Since it was established in the 19th century by Emperor Menelik, Addis has had the feel of a mystical portal to an ancient world. Addis Ababa, meaning ‘New Flower’ in Amharic, is sprawling, bustling, and blessed with an agreeable climate and cloudless blue skies for 75% of the year (it’s the 3rd highest capital in the world at 2400 metres). I didn’t go in with any expectations but was pleasantly surprised to find wide avenues, skyscrapers and a new, efficient metro/light rail system in certain parts of the city.
Perhaps what I was most surprised by was the warmth of the people I met. Given it is a big city and I was a tourist, I thought most people randomly approaching me would be out to trick, cheat or gain in someway. But I found them to be incredibly warm and helpful. I had a crew of friendly folk at a bus company ticket office who patiently helped me plan my complex land route to Lalibela (a 2 day journey!) and insisted I have coffee with them. A few words of Amharic go a long way to break the ice. Amasigahnahlo! (Thank you)
Addis and Food
“Stepping into Addis Ababa is like stepping into one giant food feast.”
Yod Abyssinia in Addis Ababa, albeit slightly touristy and more expensive, is a great place to experience the diverse flavours and culinary delights of Ethiopian cuisine at any time of day. I decided to be vegetarian while in the country, so opted for the Bayenetu – a collection of vegetarian dishes on injera (sourdough flat bread, reminiscent of a South Indian dosa) – some of which were quite spicy. From lentils to chickpeas, and spinach to mixed vegetables, I couldn’t stop until everything in front of me was wiped clean. I was there at 4:30pm for an early dinner but if you go later around 7:30-8pm, there are fantastic traditional dancers who perform – what a treat.
While a big variety of vegetarian dishes can sometimes be hard to come by in Ethiopia (they’re incredibly fond of meat) apart from shiro wat which will unfailingly be present, Wednesdays and Fridays are a special treat. A big proportion of Ethiopians are Orthodox Christians and are traditionally vegan on these (and special festival) days. The “fasting (vegetarian) menu” then comes out and you’re spoilt for choice. Heaven!
What food/drink can you buy for £5 in Addis Ababa?
ANSWER: £5.30 (200 Birr) at the Itegue Taitu Hotel gets you TWO delicious lunches at the vegan buffet which happens every day.
If you’re searching for delicious, vegetarian Ethiopian food, the Itegue Taitu Hotel has heard your prayers. This hotel, said to be the first in Ethiopia, hails all the way from 1905-06. The Ethiopian Empress Taitu Betul (wife of Emperor Menelik II) established this hotel as a place for foreign guests to eat and stay. The old world charm of the hotel hits you the moment you walk through its revolving wooden doors in the Italian precinct of Addis Ababa (Piazza). Side note: while Piazza may have interesting architecture – a legacy of the country’s Italian occupation – it’s a hotspot for petty theft.
I had several types of injera (brown, white, and another), four different types of chickpea, lentil, potatoes, cabbage and an array of salads. As usual, there were also the token pastas – comfort food if you’ve had your fill of injera. I only wished I could have eaten here everyday – easily among my top two food experiences in Ethiopia.
Shoe Cleaners. Every 25 metres. A ritual everyone indulges in.
Something that definitely caught my attention was the sheer number of shoe cleaners that were literally on every street in Addis Ababa. Armed with a plethora of tools, brushes, waxes and creams, they had chairs on the roadside for people to sit while getting their shoes sparkling clean. Everyone does it – on the way to work, in their lunch break, on the way home, while going out to shop. So I decided to try it too.
It only costed 4 birr ($0.14) and took about 5 minutes for the basic service. The guy uses his brush (chosen based on what shoe you are wearing) and then gives it a good rub – it almost felt like a gentle foot massage. And that’s when I understood why people liked it so much. A quick dose of relaxation and tranquility in the middle of a busy day. Plus you have clean shoes at the end of it. Why not?
The Red Terror Martyrs’ Memorial
A monument built for citizens martyred for their beliefs in the struggle for Ethiopian peoples’ human and democratic rights – a glimpse into the dark decade from 1977 to 1987 when Ethiopia was ruled by a military junta called the ‘Derg’.
While learning about the horrors of the fall of Emperor Haile Selassie I and life under the Derg regime (they took over after the Ethiopian revolution), I came across this picture. It is an illustration of ‘Wofelala’ – the typical torturing technique used by the Derg to break people’s will. It involved scrubbing the naked body of victims with rough wood, pulling out fingers and toes, pulling and stretching nipples of females, hanging heavy objects on male genitals, dipping limbs in very hot oil, forcing the victim to stand on hot iron plates or hanging the victim by the arms for a very long period of time. According to Amnesty International more than half a million people were slaughtered by the Derg – intellectuals, professionals and perceived opponents of socialism or the regime. They will always be remembered, never forgotten.
