The Mountain Road to Massawa

North-west from Asmara today, to the strategic port town of Massawa, one of the main reasons, Ethiopia was so reluctant to let Eritrea go. It was the Italian colonial capital of Eritrea, before the Italians moved it to Asmara. Whilst I'm on history I've discovered that  in the early 1940s, the British proposed the idea of  turning Eritrea into a Jewish colony,  to divert Jewish immigration from Palestine.

Our route winds over mountain roads more immediate and even more spectacular than those of yesterday. The rail track to Massawa (the one I didn’t get to ride on) tantalisingly hugs the mountains above and below, crossing our route several times. It really is a tremendous feat of engineering, with numerous tunnels and small viaducts. At least I’m getting to enjoy more or less the same view.

Wes stop to admire the baboons and to buy huge bunches of carrots from a small boy. brandishing them on the roadside. Fessehaye likes to make carrot juice.

As we descend, the steep sided hills, churches perched atop, become so lush and velvety we could almost be in Tuscany. Trucks lumber past filled with fresh green grass. Fessehaye says its because it rains twice a year in this year. I think he means there are two rainy seasons. There’s yet another change of scenery, as the land flattens into red ridges and then arid cocoa brown desert littered with scrub once more. Two huge yellow dried up river beds and we arrive at the sea.

The Grand Dahlak Hotel

I’m staying in the Grand Dahlak Hotel. My jokes about Dr Who have fallen on stony ground. And there’s nothing remotely grand about this hotel, except possibly its size and location, by the water. Like the car, it’s definitely seen better days. The staff, who are diffident in the extreme, preferring to interact with their phones rather than bother with guests, look as if they are lost in an old peeling museum. There’s a huge unfinished extension. Plaster is flaking off the walls. The springs have collapsed in the bed’s ancient mattress. There’s no hot water at all ‘It’s so hot in Eritrea people don’t’ want it’ is the slightly bizarre explanation.

When she shows me to my room, the receptionist insists the fridge is working. I fear she isn’t telling the truth. A gnarled old man carries my bag upstairs and stand in my room rubbing his thumb and forefinger together until I give him some money. The TV remote control has no batteries in it and there is an absence of towels. I report all these shortcomings to the reception desk. Fortunately, the manager is there and a technician is dispatched. He makes quick work of the repairs and I find him sitting on my bed watching his favourite programmes.

The Hotel Owner and His Family

Later, I meet the half Italian, half Eritrean owner (the one I stayed at in Asmara is the sister hotel) and some of his extended family. He commands me to take their photograph and tells me a garbled story about an Indian woman he used to visit regularly in London. Every time he went, she had a child, until there were five. Then her family found out and he deemed it best to leave the country. At least that’s what I think he said. Fessehaye says he is very rich and owns a mall in Italy. I wish he’d spend some money on renovating his hotels.

Massawa

Based on mean temperatures Massawa is purported to be the hottest spot in Africa and it’s certainly stiflingly warm. It’s very like Berbera, with its Ottoman houses and rubble filled ruins remaining from the civil war. But Massawa’s old town is more compact, and more charming with its faded pastels and solemn, narrow streets. There's a ruined palace to boot. And what is said to be the oldest mosque in Africa, if not the world, dating back to 630. It's the Mosque of the Companions. As is common throughout Eritrea, monuments to the Civil War also abound. This time three tanks on a plinth on the main road into town.

We lounge on a beach up the coast for a couple of hours (the beach at Massawa is much nicer than the one at Berbera too, though the beige sea weed littered sand isn’t exactly beautiful). Then we go in search of oven-baked grouper at the Salaam restaurant. Fessehaye can’t remember where it is and we drive round the relatively small area three times before we finally track it down. The fish is cooked in the same fashion as the excellent meal I had in Djibouti. As then, its definitely the best food I’ve eaten in the country. Seven cats and three puppies surround us while we eat, hoping in vain for titbits. It’s too good to share and they don’t appear to be undernourished. Although they’re very cute.

