AFTER two decades at war with its neighbour, Eritrea is opening up for foreign travel. And seizing the moment is Steppes Travel, which has just announced an 11-night trip of this little-visited country on the Horn of Africa. The trip, departing on October 18, is classed as an exploratory tour because it represents new territory for Steppes. Illona Cross, one of the company’s African experts, will lead this inaugural journey along with local guides.
Eritrea declared independence from its neighbour Ethiopia in 1993 but the countries were at war from 1998 until 2000 and it was only last month that their respective leaders met to sign a peace deal and open their borders.
The Steppes tour begins in capital Asmara and will stick to areas deemed safe to travel by the Foreign Office. Asmara was rebuilt by Benito Mussolini in the 1930s and boasts Italian art deco restaurants and churches. Indeed, the Italian fascist leader referred to the city as ‘Little Rome’.
‘While we’ll visit the Old Town to meet with artisans and craftsmen, it’s Asmara’s relaxed café culture that offers your best chance to mix with locals,’ says Cross.
After Asmara there’s a madcap camel market in second city Keren and then a visit to Qohaito and its mountainside temple ruins from the Kingdom of Aksum, which prospered across the Horn of Africa almost two millennia ago.
In between comes Eritrea’s coastline. Massawa is an atmospheric port combining Ottoman-style buildings and wooden Zanzibari-style doors still bearing war wounds, while the Dahlak Archipelago, which you’ll cruise around for two days, does a great impression of Zanzibar itself with its coral reefs, blanched beaches and scuba diving among dolphins and whale sharks.
One possible addition is a colonial-era steam train back to Asmara. As this isn’t a scheduled service, availability can’t be confirmed until nearer to departure — but the chances are good. This business with the train emphasises the need to be flexible with your expectations.
‘We’re going to Eritrea in search of an original and enriching experience, not golden taps or luxury linen,’ says Cross. ‘As with any “opening up” region, we need to be ready for every eventuality — and always with a positive attitude.’
■ From £2,995pp full board, including all transport and permits, steppestravel.com
A family affair
STEPPES managing director Justin Wateridge (above) visited Eritrea just over 20 years ago to lead tours and follow in family footsteps. His grandfather had lived in Asmara and was often to be found at the now long-gone golf club. Besotted ever since, Wateridge still names Asmara as his favourite African capital.