The week before Christmas, I briefly escaped from Kenya to visit Ethiopia. It was an exciting journey of history, religion, nature, and cuisine. I’ll spread the stories from my trip over a few posts because there’s so much I want to highlight about this incredible country.
I flew to Addis Ababa and arrived early afternoon on a Friday. The capital reminded me of Nairobi in some ways: its busy and bustling atmosphere, countless construction projects, and a diversity in the socioeconomic realities lived by its inhabitants.
In Addis, I stayed at Mr Martin’s Cozy Place, a guesthouse with an atmosphere as friendly as its name suggests. I never figured out why the place is called Mr Martin’s. The owner’s name is Davit. Anyway, it was a simple but comfortable option in a safe location with helpful staff. The main house is also occupied by a family, which might not appeal to all travelers, but I really enjoyed that there were pets and goofy kids running around.
My first activity in Addis was a walking food tour with Addis Eats. The co-founders, Eliza and Xavier, are American researchers with an impressive range of knowledge on all things food and all things Ethiopia. Not only did this tour equip me with some useful info and tips for food choices throughout my trip, but it also acted as an introduction to the geography of Addis and the history and culture of Ethiopia. The tour started with a small family-run joint where we had refreshing mango-avocado blends. Then we went to a small, sort of hidden restaurant frequented by locals, where we had two different types of wat (stew) over injera. We weren’t there at the right time to see injera being made, but Xavier told us how this spongy sourdough pancake is made out of a very fine grain called teff. It was here we had shiro wat, my favourite type of wat, because it’s packed with berbere, a special spice blend I really like. After that, we went to a mid-range restaurant to have whole fried tilapia with some spicy sauces. Ethiopian cuisine includes some great fish selections, it being the source of the Blue Nile. Next, we went to a little café for a traditional coffee ceremony, complete with frankincense and a popcorn snack. I never really liked coffee, but my visit to Ethiopia taught me to appreciate it much more, and I asked for a coffee ceremony at several restaurants during my trip. Ethiopia is a special place for coffee because it is coffee’s indigenous home, where you can find the widest genetic diversity of the plant. Our tour concluded with a few more dishes at a high end restaurant, but by then I was really stuffed. The tour altogether cost $50US, a pretty good deal considering how much food there was, the quality of information shared with us, and the personal nature of the tour.
An assorted spread including different types of wat, collard greens,, and other veggies on injera
A traditional coffee ceremony
The next day I spent out on the town. First I went to the Red Terror Martyr’s Memorial Museum. This relatively new museum provides a haunting account of the Soviet-sponsored communist rule in Ethiopia and Eritrea that killed at least 30,000 people (though it is estimated that the number is more likely in the hundreds of thousands) in the 1970s, following the military takeover of Emperor Mengistu Haile Mariam. The museum’s guides are survivors of the violence who protested against the regime. In addition to their own experiences, they share stories of other dissenters who were not so lucky, as you pass by their photographs, clothing, and bones.
Photographs of some of the Derg’s victims
Next I went to the Addis Ababa Museum, which was pretty unremarkable so I’ll stop there.
Then I had lunch at an Italian restaurant called Juventus, mainly because I knew my Dad would get a kick out of it but also because I heard the Italian food in Addis was amazing. I had pizza and it was pretty good but nothing special. However, I did have an incredible pesto pasta dish later in the week at a restaurant called Grani di Pepe. Anyway, Juventus is right behind Meskel Square, an important landmark in Addis Ababa for a few reasons. First of all, it’s a central location for the city’s minibuses, some of which almost ran me over when walking through the square. (I used the minibuses several times in Addis, and was surprised that they were generally cleaner and in better condition than what I’m used to here in Nairobi). Second, the public square is the location of the annual Meskel Festival. Meskel in Amharic means cross, and this festival commemorates when the crucifix was revealed to Emperor Constantine’s mother, an important event in the Orthodox faith. Finally, Meskel Square was renamed Revolution Square in 1974 when the monarchy fell and Emperor Mengistu rose to power. He erected enormous portraits of Marx, Engels, and Lenen in the square during this time (which I imagine looked kind of creepy).
On my second day in Addis, I also visited the Holy Trinity Cathedral (Kidist Selassie). It was built in commemoration of Ethiopia’s freedom from Italian occupation. On the ceiling of the front section of the church is a beautiful painting of the Ascension of Jesus Christ and some other New Testament stories. Framing this are two other important paintings: one of the Battle of Adwa, when Ethiopia defeated the Italians in 1896, and another of Haile Selassie speaking to the League of Nations. At the front of the church, there is also a section with the tombs of Emperor Haile Selassie and Empress Menen. Not only is this church a significant place of worship, but it also demonstrates the tight links between church and state in Ethiopia.
Holy Trinity Cathedral
The inside of Holy Trinity
A painting of Haile Selassie speaking to the League of Nations
From Holy Trinity I went to St George’s Cathedral. St. George’s is where Haile Selassie was crowned, so it’s considered a site of pilgrimage for rastafarians. I didn’t get there in enough time to go inside but sat outside for a while and listened to some of the worship music playing.
St. George’s Cathedral
While I sat and listened, a guide hanging around tried to convince me to go on some other tours. Instead, I convinced him to take me to a tej house, a type of bar I wanted to visit but wasn’t sure I could on my own. Tej is a type of mead or honey wine produced in Ethiopia and Eritrea. It is flavoured with the leaves of buckthorn, a plant I know nothing else about except it’s used to make tej. Tej is a sweet yellow drink served in a vase-like glass pictured below. It came out of a big green barrel and was very tasty.
After returning to Mr Martin’s in the late afternoon, I walked down the street to Bait al Mandi, a Yemeni restaurant. It was my first time having Yemeni food, and won’t be my last. I had lamb mandi with pita and rice. Mandi is meat that is cooked on charcoal in a tandoor, a type of oven traditionally dug into the ground and sealed so that smoke does not escape. I don’t think it was cooked in the ground at the restaurant, but the meat was smoky and delicious. The servings were generous and so of course I fell in love with the place. With a full belly I returned to get enough sleep before an early flight to Bahir Dar the next morning.