Cappuccino Africa : Eritrea’s capital Asmara never ceases to
Jack Barker cycles across Eritrea to Massawa on
the Red Sea - and has no regrets
FT.com site; Jun 04, 2004
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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, email@example.com, tel:
+254 2 311623/311584.
Regional Air can also be booked through British Airways (www.ba.com)
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.