Green Island

Today has not been the highlight of the trip. I very much wanted to visit the uninhabited Dahlak islands, but I blanched at the quoted price of 1000 dollars, so I take a thirty dollar boat to Green Island for my snorkelling. Fessehaye tells me the journey will take half an hour. It is under five minutes and we are abandoned on a sand spit just outside the port. I ask Fessehaye where the reef is, but he just points vaguely out to sea; he doesn’t swim.

I don my gear and venture in. It’s cloudy, the wind is stirring up the sand and visibility is poor. I find some clumps of coral, too close to the surface for comfort. There are also too many spiny sea urchins for my liking, not to mention clusters of stone fish. The boat returns with more punters and this time the captain takes to the water; I pursue him out to a very small murky drop off, which at least isn’t life threatening. It’s a shame there isn’t more to see here, as Eritrea is reputed have 1,400 known fish species, with 17% of those found nowhere else.

Back to Asmara

The drive back to Asmara is both interminable and hair-raising. Fessehaye drives extremely slowly, braking very hard every two minutes. He only accelerates on the hairpin bends which are his overtaking spots of choice. I’m wondering if he’s got heat stroke. I’m also noting all the crosses placed carefully by the side of the road.

South, Through the Gorges of Eritrea

There’s a panoply of striking scenery to engage my attention as soon as we leave Asmara, the capital of Eritrea A long winding gorge is succeeded by a line of orange-red mesas, tinged with yellow and green and topped with single lines of trees, soldiers waiting to advance. Next up, a sequence of hills piled high with rock formations, huge curved boulders and enormous round sycamore trees. Breath-taking, and all this in the space of an hour. Today, I’m in a rented Landcruiser and we have a driver, Jonas, who’s very smiley. An elderly wrinkled gentleman, white cloak wound round his shoulders, clambers in as we stop for my photographs, so we give him a lift to the next town (‘God bless you ma’am’). I don't think he's a secret policeman either.  Then we retreat to a café, so Fessehaye can eat breakfast.

Mountains Running Towards Ethiopia

Continuing south, we wind up precipitous mountain roads, hairpin roads and more stunning yellow ochre scenery. Up here, in the semi- desert, the aloes are now in full orange flower. Donkeys wander around, seeming to prefer the tarmac of the road to the fields at the sides. Flocks of goats and cattle amble across our way, necessitating frequent zigzagging and camel sightings are frequent. Towns with wide empty boulevards appear out of nowhere and astonishingly ornate churches look down from the peaks above these.

The road here is reasonably smooth,. For the most part, the Italians have done a good job of engineering the mountain passes in Eritrea, with solidly crafted stone buttresses, although there is some abandoned reconstruction in one area. There are very few road blocks, compared to other African countries. Nevertheless, my permits are still checked assiduously in and out of town and at hotels and visited sites.

The Ruins of Quohaito, Eritrea

The ruins of Quohaito, our goal, are not especially exciting. It’s a pre-Axumite settlement (700 BC), complete with a small palace. All that remains are a couple of groups of rectangular columns, a dam and a stone lined cavity decorated with lotus flowers. No-one has enough English to explain the significance of any of these dwellings to me, though we’ve picked up a mandatory guide, who I’ve been ordered to pay.

The views are far more rewarding. We’ve been lurching all over the edge of the escarpment in our four wheeled drive and inducing vertigo by trying to peer over the edge. We can see right down the Great Rift Valley in one direction, dark cloud rolling in over the edge. In the other are some of Ethiopia’s highest peaks, 25 kilometres away – I got a bird’s eye view from the plane when I flew in on Friday. They’re now almost obscured, sadly, and it’s starting to rain heavily. We were going to finish with an ancient rock painting, but I’m informed that the bad weather means it’s off. I’m devastated.

