Simien Mountains

The Simien Mountains national park is home to Ethiopia’s tallest mountain (Ras Dejen -4,533m). Its dramatic peaks, sharp precipices and valleys lend it the nickname of Africa’s Grand Canyon. Dotted around this vast mountain range are pockets of stunning endemic species such as the Gelada baboon, Wahlia ibex (mountain goat) and the Simien fox. I was extremely lucky to see all three!!

Early on a December Sunday morning we made our through Gondar to Debark (95km journey). Leaving the historic Gondar we passed felasha villages, herdsmen and their cattle and in no time the mountains emerged before us. The smooth tarmac led us all the way to Debark where we got our park ranger and guide. The rest of the journey from Debark to the lodge was uncomfortable. Partly because of the bumpy moutainous road littered with loose stones, but  mostly due to sharing the vehicle with a man wielding a very big gun *shudders* – with each bump I exhaled a prayer.  We stayed at the Simien Lodge and got our own tukel/gojo/hut for one night. 

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My amazing two month stay in Bahir Dar

I spent almost two months in Bahir Dar, Ethiopia towards the end of 2015 as part of my medical elective. It is a beautiful city – the capital of Amhara (one of the regions/states in Ethiopia). The source of the blue Nile; beautiful Lake Tana is the big tourist draw. The lake is inhabited by island monasteries, papyrus boats and hippos.

Another tourist attraction is the Tis Abay (something smoke) – the blue Nile falls. I was there during the dry season and despite it still being impressive it is a drier browner shadow of its full glory. Coffee is big here… and you will have the best coffee in your life in this country. I promise you. My two favourite spots in the city was; Wude Coffee (coffee is Boona in Amharic so aka Wude Boona) and Karibu Café which was right next to where I lived. The morning macchiato and bombolino (doughnut) was nothing short of bliss.

The hub of the city is Saint George’s church which is Ethiopian orthodox. It has a lovely courtyard where for some reason the hustle and noise of outside fades away, allowing for a moment of shade, serenity and reflection before heading out again to the busy heart of the city.

Gondar

Gondar is known as Africa’s Camelot because of its impressive castles. It was the capital of Ethiopia and the residence of its kings and queens. Our tour of Gondar started at a church. However this is not just any church, Debra Birhan Selaisse is an UNESCO world heritage site. According to local legend the vibrant paintings and murals found inside the church are the work of one monk – taking him four years to complete. The murals are extensive: the faces of hundreds of angels line the ceiling, biblical stories are depicted weaving across the walls.

Continuing our tour of the old city we got to King Fasilidas bathLarger than an Olympic sized swimming pool this bath belonged to the royal family until the 1930s when Emperor Haile Selaisse donated it to the church. Now it is only filled for the Epiphany which occurs on January 19th every year. The water is blessed by the bishop after an all night prayer/celebration. Once the bishop’s cross touches the water it is blessed and becomes holy water. The people jump in and swim or they are splashed with holy water by a deacon.

The first of Gondar’s castles were built by Emperor Fasilidas in 1635 when he decided to make Gondar the capital of his empire. His son and grandson also built castles and the royal enclosure of this medical city grew. The royal enclosure is a huge compound with numerous castles, stables and a lion’s den. Ethiopia was never colonised setting it apart from other African countries. However for a brief period during the second world war the Italians occupied Gondar and set up base within the medieval city.

Lalibela

Driving up from the airport to the holy city of Lalibela was – you guessed it – another mountain road. Stunning sandy mountainous landscape. The roads were very good most of the way. The presence of new investment from the chinese was heavily felt. We drove past a resettlement village where people who lived around the churches had moved to. Lalibela formerly known as Roha was renamed to Lalibela (meaning honey eater) after the king that ordered the construction of the churches following a divine visitation is a site of pilgrimage for Ethiopian christians. Ethiopia was one of the first countries to adopt christianity and has been christian since the time of the apostles.

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Arrived at the town and hotel – Top Twelve – gorgeous affordable hotel. The manager was lovely, thanks to our hookup Zena from Bahir Dar. The room had views to die for and I had my first scorching hot shower in days – hallelujah! Food in Lali was also on point owing to the fact that it is a hot destination for tourists in Ethiopia, western comforts are quite well catered for. I think it would be an excellent location for a spa retreat with its views, seclusion and spiritual ambience. The conundrum obviously being that we do not want this magical ancient holy site to become drowned out by our fleeting modern fancies.

