Outside Terminal 2 at Dubai International Airport at 1am for my early morning flight to Asmara, the capital of Eritrea.
And through to the Marharba lounge after passing through immigration and security.
This morning's fight was a simple direct flight on Flydubai (FZ) from Dubai (DXB) to Asmara (ASM). With it's relative close proximity to Dubai I had been wanting to visit Eritrea for quite a while. A few years ago when I was looking at ways to get there, there was only the choice of flying via Cairo on EgyptAir (MS) for ~$1000, or on infrequent direct flights on Eritrean Airlines (B8) for ~$600. In 2014 both Turkish Airlines (TK) and Qatar Airways (QR) started up flights to Asmara for ~$600 from Dubai. Then Flydubai (FZ) started flying to Asmara and I managed to get a return ticket for $220 during one of their frequent sales.
Waiting at the gates before boarding the bus to the plane. I had managed to get a few hours sleep at home prior so wasn't too tired despite the very early hour.
And boarding our flight just after 3am. The flight was mostly Eritreans and a handful of Italians.
The Captain going through his pre-flight paperwork in the cockpit.
Luckily the flight was only ~50% full and I managed to find an empty row of seats at the rear soon after take-off to catch a few winks on the 3.5 hour flight to Asmara.
Approaching Jeddah 2 hours into the flight before turning south to avoid Yemeni airspace.
Flying over the Eritrean highlands as we descend into Asmara as dawn breaks. Asmara is situated at an elevation of 2,325 metres (7,628 ft). Eritrea would also be 100th country visited and my 27th and halfway to all 54 countries in Africa.
After catching the bus to the airport terminal I headed to the visa office with my approval letter, filled out an arrival form and handed over $70 for my visa on arrival. A visa for Eritrea can be notoriously difficult to get and another traveller, Chris Guillebeau, had been stumped in his attempt to visit every country in the world and was immediately deported after pleading for a visa at the very same visa office after arriving on a flight from Cairo back in 2012. I was slightly paranoid and nervous that there would be some kind of hiccup, but luckily everything went smoothly however and had my visa in hand after a 20 minute wait.
I then headed through to meet up with Dr. Kahsai, the owner/manager of Damera Tours, whom I had been corresponding with to organise my trip and visa. My three day/four night tour cost 590 euro's and included hotels, car and guide for Asmara and to Keren and Massawa, airport pickup/dropoff and my visa on arrival pre-approval. Based on my memorable experience in Eritrea I can definitely recommend Damera Tours for others too.
After being introduced to Mehritab, my guide and driver for the next three days, we drove into Asmara to the Sunshine Hotel.
After checking me in, Mehritab said he was off to get our travel permit, required for all tourists outside of Asmara, to Keren and Massawa and would be back in 2 hours.
The view from my balcony onto the street below. After a bit of a rest and a quick shower, I headed downstairs to the hotel restaurant to have some breakfast.
A delightful cappuccino to start.
Followed by a tasty omelette, toast and orange juice.
I then headed out with my camera for a bit of a walk.
After walking back to the hotel, I met up with Mehritab again, who now had my travel permit now in hand. We then went for the short drive to the Fiat Tagliero Building.
Designed by the Italian architect Giuseppe Pettazzi and completed in 1938, the building resembles an aeroplane with a pair of 30m cantilevered wings.
Local authorities at the time insisted that the wings be supported by pillars, but luckily they were eventually removed and the wings held, just as they are today.
The nearby Irga Garage building, constructed in 1961 and designed by Carlo Mazzetti.
Mussolini had inherited the Italian colony of Eritrea from the European “scramble for Africa” that began in the 1890's.
Asmara became the centre for Mussolini's new Roman Empire and called the city “La Piccola Roma” – Africa’s little Rome. Mussolini encouraged Italian architects and engineers to transform Asmara into an urban utopia, full of cinemas, cafés, bicycles and sycamore trees. Unrestrained by European norms, Italian architects turned Asmara into an unlikely playground for futurist architecture.
The distinctive "Bar Zilli" which imitates a wireless radio set with windows like tuning knobs.
Cinema Roma on Martyrs Avenue, built in 1937.
The lively café inside.
The original projector.
A young couple enjoying some conversation with photos of classic Hollywood stars on the walls behind.
The original 1930's interior made for a beautiful place to enjoy an espresso or capuccino.
Mussolini's grand plans for an African empire with Asmara as the capital crumbled with World War II. British forces overran the Italians and Asmara's architectural experiment came to an end.
Asmara is now one of the world's major centres for Art Deco with around 400 buildings constructed during the years of Italian colonial rule.
The Asmara Opera Building, designed by Odoardo Cavagnari and built in 1918.
Like Cinema Roma, there was a café in the foyer.
We then walked down the palm tree lined Martyrs Avenue. Asmara is often touted as the most beautiful city in Africa and from my short stroll so far I could definitely see why.
The former Fascist Party headquarters, with a facade shaped like a giant 'F', and now houses Eritrea's Education Ministry.
Asmara has also been likened to Havana, another city whose architectural style that has also stood relatively still since the 1959 Cuban revolution.
St. Joseph's Cathedral, built in 1922 by the colonial authorities. An estimated 50% of Eritreans are Christian.
