Places to Return to – Ethiopia

May 26, Castelsagrat, France

I am spending the bank holiday in our house in France.  Our second home here is in a wonderful sleepy village, surrounded by baking fields of sunflowers in the summertime, and the biggest thing that is likely to happen when we are here is a gathering of hearty eighty year olds on the village petanque field right outside our front door.   Coming here for a holiday is like putting on a warm and familiar pair of flannel pyjamas.  Our routines are comfortable and effortless, from popping down to get a morning croissant at the bakery, to driving to the local market town to see our butcher.    The smells, sights and experiences from here are clearly etched in my memories and bring me comfort even when I am not here.   It has made me think about places in the world I have visited that have left similar indelible impressions on me.  Places I felt incredibly comfortable and would like to go back to to spend some more time.  So, this week, I am going to share with you a few of the special places in the world that I can’t wait to (or already have) revisit (ed).  Amazing places which fed my soul (and most likely my belly), and that I would highly recommend you put on your to do list.   Today – Ethiopia!  There are lots and lots of things to do in Ethiopia, including hiking in the Simiens and seeing the Danakil Depression, but my favourite places are…..

visit Bet Giyorgis Church, Lalibela at Dawn

Lalibela is a relatively sleepy high altitude town surrounded by small mud hut villages with a surprising surfeit of ‘barack obama’ gift stores.   The town is famous for the most incredible rock hewn churches.  Unlike normal churches where rock is excavated and a church is built, here they have dug the churches out of the ground!  It is hard to describe without seeing them.  For those of you who have been to Petra, think that but 10 times more impressive.     I have vivid memories of visiting the church at 6am to hear the amazing chanting from the white robed monks.  The music was haunting, the smell from the incense pervasive, and sight of the worshippers in the dawn chill is indelibly etched on my brain.  Spend a few days in Lalibela to visit all the churches but also head out to Yemrehanna Kristos which is a beautiful chocolate box church in a cavern about an hour or so from Lalibela.  I loved Lalibela and can’t wait to go back (stayed at Tukul Village, picked up a decent guide on arrival at the airport)

Bet Giorgis from above
Bet Giorgis from above
Woman worshiping at Bet Giorgis (not allowed inside)
Woman worshiping at Bet Giorgis (not allowed inside)
Yemrehanna Kristos
Yemrehanna Kristos
Do the dawn procession in Axum

Axum is apparently the home of the Arc of the Covenant at the Cathedral of Tsion Maryam, though no one ever gets to see it.  Apparently it is so sacred only the guardian gets to see it, and that job passes down when the guardian dies.   The Cathedral is worth a visit but isn’t wildly interesting.  There are also some extremely famous stelae (pillars), which are mildly interesting and the reason most people come to town.    Axum town itself is a boring strip of poorly built glass and concrete buildings with none of the charm of Lalibela.  So, why come?  Two reasons, a) it is the gateway to the Tigrai – more on that later, and b) the Wednesday procession at dawn where pilgrims walk around town paying homage to the churches.   We joined in, (sporting the obligatory big white scarfs) and it was a wonderful experience……  (stayed at Sabean Hotel which was basic but fine, and hired a guide and driver from Dawit tours – travelcovenant@yahoo.com)

End of the dawn procession
End of the dawn procession
Climb to the monasteries in the Tigrai
  • If you have a head for heights and are comfortable rock climbing in bare feet, definitely hike up to Abuna Yemata.    I bowed out as am petrified of heights, but my feisty companion Tamara made it up with some rope and some help.
  • If you have a penis, definitely head to Debre Damo.  Again, this is a rope climbing effort, but sadly only men are allowed to visit (apparently women aren’t clean or holy enough)
  • I did make it to Debre Maryam Korkor, which was at 2,500 metres.  I thought I was climbing well until I was overtaken by three nuns who were in their seventies, bare foot, and carrying all their food and water – very humbling!!!!   While up there, pop round the corner to visit the monk at Abba Daniel Korkor (he had the most amazing face)
(Stay at Gheralta Lodge in the Hawzien region if you can penetrate their useless reservation system, we hired a driver and a guide as there is very little public transport anywhere in the Tigrai.  Dawit from covenant tours sorted this for us too)
Monk at Abba Daniel Korkor
The barefooted nuns overtaking me climbing to
The barefooted nuns overtaking me climbing to Debre Maryam Korkor
Some additional tips!
  • Apparently the attendants on Ethiopian are often asked if there will be food in Ethiopia.  Yes there definitely is food!  and the food is actually pretty good, provided you stick to the vegetarian.  The goat and the chickens were the toughest things I have ever eaten. However, injera (ethiopian bread made with teff) and vegetarian food is pretty delicious.  Favourites are shiro wat, kik wat and shira tegamino!
  • Addis is a crap hole!  the hotels are overpriced, its dirty, and the taxi drivers are what you would expect in Africa.  Get in, get out as fast as you can
  • The kids here have been ruined by overly generous foreigners.  If you stop your car in the middle of nowhere to pee, you will be overrun by kids within three minutes.  Pee quick!  Apparently kids don’t bother to go to school in some places as they don’t want to miss out on begging from foreigners
  • Ethiopia is extremely traditional.  Neither Fish nor Teddy (our driver and guide) thought women could drive a car.  After much persuasion Fish did let me take the 4wd for a spin around the desert and he was most impressed that I knew how to use reverse!  Ladies – keep your expectations for equality low!
Church Guardian Hawzien
Church Guardian Hawzien
Church Guardian
Church Guardian