Ethiopia. Just one mention of the place and people immediately think of famine and poor-taste jokes. I bring that up now just to get it out. The country has an image problem, but that’s in need of a change, and travel is the best way to change a false impression.
The capital of this East African country, Addis Ababa, is about as far from the stereotype as could be imagined, based on pre-conceived notions of famine and drought. At 2355 metres high, it’s Africa’s highest capital, loomed over by the Entoto Mountain Range that peaks at 3200 metres. It’s hardly surprising that at these elevations the landscape isn’t brown and dusty, but lush, green, verdant and wet.
Stereotypes firmly placed to one side, the next hurdle to jump is slightly harder to overcome — tourists will need to be fairly hard-nosed to enjoy Addis Ababa. The city is home to much poverty, and is in a fairly dishevelled state — a ‘fixer-upper’ would be a realtor’s description — but this needs to be accepted as part of the ‘Addis experience’. Taking a drive around town is a great way to see the city, but can take a long time as the roads are congested with the lives of its 4.5 million inhabitants.
To escape the traffic and settle into Ethiopian ways, a trip to a traditional restaurant is a first-night must-do. Ethiopian food is based around injera, which is a light, thin, rubbery flatbread that covers a large dish, upon which meats and vegetables are heaped. It’s eaten with your hands by tearing off chunks and scooping up whatever topping takes your fancy. Like a ravenous schoolboy I got my hands dirty and ate my fill, whilst being entertained by traditional Ethiopian musicians. The music is repetitive, but catchy, and by the time the water bowls were brought around I was well fed, covered in food, and ready for coffee, which is taken seriously in Ethiopia. At the entrance to most restaurants is the ‘coffee ceremony’ area, where you’ll usually find a young woman fanning a small pile of coals as she brews coffee. You sit on stools in front of her and watch her prepare sweet cups of black coffee. It can take a while, so tea drinkers may want to walk on by.
Back on the streets, Addis can be explored on foot and one of the major attractions is Merkato, the largest open-air market in Africa. Again, it’s a case of tourist beware, but I expect that by this point there’s no need for detail — if you’re the type of person who prefers package holidays and resort hotels, you’ve already decided against a weekend in Ethiopia. Merkato is a long way from a comfortable sun lounger with an energetic waiter on standby. It’s a long way from your average open-air market. It’s a bustling area with over 7000 businesses that mostly trade local products, especially coffee. And it’s a raw experience that groans with the weight of human consumerism at its basest level — everything imaginable is for sale, but little of your usual tourist tat. Just keep your valuables close and soak in the atmosphere.
For something more relaxing, and cultural, a trip up Mount Entoto will give you a bird’s eye view of Addis Ababa, whilst enabling you to tour Emperor Menelik II’s palace, which is atop the mountain and fully open for tourists to wander through. Don’t expect a Versaille-type structure; it’s more akin to a Tudor country cottage, but still fascinating to visit. On the way up and down you’ll see donkeys laden with wood headed for the city, and I was told by my guide that this is just collected off the ground as the trees are all protected. Looking at the bundles I had my doubts, but the mountains are well forested — and chilly, even in the summer.
To warm up, take a stroll around the city centre to see signs of the brief Italian occupation of Ethiopia, which took place between 1936 and 1941, when the country was liberated as part of Allied efforts in WWII. To this day, Italian culture is still seen in Ethiopia from several buildings, particularly in the Piassa district, to pizza/pasta restaurants, but the fiercely independent Ethiopians leave any connection to the Italians to a bare minimum.
As you stroll around try and ignore the calls from beggars or children who have learnt a few English words to grab your attention. Instead try and count the number of signs for embassies that you can see. Addis Ababa is the diplomatic capital of Africa, meaning that if you can’t afford an embassy in every African nation, you make sure you have a presence in Addis. Due to this, there’s a fair expat community. I met a group of American embassy staff who seemed immediately suspicious of me, possibly because I told them I was a potential spy. Somehow they partly believed me, but still let me join them for an evening — I now know the great state secret of where they socialise, which I’m willing to share (for a fee, or a few roubles).
Not a place that is exactly on your regular tourist route, Addis Ababa is definitely an adventurous city to visit and worth it for a long weekend. It will open your mind to the real Ethiopia, as you fall for the fantastic local food and charming, rather striking, local people. Return home with tricks for the perfect cup of coffee and stories to change your friends’ assumptions.
Emirates flies direct to Addis Ababa daily, with prices in August starting at Dh2355. Flight time is just over four hours.
The best time of year to visit is February/March when it rains the least.
Where to stay
For an upmarket location, stay at the Sheraton Addis. It’s the finest in town, and one of the few places with an ATM. The Hilton is another popular spot — it’s more relaxed than the Sheraton Addis, but much older. (http://www.sheratonaddis.com/)
Do not visit
The Lion Zoo — this sad looking attraction houses lions in bare, small, grim cages. It might as well be called The Lion Prison. It’s poorly maintained and a depressing sight.
Did you know?
Ethiopia has its own calendar, meaning they are currently living in 2002. Stay over on September 11 to celebrate the country entering 2003.
FIRST PUBLISHED IN 2010