“As if I bore them all in one night, they slew them in a single night.”– Mother of four teenage children all killed on the same day by the Derg
Ethiopian Coffee Ceremonies
While institutions like Tomoca Coffee may be chic, have great ambience and be revered in Addis for their coffee, I found that coffee, or ‘bunna’ in Amharic, anywhere in Ethiopia is always roasted just right, brewed with care and a treat to drink. The coffee ceremony primarily exists to bring family, neighbours and other visitors together and is an age-old ritual of making and drinking coffee. You’ll often find loose scented grass spread on the floor where the ceremony takes place to symbolise abundance. A young woman in the household typically presides, and starts by roasting the coffee beans in a pan over a flame. The roasted beans are ground and put into a spherical pot with a pouring spout containing boiled water and are left on the fire until mixed well and the contents are brought to boil.
The coffee is then poured into small handleless cups and the coffee grounds are brewed again – a total of three times. It’s not polite to leave until you’ve had three of these small cups of coffee – one from each brew; the third brew is said to bestow a blessing.
Your spirit is meant to be transformed during the ceremony through the three rounds of coffee. And the fragrant frankincense that is burnt wafts around to clear the air of bad spirits. So not just delicious coffee but a cleanse for the soul too. What’s not to love?
Lalibela: The cradle of an ancient form of Christianity
Until I arrived in Lalibela, I had no idea that Christianity in Ethiopia went back all the way to the 4th century – making Ethiopia one of the oldest Christian kingdoms outside Europe. While versions may differ slightly, Christianity was brought to Ethiopia by two Syrians who came to Aksum to tell people about Jesus. They influenced the ruler of the kingdom, King Ezana, converted him, and immediately after in 341 AD the king decreed Christianity as the main faith in his kingdom.
Being cut off for several centuries from the wider Christian world by Islamic conquests to the north, the Ethiopian Christian Church flourished on its own, in isolation – not influenced by the disputes happening in Europe. So traditions here provide a glimpse into a more ancient and certainly more mystical form of Christianity.
In the 12th century, the Christian King Lalibela ordered the building of a second Jerusalem on Ethiopian soil when the original was captured in a 1187 AD raid by a Muslim faction. The result of his vision is 11 interconnected churches carved into the rose-gold mountain rocks and dug into the ground by hand—an extraordinary feat with angels that as legend has it, lent a hand. These churches are perfectly preserved today, both delicate and monumental, impossible to detect at a distance but utterly majestic up close. Well preserved, these centuries-old rock-hewn churches of Lalibela are Orthodox Christianity at its most raw and powerful.
I found the priests in Lalibela to be extremely simple people. Humility is the most fitting word that comes to mind when I think of their calm, peaceful nature. Living very simply, with very few possessions, there’s no pizzazz. Despite the language barrier, we managed to smile and interact with each other. People say you feel the vibrations of a place; there are certainly plenty of those here – ones that just make you feel at peace.
I reached Lalibela just in time for sunset on my first day. Long after the security guard had shooed away the last remaining stragglers, I found him standing atop this hill, looking fondly at the particular rock church he was guarding. It’s rare in this day and age to find someone so dedicated to their job – but here was a man who’d been here for several years and still loved it as if it was Day 1. When we spoke later, he shyly asked me for my email address. He said he’s collected email addresses of people he’s met from around the world, while proudly showing me his little notebook. Happily I obliged. I think I was the first half-Sri Lankan on the list – a fact that excited him. He had another country to now add to his count.
Walking through this amazing complex was like being in a completely different, mystical world. A glimpse into what life may have been like centuries ago. Extraordinary architecture, paintings and the soft chants of the white-robed pilgrims and priests made it an unforgettable experience. Together with the myriad tunnels, it’s effectively frozen 12th-13th century Ethiopia in stone. These churches are carved entirely out of rock and still function to this day!
On Sunday morning my alarm screeched at 4:45am. It was still pitch black. Forcing myself to get out of bed, I grabbed a torch and set off on a 25 minute walk to the churches of Lalibela in time for Sunday mass. Alongside me in the dark were several people wearing thin, white cotton robes walking noiselessly on the dirt roads, towards the church. As we got closer I could hear the chanting getting louder. As mass started, I quietly took my seat in the background, watching hundreds of these shrouded figures murmuring silently, with the priests chanting, as dawn broke in Lalibela. After daybreak I went exploring this mystical land. Here are my two favourite churches to visit at sunrise.
