Written by Richard Cain on 27 Sep, 2004
Those unfamiliar with Cairo will not realise that it is pretty cold in winter. The builders of my apartment block obviously didn't realise it either, as there was no heating and the wind was whistling through my (closed) windows. It was coming up to the…Read More
Those unfamiliar with Cairo will not realise that it is pretty cold in winter. The builders of my apartment block obviously didn't realise it either, as there was no heating and the wind was whistling through my (closed) windows. It was coming up to the Christmas break, and I was wondering where I could go on holiday that would be warm but not too far away. I presumed seeking warmth meant going south, so, perusing a map, I quickly ignored Sudan and came upon Eritrea. Fresh out of another war with Ethiopia (it was the world's newest country having gained independence in 1993) there would be few tourists and it should prove interesting.
The Eritreanian embassy certainly was - a ramshackle house not far from where I lived. Upon entry, I was relieved of my passport and invited to sit on the sofa and chat to some Eritreans. I wasn't sure whether an interview was part of the process for procuring a visa but they seemed friendly enough. The embassy turned out to be a microcosm of the country - in pretty bad shape, but well organised (my visa was ready in 15 minutes) and with incredibly friendly and helpful people.
Arriving in the capital Asmara on the weekly flight from Cairo, everything looked like Africa - dry and dusty with a few acacia trees dotted around. However, the scene changed to southern Italy (after all it used to be a colony) when I arrived downtown. My hotel was just off the central tree lined boulevard which in turn was flanked with bars, cafes, and pastry shops. I suppose unlike southern Italy, Bing Crosby could be heard crooning "White Christmas" from the cathedral. A little out of place, as there wasn't a cloud in the startlingly blue sky. At an altitude of 2500m, Asmara has one of the bluest skies I had ever seen. Later, sitting in one of the sidewalk cafes sipping a cappuccino, I knew I was going to like it here.
I spent a good few days in Asmara relaxing, enjoying the Italian cuisine and exploring the streets and markets before heading bush. My first stop was down to the coastal town of Massawa. Much more ramshackle than the neat Asmara, but this was not surprising given the pasting it had got during the war. In contrast, Asmara was the one town which had managed to avoid any fighting. However, this gave it a certain charm which was added to by a certain old sea-dog feel to it. Not surprising, I suppose as it had been a base for Moorish pirates for 300 years.
From the coast, back into the hills, and on to Keren - if anything ,even more pretty and peaceful than Asmara, nestling in the foothills of the range. This belies its past as a scene for a terrible battle during WWII. The immaculately maintained Italian and British war cemeteries are a reminder of this.
I went to an interesting market while in Keren, which took place in a dried-up riverbed near to town. There was only one thing for sale - wood, which was strapped to the backs of many camels. I suppose this illustrates the aridity of the region. Like most towns in Eritrea, Keren also has its fair share of half-decent bars serving half-decent beer - Melotti. I presume it was the same beer I was drinking all over Eritrea, as I never saw a single label! I did have one unnerving moment however as one of the old guys in the bar stumbled off his chair, accosted the barman, and started pointing at me. Bloody drunk I thought. However he turned into my best mate when I realised he was attempting to pay my bar tab. He and a few of the other blokes in the bar then implored me to head off from Keren to Nacfa.
Nacfa is famed throughout Eritrea as the symbol of resistance to the Ethiopian occupation. During the war, every building except the mosque was completely obliterated by constant bombardment. I suppose I had to see it for myself. I wasn't too keen, as I knew the road to Nacfa followed a dried-up river bed for most of the way - or rather WAS a dried-up river bed. While my bones shook along this track, my friendly companions kept my mind off my arse by readily pointing out landmarks from the war for independence. One of these was the village of Afabet. Today it is a barren wasteland with a few shacks, but formerly it had been a large barracks town where in one battle for independence 18,000 Ethiopian soldiers were killed. Further on, a beautiful canyon was pointed out as the site of a famous tank battle. Many of their rusting carcasses are still visible. Further still we stopped for coffee at a shack where all the stools were shell casings. Tellingly, the shell-cased stools felt more comfortable than the bus seats.
