Since its establishment in the 19th century, Addis Ababa (አዲስ አበባ) has always seemed like a magical portal, a gateway to another world. For the rural masses of Ethiopia it was, and is, a city whose streets are paved in gold; and for a foreign visitor, the portal of Addis Ababa is at the verge of an ancient and mystical world.
Southern Ethiopia is a canvas ripped in two. Its landscape is being torn apart by the Great Rift Valley, leaving a trail of lakes where you can go see crocodiles, hippos and birds – or just drink in the scenery from you hotel. Move east and the Bale Mountains offer rewarding treks across a plateau amid Afro-alpine plants and rare wildlife.
It’s not what Gonder is, but what Gonder was that’s so enthralling. The city lies in a bowl of hills where tall trees shelter tin-roofed stone houses, but rising above these, and standing proud through the centuries, are the walls of castles bathed in blood and painted in the pomp of royalty.
World Heritage–listed Harar is a place apart. With its 368 alleyways squeezed into just 1 sq km, it’s more reminiscent of Fez in Morocco than any other city in the Horn. Its countless mosques and shrines, animated markets, crumbling walls and charming people will make you feel as if you’ve floated right out of the 21st century.
I am weary of writing more about these buildings, because it seems to me that I shall not be believed if I write more…but swear I by God in Whose power I am, that all that is written is the truth, and there is much more than what I have written, and I have left it that they may not tax me with its being falsehood.
Some people like to describe Bahir Dar as the Ethiopian Riviera. The moniker sounds strange, but when you pull into town and see the wide streets shaded by palm trees and sweeping views across Lake Tana’s shimmering blue waters, you’ll understand. In the 16th and 17th centuries, various temporary Ethiopian capitals were established in the vicinity of Lake Tana.
The relaxing and rapidly expanding university city of Mekele, Tigray’s capital, owes its importance to Emperor Yohannes IV, who made it his capital in the late 19th century. Though hardly anyone comes to see the town itself, most travellers enjoy killing time waiting for their Danakil tour to depart.
Western Ethiopia is undisturbed and seldom visited, yet it’s one of the most beautiful regions in Ethiopia. Rain forests, coffee plantations and muddy agricultural towns share the landscape with savannah grasslands, wildlife-infested swamps and high plateaus carpeted in fields of tef (an indigenous grass cultivated as a cereal).
Arba Minch is two cities in one. Its dual settlements of Shecha and Sikela, separated by 3km of virtual no-man’s land, have distinct personalities. Larger Sikela is more commercial and chaotic than her ever-so-slightly more refined sibling up the hill. Shecha also offers fantastic views over the lakes.
Rock-hewn Churches of Tigray
The landscapes of northern Tigray are almost fairytale-like. The luminous light bathes scattered sharp peaks that rise high into the sky out of a sandy, rolling semidesert. The stratified plateaus, particularly between Dugem and Megab in the Gheralta region lead to inevitable comparisons with the USA’s desert southwest.
The fourth-most populous city in Ethiopia, Dire Dawa usually elicits strong reactions. We think its colourful storefront, tree-lined streets, neat squares, and foreign influence (look for Arab, French, Italian and Greek styles in some of the architecture and design) are a refreshing change from the filthy disorder and lack of character in most Ethiopian towns.