The silent Grundig wireless sets, empty wine bottles and tired musical instruments made for diverting lunch decor in Ghibabo. Young men and women at a neighbouring table chat, taking in the eccentricity of this restaurant and pizzeria in Asmara, the capital of Eritrea.

“Ethiopian people,” says one diner, pointing at a nearby group. “Tourists.”

After a protracted independence war and 20 years of unresolved border conflict, a peace agreement between Eritrea and Ethiopia was signed in July. Ethiopian Amharic voices are still a novelty in Asmara.

Eritrea lies in the Horn of Africa, bordering Sudan, Djibouti and Ethiopia (cutting off that country’s port access), and its 1,000km Red Sea coast faces strife-ridden Yemen. Asmara recently acquired Unesco status, in large part for its legacy of Italian modernist architecture. Mussolini envisioned Asmara at the heart of Italy’s new African Empire; an aspiration never achieved.

With its broad, tree-lined Harnet Avenue, downtown Asmara is a city with lungs. Beyond the Church of Our Lady of the Rosary, Rosina Caffé’s glass-panelled doors open onto busy marble-top tables. Cappuccino, macchiato and gelato are served by uniformed waitresses. Avocado juice is available – perhaps a nod to Asmara’s burgeoning hipster scene? But this is no overpriced expatriate bolthole. Customers are Eritreans, mostly older men. Save for the absence of wifi it could be southern Europe.

The Church of Our Lady of the Rosary in Asmara (Nick Redmayne)

Across the road it’s possible that Cinema Impero’s Art Deco façade makes more of a statement now than it did in 1937. Though the list of showings – mainly Korean martial arts movies – says something too. Reflecting on lengthy conflict, Asmarinos have had their fill of real fighting. Elsewhere, faded pastel streets reference Africa and Italy in unhurried homage to daily life. “Don’t worry, there are no thieves in Asmara,” remarks a café manager when I carelessly abandoned my shoulder bag.

The Art Deco Cinema Impero in Asmara (Nick Redmayne)