You can't go to Asmara and not note the architecture. While most African capitals today are replete with drab, hulking towers from the 1960s and 1970s, the Eritrean capital, dating back to its days as an early-century Italian colonial pied-a-terre, is home to some of the boldest designs on the continent.
Benito Mussolini saw Asmara as an extension of his Fascist empire. He used the highland city, as Barney Jopson wrote recently in the Financial Times, as "a laboratory for bold architectural styles – rationalism, futurism, monumentalism – that would never pass muster in Italy. The result is a cocktail of convex façades, jutting balconies and porthole windows."
UNESCO says the city of 400,000 "represents perhaps the most concentrated and intact assemblage of Modernist architecture anywhere in the world." "Intact" is a relative term, however. Most of the celebrated buildings are in dire need of a touch-up. Porthole windows are shattered or missing. The gently curved facades need repainting. The vibrant colors have faded down to that familiar drabness brought on by weather and neglect.
Yet the buildings still stop you in your tracks as you drive by, and it's cool to think of what the city looked like in its heyday. The Fiat Tagliero service station, with its iconic "wings," is probably the most famous of the lot:
Up close, the badly faded lettering still looks sharp.
The largest movie theater in colonial Asmara was the Impero, reportedly named for Mussolini's conquest of Ethiopia. It dominates the main Harnet Avenue strip and is a modernist landmark, to be sure, but don't look too closely -- many of 45 round lights dotting the front are cracked.
The Irga building gets overlooked because it's next to the Tagliero. But it's another art deco standout, built in 1961, according to architecture types smarter than me.
Finally, strolling past the Cinema Roma (1937), with its marble facade, and watching as ancient vehicles motored down the street, I could almost imagine myself in an old Italian hill town.