Little Rome.

▲ Italian cinemas were part of that architectural heritage although sadly they’re little used today. I was astonished when I dropped in to the Impero Cinema on the city’s main street, Harnet Ave and found there was a film showing.

▲ You certainly wouldn’t find anything showing in the boarded up Roma Cinema on Sematat Ave. You could glimpse the magnificent bar and café through the grubby windows, but there was no way you were going to front the bar for a cappuccino or a chilled Asmara Beer.

▲ Fortunately along with lots of dismal and dark hideaways there were still a few bars with some real old fashioned style, like Bar Crispi close to the British Embassy.

▲ The Fiat Tagliero building is probably the city’s iconic piece of architecture, the once-upon-a-time service station built in 1938 to resemble a concrete airplane features wings that stretch out for 15 metres on each side of the ‘fuselage’ and are entirely unsupported.

◄ Alfa Romeo also makes an appearance in this ruined and decaying office building. In fact a lot of Asmara’s fine architecture is abandoned and decaying, but unlike Yangon in Myanmar or Havana in Cuba the buildings don’t face imminent ruin. There’s no tropical heat and humidity to rapidly wreck things.

▲  The Enda Mariam Orthodox Cathedral

▲ And the cheerily bright Sun Rise Café on Adi Hawesha St. I stayed in the unrelated Sunshine Hotel which was squeaky clean and, unlike so much of Asmara, busy and bright. Sadly despite the architectural interest Asmara often felt semi-abandoned and far too quiet. It’s an indicator of how many people have fled the country’s repressive government, making Eritreans one of Europe’s biggest refugee problems even though the country is not at war, there’s no famine, no natural disaster to drive people out. Just bad government.

◄ The Municipality Building is one of the more modern structures, dating from the early 1950s.

▲ On the outskirts of town the Tank Graveyard is a reminder of the bitter independence war which finally separated Eritrea from Ethiopia. The war never actually reached Asmara so the city’s architectural heritage was not damaged. Haile Mariam Mengistu, leader of the Derg, was bundled out of power in 1991 and scuttled off to Zimbabwe where Robert Mugabe looked after him. With the fall of Mugabe in 2017 it’s again speculated that he might be extradited to Ethiopia.

Signs in China

12 September 2017 | Culture

I’ve posted on the weird and wonderful signs you encounter in China on previous trips and I certainly saw plenty on my recent Silk Road journey. ▲ Sometimes the signs were potentially very useful, but never seemed to appear at the right time. On more than one occas...

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Ebao or E Bao or Ebuzhen, Qinghai Province in China

11 September 2017 | Places

It’s always interesting when your travels take you somewhere which doesn’t turn up on an internet search. In English at least, there’s probably lots to be said about Ebao (or E Bao or Ebuzhen) in Chinese. We stopped for lunch in Ebao on Day 47 of my recent Silk Roa...

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Pakistan-Bangladesh, Russia-Australia – observing, watching

8 September 2017 | Living

Yogi Berra, that famous source of folk wisdom (I think he played baseball as well), noted that ‘You can observe a lot by just watching.’ You certainly can, I felt that over and over again on my Silk Road trip from Bangkok to London earlier this year. None of the Centr...

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Epic Drives of the World

8 September 2017 | Media

I played a small part in Lonely Planet’s new Epic Drives of the World book, each chapter features a longer report on one ‘epic drive’ and three smaller features on related drives. ▲ The shattered tyre is a reminder of what can happen if you don’t take care of them ...

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VPNs, Website Blocks & ‘Climbing the Wall’

10 August 2017 | Media

Oh you’re ‘climbing the wall’ – fan qiang – the Chinese journalist commented. I was indeed, I was using a VPN – Virtual Private Network – to ‘climb over the Great Firewall of China.’ China is the most notorious of the countries in the world which spend a great deal...

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Electric Bromptons, Brompton Racing, noted Brompton Riders

8 August 2017 | Transport

I’m another enthusiast for those classic British folding bikes, the Brompton. I’ve clearly had mine for a long time, here’s a comparison between my Brompton and two other bikes in my small collection, from nine years ago. The other day I went for a ride on a new Br...

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500 Bicycles Rides in France

6 August 2017 | Media

And it’s in French! Lonely Planet France has just published a guide to 500 great bicycle rides in France. Rides suitable for people from 7 to 77 they claim, whether you want rides with friends or family, by yourself or with your lover – well it is French bicycle ridin...

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Two Great Exhibitions: Sir Laurence Alma-Tadema’s vision of the ancient world & the Russian Revolution

3 August 2017 | Culture

The Leighton House Museum in the London suburb of Kensington (very close to the new Design Museum) has a wonderful exhibit on the art of Sir Laurence Alma-Tadema running until 29 October. It’s ‘the largest exhibition in London since 1913’ on his art and makes an inter...

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Silk Road by MGB – Days 94 to 102 – across Europe to the finish line

24 July 2017 | Places

The final stage of our Silk Road trip felt like it was going to be a race to the finish, we would exit Asia by crossing the Dardanelles from Asian Turkey to European Turkey, enter the European Union as we crossed from Turkey into Bulgaria, then make a quick sprint to ...

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Silk Road by MGB – Days 88 to 94 – Turkey into Europe

23 July 2017 | Places

▲ By Day 88 my Silk Road trip had less than two weeks to run, that morning we’d started in Cappadocia, stopped to visit the huge caravanserai in Sultanhani and paused for lunch in Konya. The Mevlâna Museum, dedicated to Celaleddin Rumi (Sufism, whirling dervishes) is ...

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