Bete Giyorgis, Lalibela | Church of St George
At sunset, this is the place to be in Lalibela. As the warm golden rays bounce off the ancient rock, you see the miracle that’s in front of you. One unbroken piece of stone, carved out of the ground, 40 feet down. While there are different versions of the church’s history, my favourite is where this was a promise made to St George by King Lalibela, since St George was upset the king hadn’t built a church dedicated to him. When I stood on top of the small hillock and saw the church from above with its roof forming the shape of a Greek cross and the panorama of the surrounding countryside with the flaming orange sky, I could feel the almost biblical atmosphere that is closely associated with this town. Two days flew by too quickly in Lalibela.
#TransportTips: Getting to Lalibela is a bit of a nightmare on public transport. Most people fly from Addis Ababa (approx 1hr), but I decided to take the cheaper overland option. This involved a 12 hour coach to Bahir Dar, leaving Addis Ababa at 4am. Having spent the night in Bahir Dar, I then took another 12 hour public bus the following morning at 4am to Lalibela.
Bahir Dar – the palm-fringed town at the edge of Lake Tana
It’s nicknamed the Ethiopian Rivera for the palm tree-lined boulevard lining the lake. Lake Tana is quite central to life in Bahir Dar. I enjoyed more delicious injera and a walk in Desset Lodge’s beautiful gardens that hug the lake and found many people who had come to watch the sun set while enjoying a lakeside drink.
There’s also a path to stroll by the water, where I was accosted by many a boat owner promising me the best rate for a ride to the waterfalls (I declined them all). Walk slightly further down and you’ll see a few local cafes where people just watch life go by. Still further and you’ll find teenage couples enjoying a private moment, ladies coming to wash clothes or boys taking a bath in the lake. I sadly was here just for the evening as a pitstop between Addis and Lalibela but could already feel the lakeside charm of this beautiful town.
The Ethiopian Macchiato
I was looking for a place to have coffee in Bahir Dar and stumbled upon a gem of a place: Wude Coffee. I’d heard a lot about the legendary macchiato so I got one and sat by the road-side tables and watched life go by. The king of milky coffee drinks here is the macchiato, as a result of the Italian influence in the early 20th century. For 8 birr ($0.30) you get a delicious brew with foamed milk at the top.
This was also where a concerned customer saw the rips in my shorts and kindly asked me if everything was okay and if anything had happened to me (while pointing at my shorts). I happily smiled back and reassured him all was okay – this was just how my shorts were. I could tell he didn’t quite know what to say. He quickly regained his composure and managed to blurt ‘I like your style.’ I didn’t really explain to him that I was intentionally wearing old clothes and nothing valuable to minimise my chances of getting mugged (after a horrific experience in Argentina), but just smiled in response.
Land transport in vast Ethiopia can take a long time
A big chunk of my time was spent on long-distance buses, getting from one part of the country to another. Ethiopia’s size meant most of my bus journeys were 10-12 hours long – and I had 5 of them: a total of 50+ hours on a bus!
Going on long-distance buses was a completely new experience for me. Unlike planes where a toilet was always present, here you relied on the driver deciding to make a pitstop (when it happened was never entirely clear). To make matters even more interesting, pitstops would often be just in the middle of the mountains – where people would run behind rocks and bushes to urinate or clear their bowels. It slowly dawned on me as to why the roadside boys selling Kleenex tissue packets were so popular now. So I developed a routine around when I ate and how much I drank starting from the night before to make sure that the bus journey was comfortable.
Most of the buses were long-distance coaches – that were clean, air conditioned (though the drivers were quite reluctant to switch this on for more than a few minutes at a time), often had an Ethiopian soap opera playing on the TV upfront and had many a plastic bag on your seat (I later discovered they were in case you felt motion sick).
Two of my journeys were on regular government buses and 10 hours in those is pretty excruciating. But I felt that these journeys made me see a whole other side to Ethiopia – from my window. I saw the changing terrains, the little towns and villages, enjoyed roadside coffees (all delicious) at many a pitstop, saw people from traders to pilgrims and even got acclimatised to the world of Ethiopian soap operas (which played on the main screen in the long distance buses).
✈️ The best Ethiopian travel tip I learnt was that you get heavily discounted domestic flights on Ethiopian Airlines when you book on their app, provided you have an international sector already booked with the airline. Definitely worth having your entry / exit flight on Ethiopian, if you plan to travel inside the country – it’s significantly cheaper this way to travel domestically! I unfortunately learnt this too late.
✈️ ATMs are only really prevalent in major towns – Ethiopia is still very much a cash-based economy (most mid-range hotels and restaurants accept only cash) – so carry plenty of cash, especially outside capital.
✈️ All mobile phones are operated by Ethio Telecom (who seem to have some kind of monopoly) with terrible connection, although this is improving.
✈️ A taxi from airport to Addis Ababa takes 20-30 mins and can be north of $10 (prices for foreigners are higher than for locals and quoted in USD) – I however discovered the Uber of Ethiopia (Zayride) which can be quite a bit cheaper than taking a regular taxi.