Lunch isn’t included in my trip price, so I  persuade Fessehaye that I would still like to eat and we sample the local dish, fata: eggs, potato and chilli, all mixed with bread. When we're setting off again we're stopped. I’ve forgotten to put my seat belt on, but a kindly policeman lets me off. ’No corruption here,’ says Jonas.

Chinese Road-building, Eritrea

On the return journey to Asmara we have to stop for half an hour at the no longer abandoned road reconstruction while some Chines JCBs  busy themselves. They seem to have bulldozed down half the shale cliff abutting the track. They are spreading it across the way, almost disappearing over the side in the process in a fog of dust. While we're waiting Jonas tells me that this is his first day of work for a month. He is 46 and has five children.

North Through the Mountains of Eritrea

I was hoping to ride the famous Italian steam train through the mountain passes this morning, but there aren’t enough takers. So disappointingly, it’s not running and we’re heading north to Keren. Today, we have a rented Datsun that’s definitely seen better days and Fessehaye is driving. He’s very heavy on the newly sharp brakes. And a policeman has invited himself along for the journey. Apparently, it’s an offer you don’t refuse. Corruption take different forms in different places. But he's in uniform, so I assume he's not a secret policeman.

We’re winding up into mountains again, with more glorious panoramas. The traffic is very light compared to Djibouti, for example, but double-trailer trucks from Ethiopia still frequently chug annoyingly in front of us. They career downhill, hogging the middle of the road. There are too many near misses for my liking, considering the sheer drops beside us. Fessehaye castigates the drivers roundly and then Ethiopians in general. He fought in the war and we pass several abandoned and rusting tanks, so perhaps it’s not surprising.

Keren

The houses here are faded white cuboids with pastel doors, though more traditional round African huts appear alongside these as our journey progresses. Keren is Sunday peaceful; boys are kicking footballs on the main square. There’s a three hundred year old baobab tree that contains an altar (a church is now established behind it) and the British War Cemetery. The concrete slabs represent far too many young lives lost.

Fessehaye feeds me roast lamb, meat risotto and later, creamy yogurt. I add sugar to mine and he pours chilli oil into his. The café is full of men watching football. Well, some of the time. The power goes on and off yo-yo style, so Wi-Fi here is even more frustrating than in Asmara.

The Camel Market at Keren

The highlight of the visit to Keren is supposed to be the camel market. I would have loved it if I hadn’t seen the one in Hargeisa. There are a few camels and groups of donkeys cowering in the shade. Donkeys melt my heart, they have such sad eyes and soft fur. I’m told their appearance is deceptive and they are stubborn and bad tempered. Maybe. I’ve certainly seen them kick violently and bray loudly, though they’re not treated very well and their human loads often seem much too large for them. There are far more cattle here than in Hargeisa, in a separate walled enclosure, all bellowing loudly. One disgruntled beast causes havoc by rampaging through all the hobbled goats, who can’t escape his hoofs. I only just manage to evade his charge, before he is apprehended.

Then, there’s a huge vibrant open air market to wander through; it meanders under the road and I amass another Pied Piper following of children, who want me to point my camera at them, so they can go all bashful and hide their faces.

On the way back to Asmara we stop for drinks at a viewpoint with a row of mountain side cafes. It’s the local equivalent of a motorway service station.

Art Deco Asmara

Although faded and in need of a little TLC (especially the roads), Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, is a very welcome surprise. It’s one of the most fascinating African cities I’ve visited. A slice of Mediterranean Europe deposited by the Red Sea and liberally sprinkled with art deco features. there are multiple delightful buildings, with angled towers and curved edges, porthole windows, tiny metal framed glazing, and stylized lettering

Some of the churches, have bell towers and domes that look as if they’ve been lifted from Bologna. Others are so highly decorated as to be almost Disneyesque, though the blue sky frames them admirably. The spires are deployed pleasingly in groups across the hills. At one point there’s a view down a busy steep street edged with stallholders, that makes me think I’m in colonial Spain. The whole of the city has been designated a UNESCO world heritage area.

