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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: "Eritrea? 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 voted to leave 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, and what makes it a gem?
First and foremost, its capital Asmara is the single most beautiful city in Africa, and an ethernal 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 plateu 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 you will meet anywhere, and the begging, thievery and hassles encountered elsewhere in Africa quickly fade into distant memories here.
Accessing other parts of Northeast Africa can be a challenge, though, due to Eritrea's relationship with these neighbours. With persistance and determination you will find it was all worth it. Eritrea could immediately became your favourite country in Africa, and you will wish to return for a longer stay in the future.
If you are at all thinking about visiting this country, think no more - go!