I am back in Ethiopia for the fourth time. I love it here! I am not sure why but (apart from when in Addis) I feel utterly chilled whenever I am here. Ethiopia has stunning landscapes, friendly people, pretty decent food, and some amazing heritage sites. I have company this time, hubby and Jess have been persuaded to come along.
Landing in Addis it was the usual chaos. The terminal upgrade, due to complete last year, is late, and hubby and Jess looked pretty sceptical when I made them cross a muddy construction site to transfer to the domestic terminal rather than wait for the shuttle. Hubby blagged us an invite to the business lounge so we had coffee and then hopped on the flight to lalibela.
Lalibela is one of my favourite places in the world. A quiet village perched high in the hillls with some spectacular churches hewn our of the rock 900 years ago. Tourism has come to the region, but if you time your visit well, and also get up early you can largely see the main sites without any tourists, just the locals
We arrived around 11 and headed straight out to see the first cluster of churches. It’s lent, with Ethiopian Easter a week away (although it was good Friday on our calendar). As luck would have it, all the tour groups had already passed through, and we were treated to groups of smiley men praying melodically in every church, leaning on their sticks). I am not religious but I find services here both joyful and soothing, it is something in the tone of the sung prayers that chills me out instantly.
Rock hewn churches
We saw all the spectacular churches in the first cluster and wandered up the hill for an excellent injera biyenot and shiro wat lunch at the seven olives hotel in the shade of a tree. Fortified by a couple of cups of the excellent local buna (coffee), we headed back out to view the rest of the churches. By this time it was 3pm and it was hot and the tourists had all come back, so it was a slightly sticky and overcrowded afternoon. The highlight was scaring the pants of Jess as we walked through a 75m pitch black tunnel (said locally to be the literal hell).
I was delighted to see Bet Giorgis again – the most stunning of all of lalibela’s churches and the last one king lalibela built. However, it is less lovely with large groups of German tourists, which we were blessed with that day….so definitely worth visiting more than once if you can. We hiked back to hotel (it is good exercise at 2500m and up a steep hill – we had told our guide Melese that we weren’t tuktuk people everytime he suggested us getting one :-)).
I allowed everyone a luxurious hour break for a shower and a rest, and then we went to Ben abeba for dinner. It’s the most famous restaurant in lalibela given its weird architecture and nice view but the food was rubbish and the service was worse. So retired to our lovely hotel (the top 12) and had ginger tea on the terrace before passing out at 10pm
We got up at 5.30 and headed down to Bet Giorgis, wandering through town by the light of the moon watching the town wake up. We were the first tourists at the church (and only a couple arrived in the next half hour) so we had a blissfully quiet time enjoying the sounds of the men praying.
Wandering back to the hotel, we passed Golgotha church which was hosting a very well attended mass, with a few hundred devotees standing on the surrounding rocks. It was extraordinarily peaceful being surrounded by people listening to the prayers through the speakers. We hiked back up to our hotel for breakfast- marmalade and sweet Kita (homemade local bread kinda like a crumpet), eggs and coffee and enjoyed the astounding view out over the mountains.
Our plan for the day was to head 40km our of Lalibela to go to the Bilbilla market and also see some of the more ancient churches that predated Lalibela. Heading out past the town of Bilbilla, we passed hundreds of locals walking tens of kilometres to market, with chickens and goats and mules. It is the last big market day before Ethiopian Easter, so important to get all the shopping done. First stop, Yemrehenna kristos, a lovely chocolate box cave church about 1100 years old predating the churches at Lalibela. There are the eerie remains of pilgrims bones in the back of the cave. The priest and I have both aged since I saw him last but he is still smiling.
Returning to Bilbilla, we deviated for steep hike up the hill to a more ancient 5th century cave church Bilbilla Giorgis, famous for its holy honey. Locals come from miles around to be healed by the honey (made by bees in the walls of the monasteries) when modern medicine has failed them, and they apparently stay for months.
Saturday market at Bilbilla
Strolling down the hill into Bilbilla town, it was ram packed. The chicken market was hilarious, loads of people sitting under a tree holding my on to their chickens with no space to get through, let alone view the merchandise. We picked our way through trying not to stand on the heads of the chickens for sale. The spice, fruit, sugar and goat sections were equally hectic. The usual hierarchy applied, women and kids do chickens, younger men do goats and the old wizened ones sell the cows. The odd man was wandering around with an ancient Kalashnikov. The trend of the region is to adorn your jacket with buttons – it’s quite fetching.
We stopped for buna and injera biyenenot in a dirt hut in Bilbilla, the cups were washed in the corner in a bucket of river water, much to jess’s horror. I got bored of the Ethiopian reggae on the satellite tv so went and played outside with the friendly village kids who were pretending to be Messi and Ronaldo (football is the universal religion)
Lalibela was a bustling metropolis after Bilbilla, so we went to check out that market – more cows, goats and an impressive array of plastic Chinese shoes.
Climbing to Asheton Maryam
After a relaxing hour in the shade, we rattled out of lalibela in our aged minibus and picked our way through the potholes up to Asheton Maryam. At 3000m it has impressive views of the surrounding hills. We had to hike the last 800m of path and made it just before the rain started torrenting down. The priest had twinkly eyes and an impressive array of icons. We ran the path back down to the amusement of some local girls who chased me back to the van….
The return journey was somewhat perilous, the rain has turned the dirt to slippery mud and there were steep drop offs on both sides. We spent over an hour stuck behind a huge truck…..inching down the mountain side. In hindsight it would have been faster to run down
More dawn services
Another early morning start to head down to mass at Bet Medhane Alem and Bet Maryam, the last mass before Ethiopian easter Friday so it was very crowded but lovely. The atmosphere was somewhat ruined by a group of shouty Chinese tourists who were shoving their cameras in peoples faces and ignoring requests of the locals to stop taking pictures. I told a particularly shouty man to shhhhhh, and his guide sidled up to me afterwards to thank me for telling him off.
We resisted the urge to annoy the locals with our cameras and sat down at Bet Maryam and enjoyed the atmosphere, taking the odd picture but mostly playing with the local kids and watching the worshippers make rings out of woven palm. The ladies around us were lovely and we ended up amusing their daughters by taking photos of them and showing them to them…. at one point hubby looked like a kindergarten teacher surrounded by kids. Bliss!
Monastery of Nakuta Laab
After breakfast, more excellent kita and coffee, we made our way to the monastery of Nakuta Laab – the last king of lalibela. What the monastery lacked in architectural splendour it more than made up for with views out over the valleys. Mass was still underway, with the deacons translating the morning mass into Amharic. Lots of beautiful locals in white headscarf’s peacefully sitting in the sun, greeting us and their neighbours and enjoying the service. Quite lovely. It was a bit of a wrench to leave, but we are off to the Tigray so we said goodbye to Melese our guide and left for Mekele.
Lalibela, April 21, 2019
- Additional notes
- there are lots of nice basic hotels in lalibela – we stayed at toptwelve this time. About usd 50 per night
- Food is fine in lalibela but nothing amazing. Best to stick to local food. I like the view from Ben abeba but not enough to tolerate the shoddy service, below average food and highest prices in town. Seven olives and unique are better bets.
- Guides are easy to get – like last time we used the guy who picked us at the airport, we negotiated us 40-60 per day depending on the day length. Drivers and cars are extra, for a full full day rental it is about usd 100 (from 7.30-7.30). Our guide Melese was very good