"My car is 38 years old," our taxi driver remarked casually as we passed beneath a banner proclaiming "Welcome to Free Eritrea" strung across the road from the airport to Asmara city. It is hardly surprising that in Eritrea cars, and much else, are coaxed into longevity. The country is far from wealthy, and the 30-year war of independence which ended barely four years ago has certainly left its mark.
When you reach Eritrea's capital, home to 300,000 people, the best plan is to head for the creakily colonial Keren Hotel in the city centre. Built by the Italians 100 years ago, when European powers were digging deep into Africa, it is a good base for travellers.
What many travellers may not be aware of is how saturated this country has been by colonialism. During this century alone, the Eritreans have had to put up with a string of foreigners. After the Italians came the British (1941-52), followed by the Ethiopians (1952-91) - and Eritrea still seems to be reeling from the aftermath of their occupation. But as far as visitors are concerned, there are distinct plus-points in the cultural mix that has resulted; Asmara has splendid Catholic and Coptic cathedrals as well as several mosques.
Eritrea's capital, though, is not a place for those seeking life's little luxuries. Hotels tend to be basic, and even if you have a television in your room, the TV service operates only a few evenings a week. Asmara, however, offers something else - an overwhelmingly friendly people and the opportunity to break new ground.
The city's main street, Liberation Avenue, could have been transplanted from southern Italy. Cafe society flourishes. Although the main languages are Arabic and Tigrinya, older Eritreans speak Italian and English and younger folk are keen to try out European tongues. So be prepared for plenty of conversation.
Markets selling most things from vegetables and silverware are within walking distance of Vittoria's, a cafe noted for its pastries and coffee. Eritreans are formal people and there is much hand-shaking in such establishments - not to mention a politeness which harks back to Britain's own post-war days.
Asmara stands about 8,000ft above sea level. The climate is hot but not unbearable, although it may take a day or so to get used to the altitude. When you have tired of exploring Asmara you should make for Massawa, the main port on the Red Sea. The drive down a hair-raising escarpment takes a couple of hours. On the coast it is very hot: between June and September the temperature reaches 45C with little fluctuation between day and night. Whatever the time of the year, aim to get to the coast early, swim and take advantage of Massawa's air-conditioned cafes to survive the noonday heat.
Another must is a visit to Keren, 55 miles from Asmara. The road winds through spectacular mountains. There is some hard surface, but sections of gravel and sand will test driving skills. Allow at least three hours each way. There are few villages on the way, but it is worth stopping at Adi Teclesan's cafe 25 miles from Asmara for a cold drink (straight from the bottle, since glasses seem to be unavailable).
Keren is surrounded by soaring peaks and has a distinct frontier feel. The only Westerners you are likely to encounter are the German or Scandinavian aid workers in Areggai's restaurant, which serves good pasta. A government co-operative growing fruit and vegetables has been re-established nearby in an area where some of the war's crucial battles were fought. Today, peace prevails and camels and goats feed on roadside scrub.
Away from the main centres you may meet people in uniform toting rifles. Do not be alarmed: they are soldiers ("fighters" as they are called in Eritrea) and many of them were anxious to engage in conversation with us. About a third of the "fighters" are women, whose role in society has been transformed by the conflict. Two of the provisional government's ministers are women; one heads the justice department with responsibilities equal to those of Britain's Home Secretary - and with a civil service to match.
This touches one entertaining theme running through life in Eritrea: the way the detritus of colonialism survives in an environment many would regard as alien. More entrancing still is the gentle manner and endless courtesy of a people a long way from being spoilt by tourism. Get there while smiles last.
Eritrea: a crammer's guide
STA Travel (0171-937 9962) has a fare to Asmara of pounds 430 on Egyptair via Cairo, and pounds 590 on Lufthansa via Frankfurt. Both these fares are available to all, and include tax. The Lufthansa fare applies from Birmingham and Manchester as well as Heathrow.
The local currency is the birr, which exchanges at about eight to the pound. US dollars in cash are most acceptable; sterling travellers' cheques can be cashed at branches of the Commercial Bank of Eritrea.
A double room at the Keren Hotel costs pounds 12 a night. The top-of-the-range Salem Hotel charges pounds 42 for a double.
Menus in most of the restaurants tend to be somewhat uniform, offering soup, pasta or chicken, plus fruit - meals are remarkably cheap at the equivalent of pounds 3-pounds 5 a head.
Car hire is expensive. A trip from Asmara to Keren will set you back about pounds 40. And it is worth hiring a driver to enable you to enjoy the stunning scenery and learn something of the country's history at first hand.
Conversely, taxis are cheap: airport to Asmara centre costs around pounds 6.
The Eritrean Tour Service (61 Liberty Avenue, Asmara) offers helpful advice if you feel the urge to get off the beaten track or simply go sightseeing in the city.
A visa costs pounds 30 and is obtainable from the Eritrean Embassy, 96 White Lion Street, London Nl 9PF (0171-713 0096).Reuse content