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April 16th 2018
Published: September 28th 2018
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I had no idea what to expect from Eritrea the airport was small and old which to be expected I suppose of a developing African country that has chosen to isolate itself from much of the world, but I moved through immigration quickly and scored a taxi for the ride into the city centre. There was little traffic on the roads which I assumed was due to the early hour, but I would later realise that there just aren’t many vehicles on the roads here at any time. Here are also no ATM’s, credit card facilities or any other way of obtaining more funds so I am lucky I had the forethought to bring much more cash then I normally would.

Hotel reviews on the few advertised on line had not been good across the board, so I didn’t have much hope for the Crystal, but it turned out to be nice and had good service and food. The ground floor café has some pleasant breakfast options and the burgers were very good.

Asmara means “they made them unite” in a local language is leafy has a population of just over 800,000 inhabitants and it sits at an elevation of 2,325 metres so the weather is significantly cooler and more pleasant and the coastal regions. Most of central Asmara was built between 1935 and 1941, so the Italians effectively managed to build almost an entire city in just six years and some outstanding architecture with some 800 buildings in various architectural styles. Fortunately, the war of independence with Ethiopia saw little damage to Asmara so the buildings still stand today although many need restorations.

I was able to see may of these buildings as I left the hotel and went in search of the Tourist office where I needed to go to get a permit to leave the capital, as I headed towards the steeple of the Church of Our Lady of The Rosary I saw many interesting buildings in this UNESCO world heritage listed city. The “cathedral” itself is was built in the 1920’s in the Romanesque Lombard style and dominates Harnet Avenue behind this building on the edge of the market area and close to the bus station stands the equally impressive Kidane Mehret Cathedral although its belltower was covered in scaffolding. Also, in this area is the Cinema Emperio which is considered by the experts as one of the world's finest examples of Art Déco style architecture.

On arrival at the tourist office they requested copies of my passport, visa and entry stamp and of course they had no copier so I had to go look for one, I found many shops advertising copying but they were all closed for the afternoon siesta so I found a bar and tested the local ale, there is only one so they don’t bother labelling the bottles, it was good so I had a couple more. I then went out searching again and although I did find one open the power was out, so he sent me further down the road to a place that had a generator where I managed to get my copies. Returning to the office I dropped off the papers and was told to come back at 530pm, I suspected the permit wouldn’t be ready then and told them I would return in the morning. I then wandered down toward the market area, markets are generally quite colourful, looking for souvenirs, there were the usual African carvings and religious paraphernalia but that was about it.

I headed back to the hotel and had some dinner then packed my gear up and prepared for an early night. In the morning I would return to pick up my permit and then take a bus through the mountains to the Red Sea port of Massawa. I had planned to visit some other places, but the cost of vehicle and driver is more than the total cash I have with me so that won’t be happening. I spent the remainder of the evening watching cable TV and trying to access the internet which is horrendously slow in this country.

After breakfast I consigned my pack to left luggage and loaded my little day pack with essentials for the road trip to Massawa. I walked back to the tourist office arriving just after 830am expecting my permit to be ready and was old it would be ready at 1030am I spent three hours the previous day trying to arrange this with and now I would be sitting around for hours waiting. I explained this to the guy on the counter after which he said 930am and got up and went out the back. I decided I would go check out the bus station and just kill an hour walking around taking photos and just keeping busy. I arrived back at 930am to find five or six people out the back have a picnic as soon as the guy at the counter saw me walk in he went and joined them. I settled in to wait scowling at anyone who looked at me then finally about 10am a courier arrived with my permit and I was on my way to the bus station. Where I waited for a further two hours for my minibus to fill up and depart.

I had the front seat and a reasonable amount of leg room and a window, I was proud of myself, I didn’t realise that they were going to try and squeeze another person in next to me, I refused and because I was a foreigner they didn’t push it, I suspect I paid more than the others anyway. Around midday we left the city travelling through the mountains towards the sea, the distance was short, the road was good and traffic light, but the absence of guard rails and the constant switch backs meant a slow journey. In fact, I was a bit panicked at the start because there were some long drops into the valley below that reminded me of the hair-raising travel of Colombia. The journey was very picturesque, the terrain, villages, livestock and troops of baboons made an uncomfortable journey bearable and I took some great photographs along the way.