If you are interested in my other trips in north Africa visit: http://uk.geocities.com/wanderings_africa
Written by andreacasalotti on 03 Jan, 2001
Having left the Hamam Appreciation Society in Jedda, we arrive punctually in Asmara. We ride into town under a big black African sky punctured by the full moon. The roads are quiet, but almost every block has a bar with music weaving out.…Read More
Having left the Hamam Appreciation Society in Jedda, we arrive punctually in Asmara. We ride into town under a big black African sky punctured by the full moon. The roads are quiet, but almost every block has a bar with music weaving out. We check in at the Legesi. Bars stay open until 2, so we go to a lively joint nearby; bottles of beer have accumulated on the tables, the stylish waitresses bring us two, a third one later donated by an effusive local
The bikes secured on the roof, we board on the back of the bus to Adi Teklazan. The white scarved ladies are not too bothered with the bumps and happily chat across the aisle. After a frittata we start riding on the arid plane. Soon we reach the edge of a wide gorge: the descent is about to begin, vegetation starts to appear, first these magnificent cacti with pink flowers, then acacias and the solitary baobabs. We take a break at the bottom of the valley, by the dry river bed, shaded by large trees. Later, at Elabored, orange groves are separated from the road by long rows of bouganvillae. In Keren, we walk down the narrow lanes with all the children making sure we know they have learned the first lesson in English: 'What is your name?'. After buying some fruit at the market, including a hard-shelled papaya-like fruit with a dry white paste inside, we rest on the terrace of our hotel, drinking beer and watching the sun set behind the mountains. Dinner included beans, lentils and capretto on injera.
After oranges and caffellatte for breakfast we check the tourist officer, whose only skill was to prepare some good tea. Monday is market day in Keren with traders coming from afar. At the wood market, about 50 camels sit patiently with the wares on their back. One passes by, with an immense load of twigs completely hiding his body. On one street we find the jewellers. In some shops, groups of women advise younger girls on what to pierce. Some of them wear large gold crescent-shaped nose rings. We choose a simple gold ring. Probably the best part of the market is a square where straw is sold; the cream of the bundles contrasting with the kaleidoscopic range of colours of the women's dresses. A quick snack of panettone, and we are back on our bikes; before leaving town we check the camel and livestock market, strictly a man's preserve. The gate attendant, in fluent Italian, gives us the price ranges, 3500-4000 nakfas for a camel, 150-200 for a donkey. We cycle for half an hour until we reach a lush plantation by a dry river bed. There under the shade of big mango trees, we read our books and watch as the caravans of traders head home. Some camels are loaded with beds, sofas and the kitchen sink. We ride back as the sun sets over the much quieter town. After relaxing and comparing views on the hotel terrace, we have sprica for dinner, a tasty goulash on injera. We end the day exchanging travel tips with some motorcyclists, we had met yesterday.
The muezzin wakes us at 5:30, we need to catch an early bus. A beautiful lady with child puts her goat in the trunk. We relived our Sunday ride as the bus winds its way up to the plains. As we change into cycling clothes, local children help each other to ride our bikes. The workbooks of the brother of one of them reveals how all subjects are taught in English after elementary school. Our adventure is about to begin. We climb to the highest point of the escarpment on a fairly rough track. On the way, a charming retired doctor gives us advice on how to avoid scorpion stings (too bad he didn't tell us how to avoid another type of puncture). At the village of Wakkie, barley was being crushed by teams of cattle led in circles by the farmers. Soon after we reach the edge of the escarpment, the view is breathtaking. The track is a series of switchbacks down the sheer mountain face. Somehow a rickety bus is making its way up: it was the last motor vehicle we would see for a day and a half. Down and down we ride and the vegetation gets richer with mostly fir trees. Some parts of the mountain are cultivated with corn growing on terraced plots. We ask the few people we meet about Filfil, our first destination, but nobody seems sure what we mean. In mid afternoon, we start to be hungry and mercifully we find a small farm that sells us drinks and biscuits. The track is now a lot less rough, grass growing on it and for long stretches we can release our brakes. All about us the vegetation is thick and luxuriant. We reach a farmhouse, probably built by Italians; some soldiers stop us, and the leader seems very unhappy to let us through. Fortunately the only English-speaker in the group pleads for us and a visa is hastily written on a piece of paper. Our progress is further slowed by a couple of punctures. We are now entering a virgin rain forest with birds and monkeys making their distinctive calls. It is getting quite dark; will we find somewhere to sleep? A stroke of luck: another army check point. The young fighters happily offer to host us: they clear one of theitr rooms for us, give us blankets and sheets. We join them eating injera and lentils. And it is not over: they prepare especially for us a huge plate of pasta with onion sauce. Even though their English is fairly non-existent, we manage to narrate our travels so far.