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Lalibela. St George Church (Beta Giyorgis)
Overhead view of rock hewn church in Lalibela. The Church of Saint George (Amharic: Bete Giyorgis) is one of eleven rock-hewn monolithic churches in Lalibela

The story of Lalibela: one of the four priest kings of the Zagwe dynasty (King Lalibela) built he extraordinary rock hewn churches found in the town that now bears his name.  The story goes that King Lalibela was instructed by an angel with the word of God to build a new Jerusalem. Hence the construction of the impressive monolith rock hewn churches. Local legend says that for each hour they people of Roha worked the angels came at night and doubled the work. The insides of the churches were carved out from the outside in.

A UNESCO world heritage site, huge steel struts hold up canopies protect some of the churches from nature’s wear. Navigating through the churches involves secret passages, tunnels, steps smoothed by the soles of millions of saints that have visited in years gone.

Lalibela. Church of St (Bet) Emmanuel
Lalibela. Church of St (Bet) Emmanuel
Lalibela. Church of St Emmanuel
Lalibela. Church of St Emmanuel

Lalibela was the last stop on my tour and it was a perfect pause. Time for reflection and prayer. My amazing week of travelling culminated with an 8 hour road trip through the mountains of northern Ethiopia with two old Russian men blaring American country music. No better way to end my surreal experience of this beautiful country. As I write this I am transported back Ethiopia’s mysery continues to enthrall me. I cannot wait to return as a honorary habesha.

Favourite places to eat in Ethiopia

Food is our common ground isn’t it? In Ethiopia the food was unlike anything I’d ever had before. And I loved it. As it is in almost every African cuisine there was the obligatory heavy starch meal called gamfo (like fufu). However more important are the country’s staples – injera and of course coffee. Injera is best described as a sour pancake and is usually eaten with shiro, which is a mix if chickpeas, onions, spices etc. Especially during fasting where dairy and meat are forbidden, shiro and injera becomes the staple. Food is seamlessly woven into Ethiopian culture and tradition.

1. Gondar – Four Sisters restaurant

http://thefoursistersrestaurant.com

Five stars on TripAdvisor tells you pretty much everything you need to know about this knockout restaurant. Start by four sisters – hence the name. The unassuming entrance leads way to an open lilac oasis in the middle of Gondar.

On the menu as National Food I recommend you share this with someone else or two only you’d like to tackle this beast yourself then go right ahead. This was the best injera I had during my time in Ethiopia which is saying a lot, I recommend it.

This is Ethiopia after all, so of course coffee is on the table. The origin of our favourite caffeinated beverage. Make sure you take part in the spiritual experience of the coffee ceremony. The smell of roasted coffee beans and incense …I also got asked to bless the roasting beans which was a nice touch.

2. Lalibela – Ben Abeba

http://www.benabeba.com/lalibela/Home.html

The rock hewn churches (a UNESCO world heritage site) of Lalibela bring tourists to this humble village in the mountains of Amhara.  If you’re looking for a great place to eat and amazing views then Ben Abeba is for you. Have dinner and watch the sun set.

It was a bit chilly that evening but the local gin and lemonade cocktail warmed us up nicely. We were so hungry we ate the food before taking any photos 😦 I know I failed as a millennial. But it was injera again, this time I got Doro Whet (?sp) my favourite Ethiopian dish with chicken, spices, onions and just yum. I hope my sparse descriptions suffice. After dinner we had some cake and I opted for tea this time.

Although there were more than two restaurant in which I had great food these were the stand out ones. And without sounding contrived, I had the best food and experiences in the homes of welcoming hosts who took in a plucky student on her elective.

Insel Mainau

The island that love built. The island of Insel Manau is just as beautiful as the story behind how this very small island on the Bodensee (lake Constance) became a glorious garden that at times makes you feel like you’ve stepped into Atlantis. Ok brace yourself for possible the most beautiful post on this blog yet. The boat journey from Konstanz to Insel Mainau was lovely although it was quite cloudy when we set off – that did not spoil the view at all. The captain was awesome letting me steer and take a ridiculously narcissistic amount of selfies.

We first arrived at Meersburg before getting another boat to Insel Mainau (no captain Luis this time unfortunately). Meersburg is a charming old town with vineyards braided across its steep hills. Insel Mainau is an island on Lake Constance and it is essentially a garden island owned by the Swedish royal family.

There is a little love story to the lovely garden island on Insel Mainau.Long story short, the crowned prince of Sweden – Bernadotte in 1932 married a commoner Karin Nisswandt so lost his entitlement to the Swedish throne. Later the same year Bernadotte and his wife moved to the Mainau (which was owned at that time by the swedish royal family) and began to reshape it. The island would be a great for a wedding.

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