Asmara was once dubbed the 'Piccola Roma' or 'Little Rome' of Africa. The capital city of present day Eritrea has so many unique architectural remnants from it's relatively brief Italian occupation that the entire city was recently inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Asmara is a pedestrian friendly city. If you have access to a bicycle, even better!
You'll find it easier to navigate the heritage precinct with a map. The Asmara City Map & Historic Perimeter is produced by the Municipality of Asmara & The Cultural Assets Rehabilitation Project. It costs 50 nafka. I purchased mine from my Hotel Reception.
I had four days in Asmara. So for my first day exploring, I left the map in my Hotel room, and strolled to the city centre. I quickly located Harnet Avenue, a beautiful wide street lined with mature palm trees. Along the avenue are many small cafes, bars, shops, government offices and the grand St Mary's Cathedral.
The architecture is unmistakably European and unmistakably retro. The level of detail is extraordinary from street lamps, windows, doors, shutters, chairs to glasses, bottles, advertising and plastic drink crates. The overall effect is quite enchanting.
It seemed that, over the years, little had been discarded. The locals had taken ownership of these items and lovingly preserved them. I sensed a great pride in this Italian heritage.
Later, while talking to a local, I realised that the 'locals' who had preserved this heritage were themselves expat Italians. He explained that although the Italian Government had left Eritrea during WWII many Italians had not. Thousands stayed right up until the 1990's. It was around then, when businesses were seized by the socialist Government, that most of the remaining expats left.
So the 'Piccola Roma' that was originally established by the Italian Government during colonial rule was later consolidated by expat Italians right up to the 1990's. This helped to explain how the City had retained its unique Italian character.
My second and third days were spent photographing as many beautiful heritage buildings as possible. For this the City Map was invaluable. It grouped buildings by the date that they were built: Pre-1935, 1935-41, 1941-52, and 1952-onwards. However, I saw many lovely buildings that were not indicated on the Map.
The Cinema Impero is located on Harnet Avenue. Fortunately, it was open on my first day of exploring. Three movies were showing: 12 Strong, Hurricane Heist, and 50 Shades Freed.
In the foyer sat the Impero's original film projector. The staff watched on as I inspected it with delight.
I could already hear that a film was in progress but the security man (the only one who spoke English) indicated that the next film showing was '50 Shades Freed' and I decided to skip that particular movie, even though the tickets were cheap. I did however promise to return.
Asmara has many beautiful buildings, but the ones that captured my imagination were the cinemas and theatres. The map indicated that there are ten; eight in the heritage precinct and two outside. I managed to find all eight of the historical theatres.
The Cinema Impero drew me back. The original seven tonne projector reminded me of one of my favourite movies, Cinema Paradiso. This classic Italian film explores the relationship between a young boy and a middle aged cinema projectionist. It is also celebrates the golden age of cinema.
It is unapologetically sentimental. When I first saw this movie it made me so sad that I couldn't watch it again for many years. I still can't watch the final scene without tears streaming down my face. By the time the credits roll I'm a mess.
So, of course, when I found the Cinema Roma there on a billboard out front were four original movie posters, amongst them Cinema Paradiso. The notices on the doors (not in English) suggested that they weren't open, but how magical to be able to watch Cinema Paradiso on the big screen in a heritage Italian cinema like the Roma!
I decided to dedicate a day to cinemas and cafes. Asmara had plenty of both and the cafe culture, in particular, was alive and well. I don't normally drink coffee but I did try the cappuccino (when in 'Piccola Roma'....)
The Theatre Asmara has a lovely cafe, in a raised position overlooking Harnet Avenue, but they were in the middle of renovations so I snuck a quick look at the interior and enjoyed a cappuccino and gelato at the popular Rosina Caffe instead (it's opposite Cinema Impero). I noticed that Google maps had flagged the Sweet Asmara Cafe but it wasn't open during my visit.
Both the Cinema Impero and the Cinema Dante were open for business. The Impero was showing a triple header, 'Den of Thieves', 'Reborn' and 'Hostiles' for just 15 nafka. The Dante was showing Hostiles for 10 nafka, they may have likewise been showing a triple header, as there were the names of three movies taped onto the glass window, but the ticket lady didn't speak English so I can't say for sure.
I'm glad that I made the effort to go to the movies. Not because the movies themselves were great or the experience was 'magical', but because the experience was a reality check.
The cinema buildings and fixtures were old and in desperate need of maintenance. The lights in the Impero didn't work and halfway through the movie there was an electrical blackout, which as it turns out was a godsend as a guy with a powerful torch illuminated the interior while the owner explained the history to me.
I walked over to the Dante and they were part way through showing 'Hostiles'. I could hear the projector running from the foyer. I entered the darkened theatre and promptly banged my knees on the old metal chairs. After around thirty minutes, the movie 'froze' on the screen. This building was also in need of maintenance and I put my sun hat back on as there was a ray of sunlight penetrating the theatre from a hole in the roof/ceiling shining directly into my face.
I love old historical buildings but I can see how gaining UNESCO World Heritage status might be both a blessing and a curse.
A blessing because this unique city will be preserved for future generations, with the help of financial and technical assistance from UNESCO; and it will attract more tourists. But perhaps it is also a curse as any renovation or new works within this precinct has to be sympathetic to this strict 'Roman' aesthetic, and that requires a great deal of money and technical expertise.
However, I'm a romantic, and as the torch shone over the interior of the Cinema Impero I felt the ghosts of all who had sat there before me and who, for just a short time, 'suspended disbelief' to enter a celluloid world where the good guys always won, the guy always got the girl, and tomorrow was always another day.
Where on earth....