The soldiers get up early and the morning light bathes the jungle; we walk up the track and watch the sun rise. After some tea and delicious toasted injera we are shown what is cultivated in the garden: papaya, oranges, herbs, trees for reforestation. We set off as the road descends in the forest. We stop to see some baboons swing between trees. Hornbills fly above us. We finally reach the Filfil river; there is another check-point. As I fix another puncture, Fionnuala expertly persuades the unfriendly soldiers to let us through (or maybe they were warning us about the land mines). After a col the track becomes steep and rocky; at the end of this difficult section the countryside is very dry with thorny bushes and equally thorny acacias. Thorns!! The tired tyres of the Ridgeback don't offer resistance and we start to run out of patches. The river is not dry: at one point a caravan of 40-50 camels is drinking, later we ride near large plantations of papaya and bananas. But it doesn't last: the aridity and heat increases and we start to have mirages that we can replenish our depleted water bottles. Our few oranges have never tasted sweeter. The thorns don't give us respite and we are now using plastic bags to knot our drainer-like tubes. Fionnuala finds that 4 years of university study have been useful, as she applies her knowledge of the photochemical properties of glue. On the far horizon we see a mosque. A lone soldier tells us that there we should find drinks. We have to push the last kilometres, but, yes!, we find liquid and a truck giving us a lift to the Massawa road. At Gyatelay, a long stretch of cafes wait tired truckers. We replace tubes and tyres and find a lift on a taxi. The driver is very cultured and fills us on many aspects of Eritrean history and social customs. His young assistant has been separated from his parents and deported by the Ethiopians. In Massawa, first priority is a shower. Refreshed we meet Paolo and friends at Sallams, where fish is baked in clay-ovens. Delicious, and who would have thought that a few hours earlier we were lost in the arid desert? We pass by Christmas mass being celebrated with lots of incense and beautiful chanting. On the balcony at the Corallo, the halfmoon lights our passions.
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Written by nomadnancy on 11 May, 2005
I love this little country with its amazingly kind and beautiful people, but as with most wonderful places, there are some drawbacks.
First, there is a persistent threat of a war reigniting with their neighbor and one-time ruler Ethiopia. This explains the constant…Read More
I love this little country with its amazingly kind and beautiful people, but as with most wonderful places, there are some drawbacks.
First, there is a persistent threat of a war reigniting with their neighbor and one-time ruler Ethiopia. This explains the constant presence of UN peacekeeper troops in many cities throughout Eritrea. Additionally, Eritrea has stepped up their once-relaxed protocols for travel within the country. Visitors who could once take a bus wherever they wished within the country now have to apply for a travel permit once they arrive in country and wait 24 to 48 hours to get the permit. This permit is required at the newly installed checkpoints set up around the countryside. Failure to produce one can prompt arrest or a fine. So, if you do want to travel, expect to spend a few days in Asmara while you wait for your permit to be processed.
Additionally, the borders to Sudan and Ethiopia are closed, giving Eritrea island status. Finally, and most disturbingly, the president of Eritrea seems to have caught the African-dictator bug and restricted all free speech and free press. The BBC has been asked to leave, and you will not be able to find any current newspapers or magazines. There is a propaganda paper that the government issues every Saturday, but this is just a bunch of BS. Do NOT discuss politics with Eritreans; this puts them in a difficult spot, as they could be arrested for any expressed negative views.
If I haven't scared you off yet, that's good. Eritrea is an amazing destination that I still frequent - I just am now more aware of the hardships that their citizens endure. This hasn't hardened the people at all - they are still so kind and welcoming. Enjoy!
Written by nomadnancy on 10 May, 2005
We took a local bus for 6 hours to Massawa, the closest Red Sea port. The bus ride started pleasantly enough (and only cost about $1.50), with the cool temperatures of Asmara (at 7,500 feet), but as we descended to sea level, it got…Read More
We took a local bus for 6 hours to Massawa, the closest Red Sea port. The bus ride started pleasantly enough (and only cost about $1.50), with the cool temperatures of Asmara (at 7,500 feet), but as we descended to sea level, it got hotter than I would have thought possible! The heat in the desert was about 105°F and seems unbearable, especially from March to September.
Once we arrived in Massawa, we found one of the largest populated ghost towns I have seen! The steamy streets were deserted, and we walked down the middle of large roads built by Italian colonizers 75 years ago, marvelling at the beautiful architecture. We wandered through the old Turkish parts of Massawa and the bombed-out palace of Hallie Selassie (his furniture is still inside the structure - look through the window on the second floor).
We ended up taking a boat to Green Island and trying to cool off on the small spit of land that has a small beach. It was no doubt a beautiful city at one point, but poverty has taken its toll.