Located about 60 miles west of the capital city, on the coast, and gateway to the Dahlak Archipelago, Eritrea’s old capital Massawa is different in every sense – climatically and geographically speaking – from Asmara.
Whilst the two cities are geographically close, they are separated by a 2,500-metre escarpment and connected by a dizzying road of hair pin bends. The views are spectacular and certainly not something to miss out on. The land after the rains are lush green. The trip is marked by a series of historical sites. Chief among these is Debre Bizen monastery, set high on a mountain, and which, legend has it, was moved here in order to get away from the distraction of women’s faces. The wildlife, particularly for birders, is spectacular.
Despite being an ideal stopover for travellers who are visiting the islands beyond, Massawa in its own right is a beautiful town worth spending time in. It has played a role as an important port – central to the trade of goods from spices to giraffes to slaves – in the history of many empires, kingdoms and sultanates over the last few thousand years. The town’s appearance, particularly its architecture, have parts that are reminiscent of Zanzibar’s Stone Town and parts like a Southern Italian province, a testament to the various peoples that have settled here over the centuries, including occupation by Ottoman Turks, Arabs, Portuguese, British and Italian.
Unfortunately, during the hostilities between Ethiopia and Eritrea, the old town was blanket bombed leaving only 10% intact, but some joint efforts by Eritrea and UNESCO to restore some of its buildings have taken place. Architecture of note includes the Sheikh Hanafi mosque built in the 15th century and the shrine of Sahaba, as well as several houses made from coral-block. Built later on, the Imperial Palace, St. Mary’s Cathedral, and the 1920s Bank of Italy are also worth a visit. Massawa. Like the capital city, is very safe day or night and impromptu walks can be a good way to see the city, slow down, talk to the locals and go for a drink, whether for coffee or alcohol.
The main downfalls to Massawa are twofold: Firstly, the quality of accommodation, which is very basic and not at all the same standard as some of those in Asmara, though some optimistic and brave travellers will, no doubt, revel in the various trials and tribulations travelling here necessarily entails. Secondly, Massawa is very hot, with temperatures averaging 30°C, with highs of 47°C. However, don’t let either put you off: Massawa is beautiful, and it possesses a genuine wonder in the Dahlak Archipelago.