The stylish Cinema Impero, designed by architect Mario Messin and built in 1937, it is considered to be one of the world's finest examples of Art Déco style architecture.
At about 11am we headed to the café La Dolce Vita for morning coffee with Dr. Kahsai.
Dr. Kahsai is a former pilot, and part of his business is organising foreign aircraft mechanics to fix and maintain Eritrean helicopters and planes. He said when he has a tourist coming, he puts their visa application in with the mechanics, and hence my visa only took just over 2 weeks to approve, versus the typical 6+ weeks for others.
It was also November 10th and less than 24 hours since billionaire and former reality TV star Donald Trump had been elected as the leader of the free world, so we had some very interesting conversation over cappuccinos and croissants.
Myself and Mehritab then continued the tour of Asmara. The Art Déco styled (and currently dry) Mai Jah Jah Fountain.
A statue of Alexander Pushkin, considered to be the greatest Russian poet and the founder of modern Russian literature. Pushkin was also one-eighth Eritrean.
The old Italian-era markets. Italy actively encouraged emigration to Eritrea and by 1939 over half of Asmara’s population was Italian. During the Italian colonisation, racial segregation laws forbid native Eritreans from entering this part of Asmara.
Indoor markets which were originally off limits to Eritreans during the Italian colonial era.
We then continued our walk through the city centre. Italians in Eritrea began to move away after the defeat by the Allies during World War II, and by 1949 Asmara had only 17,183 Italian Eritreans remaining.
The Great Mosque of Asmara, built by the Italians in 1938 on the initiative of Benito Mussolini to impress the Muslim population, who make up 48% of Eritrea's population. Designed by Gudo Ferrazza, the mosque is a blend of both Italan and Islamic architectural styles.
A pair of old Fiat's on the street.
A public bus, originally from Milan, with the logo of Azienda Trasporti Milanesi (ATM) on its side.
The very grand and colourful Enda Mariam Coptic Cathedral, built in 1938. Above the two wooden doors are mosaic's showing religious scenes by the Italian painter Nenne Sanguineti Poggi.
A small two door Italian car.
Religious books and trinkets.
Horse & Cart.
At a mill where the locals would take their newly purchased grain to be turned into flour.
Traditional Eritrean dresses.
At about 1pm we went to pick up Mehritab's son from school.
His son eagerly giving me a tour through his school! The main language of instruction at the school was Italian and alot of the teachers were from Italy.
A map of Africa and Italy side by side.
The kids piling onto the buses for the ride home.
At Mehritab's house with Donald Trump's surprise election as President of the United States dominating the news on the BBC.
We then went back into the city to a local restaurant and had some injera bread, a national dish in Eritrea and Ethiopia, along with some spicy fish stew and salad.
I also exchanged some US dollars for Eritrean nakfa. The official (and pegged) exchange rate is about 15 Nakfa to the US dollar, although the black market rate is quite a bit more.
Our next and final stop before heading to Keren was Medeber metal workshop and market.
At the market scrap metal is recycled and transformed into new objects.
Mehritab said that the government had exempt the markets from any taxation to encourage the recycling of the scrap into new uses.
And a very photogenic gentleman who kindly obliged when I asked to take his portrait.
At about 3pm we then begun the drive north out of Asmara to Keren, the second-largest city in Eritrea.
The plan for the next three days was to head to Keren for one night, then return to Asmara before driving east to the port city of Massawa, before returning to Asmara the following day.
A mural on the side of the road, paying tribute to the Eritrean women who fought during the Eritrean War of Independence. Up to 30% of the Eritrean fighters in the war were women.
Crops in the valley below as we continued the drive north-west. During the war, massive numbers of trees were cut down by the Ethiopians, both for fuel and to reduce cover for the guerilla independence fighters.
A monument to the fighters killed during the 30 year war for independence from Ethiopia.
After the British conquered the Italians in Eritrea during World War II, Eritrea was made a British protectorate until 1951. Then in 1952, the UN decided to federate Eritrea to Ethiopia, hoping to reconcile Ethiopian claims of sovereignty and Eritrean aspirations for independence. In 1961 however, Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie dissolved the federation and annexed Eritrea, triggering the 30 year Eritrean War of Independence.
Stopping to admire the picturesque and very photogenic landscape.
A car and a bus making the journey back to Asmara from Keren.
An Ethiopian T-62 tank down a gulley beside the road. In the 1970's Ethiopia came under the influence of the Soviet Union after Emperor Haile Selassie was ousted in a coup by a Marxist military junta, and thereafter received significant Soviet support and supplies to battle the Eritrean People's Liberation Front during the Eritrean War of Independence.
Traditional huts in a small Eritrean village.
And on the outskirts of Keren just before 6pm with the sun now well below the horizon.
After handing over the necessary travel permit (as required for all tourists) at a checkpoint at the entrance to the city, we headed to the Keren Hotel for our one night stay.
The hotel had a roof top bar where we grabbed a bottle of Asmara beer each to relax after the long but eventful day.
Looking down on the street below.
The town was largely without power due to a black out so the only lights were from cars and buildings with generators.
Out for a walk in the (very dark) evening to find some dinner.
Where myself and Mehritab shared some injera again at Restaurant Fickri & Selam, this time with goat.
And back to the hotel just after 9pm at the end of a great first day in Eritrea.