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Cappuccino Africa : Eritrea’s capital Asmara never ceases to impress Tourists

Jack Barker cycles across Eritrea to Massawa on the Red Sea - and has no regrets site; Jun 04, 2004

"We usually do the journey at night," said the man in the bar. "It makes it less likely your bike tyres will blow out." I'd flown into Eritrea after reading a guidebook that claimed you could ride from Asmara, the capital, to its second city, the port of Massawa on the coast, in a day: a distance so large you could see it on a globe. As a non-cyclist, I thought this would be an effortless achievement, but as I got closer, the challenge seemed more substantial.

Despite Asmara being at 2,500 metres and Massawa being at zero, it seemed unlikely it could all be downhill, and my fear of overheating tyres was nothing compared with my fear of having to pedal.

I resolved to get up at dawn - and went on to another bar. And at nine the next day, I only managed 200 yards before pulling up at a café for cappuccino and a slice of cake.

I was in a somewhat reflective mood. After just a few days in Asmara it was already hard to leave. Though a national capital, it felt more like a small town; and not one in Africa, but Italy. As Italy's most important colony, Eritrea was used as a training-ground for young art deco architects through the 1920s and 1930s. The centre is still littered with prime examples, with the clean lines of Fiat and Iveco buildings, and cinemas grandly titled Roma and Imperio. Catholic cathedrals rub shoulders with the brighter churches of the Coptic faith, and there are countless coffee-bars where the gleaming chrome and brass of coffee and gelati machines glitter over glass-fronted shelves tiered high with the day's pastries.

Each evening, the streets crowd for the passeggiata, young girls browsing dress shops and old men choosing hand-made shoes. There is none of the languor of Africa about this café society, no visible police presence, and no apparent crime.

Although you can rent newly-built mountain bikes for a couple of pounds a day in Asmara, I'd brought my own, a primitive folding bicycle brought off a card in a village-shop window, and stretched to its limit by the road that climbed out of Asmara's sunny Rift Valley bowl. Of the three gears supplied by Sturmey Archer, the first soon stopped working and my seat sank steadily down towards the pedals. After five kilometres I was starting to flag, but at last the road crested a final rise, and the view opened out over vast mountains, striated with ancient stone terraces, shouldering down into the clouds that cloaked the distant coastal plain and the warm waters of the Red Sea. The road carved across this mighty landscape, shadowing the disused railway line, twisting and traversing the sheer slopes, hugging the contours as it tracked a serpentine route towards the coast. I dismounted to mend my gears and fix the seat, and a gang of local boys on bikes stopped off to suggest I put more air in my back tyre and help to pump it up. As they cycled off cheerfully calling Ciao!, I took a deep breath of clear mountain air and followed, more slowly, into another world - of donkeys carrying kerosene, camels and goats tended by boys, of sheer hillside tented settlements, cobbled together from scraps of plastic, twigs and rubbish, which seemed deserted but proved to be occupied by women who could sense a camera from four miles away.

Thirty kilometres later I free-wheeled into the town of Nefasit, where laden camels sat like icebergs in the high street. I stopped for a bottle of warm Coca-Cola but a glance at my watch had me back on my bike. I flew down the next 30 kilometres through slopes clad in wild olive trees to the town of Ghinda, where I was brought to a halt by a sudden stretch of uphill road. Luckily a group of six-year-olds on their way back from school teamed together, laughing, to push. Lunch was goat stew served on a plate of Eritrean bread that also served as cutlery.

In the afternoon, my bicycle was a lot less comfortable. Although the ride so far had been easy, I was conscious that I had already lost plenty of altitude, and wasn't sure how long my downhill ride would last.

Twenty-five kilometres, as it turned out. After this the road flattened out, and then, after a long struggling ride against a mysterious headwind, curved up into ominously long uphill stretches. In the summer, this is one of the hottest places on the globe, but even in the winter the going was hard. I stopped at a roadside shack in the town of Dongola, less because I wanted a warm bottled drink and more because I just wanted to reshape my bum. By the time I cycled slowly into the port of Massawa, generously spread out by a town planner who certainly never had to travel by bike, I had fully lost confidence in this method of transport. I dumped it in the carpark of the first hotel I found and used the two hours of daylight left to explore on foot.

Though Asmara survived Eritrea's recent wars unscathed, Massawa was not so lucky. The carved wooden shutters and ancient buildings are scarred by bombs and bullets, and though there's talk of rebuilding this city, once called "the Pearl of the Red Sea", it seems an impossible dream.

If you have time, and money, the Dahlak Islands shelter some of the Red Sea's finest dive sites, but I was worried the scars left by my bicycle seat might attract sharks. The following day I was on a bus, my bike on the roof, on the road back to the capital.

The next night, I met the cyclist who'd warned me about daytime blow-outs and I told him I'd made it to Massawa. If I'd expected congratulations, I was disappointed. "Aha," he said. "But did you cycle back?"


Info: Jack Barker flew to Eritrea with Regional Air, who serve Asmara three  times a week from Nairobi.  Return fares are from $690US: Regional Air,, tel: +254 2 311623/311584.

Tickets for Regional Air can also be booked through British Airways (

Advisory: The Foreign Office does not advise against travelling to Asmara, or along the road to Massawa, though it does warn against travel to certain areas of Eritrea.



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