I arrived at the bus station in Massawa at around 3pm, the station is located a long way from the classic Italian hotel near the Red Sea where I would be staying. The temperature here is also in the forties and there were no taxis at the bus station, I asked asked around for a taxi and an enterprising local agreed to take me to my hotel for the price of a cab (it actually was) and we were on our way. We crossed a causeway and arrived at the The Grand Dahlak Hotel a short time later and yes, the name suits, it must have been grand once, there were only a handful of guests here, but the rooms were fine and had all the modern compliments except towels and hot water it seemed.

On arrival I went to the bar and ate fish and chips and drank a few beers while enjoying the sea breezes, I planned to chill until it got a little cooler and then head across to explore the old port. Massawa was the capital of the Italian Colony of Eritrea until moved to Asmara in 1897 and has some stunning period architecture in the old part of town around the port, unfortunately many of these buildings are now in ruins and appear to be filled with poor squatters. Still the old Hotel Torino and some of the mosques and shrines are in good condition. The area in the early evening was a little spooky people lived amongst the predominantly ruined buildings I am not sure how many though, most of the businesses that were once there appear long gone, it seems the damage was inflicted during the independence era and has not been repaired. This area would be an ideal tourist attraction if the government would fix it up. I spent an hour or so poking my nose in buildings and just wandering randomly, it was a place haunted by the past, I stopped at the only functioning bar in the lobby of what was once the Hotel Torino and had an Asmara beer as the sun set over the ruins.

A slept well, it is a quiet place no call to pray in this country which surprised me considering its significant Muslim population, I realised I had no towels when I tried to shower so I headed down the elegant stairwell and off to the restaurant for breakfast. After I settled my bill and started walking in the morning heat in the direction of the bus station before hailing a share taxi for the trip. We passed the war memorial (four tanks on ramps) and crossed the causeway back to the mainland where I disembarked at the bus station. Here I decided to take one if the big coaches thinking it would be more comfortable and it might have been if I had got a window, but it was hot and of course we had to wait the obligatory two hours till departure. Overall the trip back was longer but once the roof hatch was opened it was cooler and more comfortable. I arrived back in Asmara around 430pm and had a burger at the hotel before chilling out the rest of the day.

My last day in Asmara was spent just wandering the streets, it is an extremely safe city and I didn’t hesitate to go anywhere. The National museum was closed which was a shame so I went to visit the futurist Fiat Tagliero Building which was conceived as a simple petrol station in 1938 and resembles an aeroplane incorporating a central tower with office space, cashiers desk and a shop and has a supporting pair of 15m cantilevered, reinforced concrete wings. I then continued walking to St Francis Church before continuing to wander through various neighbourhoods, I got lost for a time but eventually came out near the US Embassy. There was a cycling event going on through the streets which was a bit of a surprise, as I made my way back towards the cathedral I came across a barber and got a nice $2 haircut before heading back down to the market area which was almost deserted on a Sunday morning.

I returned to the hotel in the late afternoon and had a feed before returning to my room and packing my gear up for my departure the next morning. I discovered a fridge in the room with beer, so I drank those. I rose early the next morning and headed to the airport, checking in around 6am I passed through immigration and entered the waiting area where I purchased a few souvenirs, the plane is only half full and I have plenty of room. The onboard entertainment was working for once and the steward gave me a free meal so the flight back to Dubai was most comfortable.

My trip to Eritrea was brilliant it is an amazingly interesting destination, my only complaints are the hassle to get a permit and the number of people that approached me with their hands held out, the children were especially bad.

Additional photos below
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28th September 2018

Hair pin turns
I hate those switchbacks with no guard rails. Thanks for taking us along. MJ

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