Old Town Asmara

The architecture makes Asmara a worthwhile visit on its own, but there is more. Next, the old town, with a maze of workshops to wander through. Chilli is being ground by cheerful head-scarved women and decanted into sacks - the air is chokingly thick with dust. That's not the only threat to life. Clouds of sparks emanate from a long, narrow alley where welders are at work on assorted ironmongery (no goggles) and furnaces roar in the furthest corners. Just down the road, there’s a huge open sided market, the roofs supported by carved pillars. It’s crammed with sacks of spices. I have an impromptu tea party with some of the women selling prettily arranged rows of fruit and vegetables.

Further along, an imposing green tiled mosque, (I’ve never seen an art deco mosque before), the fish market and the meat market.

Piccolo Roma

Asmara is also known as Piccolo Roma. I wouldn’t go that far, but there are Palermo type avenues of pollarded jacarandas and neat palms. Asmara’s colonial heritage is also clear from the multitude of Italian eateries. Though, as in most of the world now, there is plenty of English signage.

I’ve not met any other tourists yet. Or, (knowingly) any secret police. Apparently and unsurprisingly, those that do come are mainly Italian and this nationality is favoured by those who issue all the necessary documents to travel out of town and visit this and that. I tell Fessehaye I would like a picture of the cathedral unobstructed by the huge iron gates. (I can’t poke my camera through them). He manages to persuade the gatekeeper that he is an old friend and he opens up. But another voice emanates  from up on high as I’m venturing in. ‘Is she Italian?’ ‘Yes,’ lies Fessehaye, hissing at me to be quick.

The same ploy doesn’t work at the brewery, which has the most incredible glossy brown and white tile work. They want to see my permit there. Fessehaye instructs me to take a picture as he reverses away. I’m glad this isn’t the DRC. The streets are quiet, other than a few old Toyotas and the odd bicycle, so I can even wander around with my camera without worrying about being knocked over. It’s an absorbing afternoon and I forget all about being tired.

Hotel Asmara

My hotel reflects the city. It’s quiet, full of character: ormolu, drapes, walnut bureaux, candle-lights, mock marble and replica Greek pillars; it’s just a little worn around the edges. Most of the candle-bulbs don’t work, or are missing altogether, the old Amstrad TV won’t operate, the water is lukewarm and the miniature bottles of body lotion and shampoo are about a quarter full. Wi-Fi is a precious commodity which operates at snail pace; it’s only available in the lobby and no passwords are given out. Autojoin is also cancelled, so every time I come back the ladies at the desk have to reconnect me. It’s a tedious business for all concerned.

I was too hasty in  saying the hotel was quiet. At night, dogs howl outside, when children aren’t squealing, the corridors are suddenly full of guests holding loud echoing conversations and some birds are billing and cooing outside my windows. I don't sleep very well.

Fessehaye's Home

Fessehaye takes me back to his house for lunch one day. His sitting room is small and neat and has a picture of his mother on the wall. His son, Thomas, offers me water with jug and bowl to wash my hands and his wife, Asema, serves us traditional shiro (chick pea soup) with injera (the local bread made with teff grain.) Injera didn’t agree with me in Ethiopia, so fingers crossed; it would have been churlish to refuse. They have satellite TV with 200 channels. About half of these seem to be evangelical Christian offerings.

Fessehaye also takes me on a night tour of Asmara. It’s kind of him, but I can’t see much, as there is partial power cut, most of the street lighting isn’t working and none of the buildings are illuminated. The piece de resistance is a patchy panorama from the top pf a hill.

Next, the gorges and mountains around Asmara.

Getting Permission To Go

I tried to visit Eritrea in 2012, but my visa never arrived, the permission stuck in Asmara for well over a month. The trip was called off two days before I was due to leave and I went to St Kitts instead. The tour company withheld a large chunk of the monies I had paid ‘for irrecoverable expenses’ and I lost the cost of the flights too. I’ve been visa traumatised and Eritrea phobic ever since. So, it was with trepidation, that I decided to give it another go.

