Wish you were here on the Road (and Rail) show in Eritrea

//Wish you were here on the Road (and Rail) show in Eritrea

The bank headquarters building just outside the port gates of Massawa in Eritrea must have been an impressive and bustling sight in its hey-day.
Now it lies in ruins as crows fly between the empty arches of its broken windows and out through the remaining rafters of its roof.
The square in front would have been a pleasant oasis for traders to barter, or exchange gossip. A huge statue in the centre was surrounded by stone benches and little avenues of well-watered plants.
Now all is in ruins. An empty plinth stands in a sea of dust, and although the town still boasts the largest deep-water port in the Red Sea, trade – like the gardens – has virtually dried up.
A visiting cruise ship in these parts is a sight as rare as a well-nourished donkey and when I walked into the square from the Spirit of Adventure I was immediately surrounded by a gaggle of inquisitive urchins.
“Where you from? You from ship? You passenger?”
The response when they established I was from England was instantaneous and predictable.
Half a dozen children’s faces broke into broad smiles, showing gleaming teeth, and they competed among themselves to throw names at me.
“David Beckham, Stevie Gerrard, Wayne Rooney, Manchester United, Chelsea,” were the first to be mentioned, and I’ll forgive them for including Ronaldo and AC Milan among the list.
Poor they may be – the average income in this country which has been brought to its knees by war and famine is just $350 a year – but they still get the chance to watch football on TV, and wherever there is room in the street or any open space, they will be kicking a ball.
Even in the poorest of shanty towns out in the country, where the shacks are made of rusting corrugated iron sheets and flattened oil drums, children like these are dressed in replica football shirts with their heroes’ names on the back.
This is about as far from the usual cruise ship destination as it is possible to get. No duty-free shops, no stores selling watches, gold and silver jewelry, diamonds, Tanzanite (whatever that is) or even T-shirts and sunglasses.
One enterprising local had laid out a few items of faded basket-ware on a sheet at the corner of the square, and behind the bank was a half-ruined shop with sea-shells, drums and baskets, supervised by a rather hopeful vendor who expected to get $100 for every item and so far as I know failed to make a single sale.
So why were we here?
Apart from the fact that Massawa is on Spirit of Adventure’s route from the Mediterranean to the Far East, the sole reason for making a stop here was to send passengers on a two-hour journey up country on a steam train built when Eritrea was an Italian colony, and Mussolini’s greatest achievement was to make the trains run on time. Even in Africa.
Cruise director Neil Horrocks fell in love with steam as a boy riding the Romney Hythe and Dymchurch railway back home, and it was his determined obsession that had made this trip possible.
Our four-carriage train was hauled by Ansaldo, an engine built in Genoa in 1938, and it laboured asthmatically through the desert and the hills, pausing on the way to take on water delivered by road tanker.
The wooden seats were bone-hard and dusty. Specks of soot – and thorny twigs wrenched from the trackside – blew in through the glassless windows, and after an hour or so even the most diehard enthusiast would have agreed that the scenery was beginning to get monotonous.
But when we arrived at our destination, Mai Atal, we were greeted with bottles of ice-cold water, cups of hot sweet coffee . . . and pizzas (the Italian influence again) and everyone agreed it had been worth the effort.
We would have been happy to re-board the train – as Neil did, this time on the footplate – but we drove back to Massawa by mini-bus, leaving the remaining passengers from the ship to make the rail journey in the reverse direction.
Back in that dusty square outside the bank, I bumped into Antiques Roadshow art expert Clive Stewart-Lockhart, who was beginning to get exasperated. Not with the children, who were as delightful as ever, but with his inability to buy a drink.
“This is the only place on earth I have been unable to get a beer. I’m determined to find somewhere that will serve me.”
I watched him stride off behind the bank and past the $100 shop in search of the one bar reputed to accept US money.
When I saw him back on board later in the evening he was delighted to report mission accomplished.
And the experience had apparently been a memorable one. Not simply because had he been able to buy three beers for $5, and not just because the bar owner had whipped away a table from a group of his regular customers and ceremoniously wiped it with a wet rag for the benefit of his British guests.
But most bizarrely, as they sat there savouring their Asmara beers, the Antiques Roadshow team, which also included jewelry expert Ian Harris, glanced up at the television bolted to the wall and watched amazed as a news report broadcast the sale of a diamond being auctioned by Christies.
You need a real Spirit of Adventure to experience moments like these.

By | 2017-06-15T16:00:35+00:00 7 December 2009|Cruise Destinations|9 Comments

About the Author:

John Honeywell is a travel writer specialising in cruise ships and cruise travel. Winner of CLIA UK's Contribution to Cruise award 2017.


  1. jim 7 December 2009 at 7:33 pm - Reply

    Did you forget to take a camera with you?

  2. Bruce 7 December 2009 at 9:16 pm - Reply

    I visited Eritrea for 2 weeks in 1998. I spent most of it in Asmara, but made a side trip to Massawa and enjoyed it very much. The beer there is top notch, and people very nice. I hope that the rough time they are having now is soon over, aand they can get back to developing there wonderful country.

  3. Hank 7 December 2009 at 10:23 pm - Reply

    Why did you not go to the capital city Asmara, i really hope you did’nt missed that, it’s the most beatiful city in Africa. its clean and the people are very polite.

  4. Simon 8 December 2009 at 6:50 am - Reply

    I concur with Hank
    Here is a very good virtual guide of the place.

  5. John Honeywell 8 December 2009 at 8:29 am - Reply

    Limited Internet access from the ship makes it difficult to upload pictures. Look for some when I get back to the UK at the weekend

  6. John Honeywell 8 December 2009 at 8:30 am - Reply

    Time did not allow us to travel to Asmara. We were in port at Massawa for just 24 hours. Maybe another time

  7. Dan 8 December 2009 at 10:03 am - Reply

    I’m glad to have visited our lovely country. The Eritrean people are hardworking and polite. Business in Massawa, the second biggest city in Eritrea, would have been different if the Dictator was not ruling with his imported command economy.
    In a country where its people are subjected for a bread a day per head and the impossibilities finding a beer is imaginable.
    Hope the bitter taste of Eritrea’s’ life will encourage you to fight not for accessible beer but for the freedom of the people.

  8. simon 8 December 2009 at 11:06 am - Reply

    Nice article. Well said, its about time that someone says something true about the hospitability of the Eritrean people towards outsiders.
    Proud to be Eritrean.

  9. Bruce 8 December 2009 at 2:38 pm - Reply

    I forgot to include the link to the pictures from my visit in 1998.
    I was there as a tourist, and found everyone to be very friendly. I loved Asmara, and would love to return some day.

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