The process is different now. You have to make an appointment at the embassy and turn up in person to be vetted and fill in forms. Your mobile phone is confiscated, and all the doors have security locks on them. Nevertheless, the process is more efficient than the visa company I used previously. Much to my amazement, my visa is back within two weeks. The onus is on me to call to check and I have to travel up to Islington to collect it again. But it’s all remarkably straightforward. I’m off to visit what is often referred to as the Hermit Kingdom or the North Korea of Africa. I've read that you can't travel anywhere without the requisite permit and there are secret police all over.

Getting into Eritrea

Entry in Asmara is relatively stress free, although I’m rounded up as ‘a non-native’ and made to hand over my passport as I go in the door at airport immigration. A little man goes off to check my visa is valid. Then I’m allowed to join the back of the (long) immigration lines.

My guide is called Fessehaye (I can’t pronounce it - it seems to lose the first syllable) and he’s come to meet me in a battered Toyota pick-up. He speaks very little English, but compensates by being lithe and good looking in a smooth kind of way and letting me sit in the front seat. Fessehaye tells me he used to be a boxer. He looks much too slight to me, but he says he was a lightweight and that Mike Tyson would knock out any Eritrean with no trouble. He also knows everyone, so while I’m off taking photos, he’s gossiping with his acquaintances, who seem to appear wherever we park. We even stop off to see his wife and son.

A Brief History of Eritrea

  • The Kingdom of Aksum (Axum), covering much of modern-day Eritrea and northern Ethiopia, was established during the first or second century AD. and it adopted Christianity around the middle of the fourth century.
  • Their empire spread under the Ethiopian Zagwe and Solomonid dynasties (monarchs purporting to be descended from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba) until it extended over the entire plateau and the Red Sea coast from the twelfth century.
  • Eritrea’s central highlands, known as Midri-Bahri ("Land of the Sea"), were the northern frontier region of the Ethiopian kingdoms and were ruled by a governor titled the Bahr Negash ("Lord of the Sea").
  • However power waxed and waned and in the sixteenth century the Ottomans arrived and occupied the Eritrean coastline, for more than three centuries.
  • The Italians created the colony of Eritrea in the nineteenth century around Asmara (it was once part of the Kingdom of Axum) and named it. As a result, the capital, Asmara is often referred to as Little Rome.
  • After World War II, Eritrea was annexed to Ethiopia, with some British administration, causing much discontent amongst its people. Eventually, in 1991, the Eritrean People's Liberation Front defeated the Ethiopian "Derg" government. This lead to full independence in 1993, though tensions have run high between the two countries, until very recently.
  • By 1990, 40% of Eritrean freedom fighters were female. The EPLF had a higher percentage of women than any other liberation army in the world.
  • Isaias Afwerki has been Eritrea’s only president since independence to present day. This is a unitary one-party presidential republic in which national legislative and presidential elections have never been held.

Facts and Factoids

  • Eritrea means “red”, after the Red Sea, labelled Sinus Erythraeus by the Greek settlers in Egypt.
  • Eritrea has no official national language. In the main ten languages are spoken: Tigrinya, Arabic, English, Saho, Bilen, Afar, Kunana, Nara, Tigre, and Hedareb.
  • Eritrea is one of the world's least developed countries. According to Human Rights Watch, the Eritrean government's human rights record is among the worst in the world.

Is Eritrea a Safe Country?

Eritrea seems to be one of the safest countries in Africa. There may also be a problem with secret policemen - but I'm not knowledgeable enough about these things to  be able to spot them.

The Verdict

The hotels in Eritrea may not be to everyone’s taste, but this is a country well worth visiting. The scenery is extraordinary, the people friendly, and, once you’ve managed to get here, it’s not remotely like North Korea. (Except for the vast number of permits you need to go anywhere.)

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