I lived in Ethiopia for four years when my young family and I were posted there with my husband’s job. As a diplomatic family, we’d lived abroad before, but Ethiopia got under my skin like nowhere else.
My book, Open My Eyes, That I May See Marvellous Things, is set in Addis Ababa. I was working in public hospitals, with premature babies, and my book tells the story of a midwife who falls in love with an abandoned premature baby.
The book’s set in the city’s warrens of cobbled lanes, where cows and donkeys mingle with the priests and faithful on their way to church, on the sheep-bitten hillsides and eucalyptus groves of Mount Entoto, and in the old Italian quarter, Piazza, where the antipasti is as good as any from Rome and the coffee (dare I say it?) even better.
Addis Ababa means ‘new flower’ in Amharic. Empress Taitu, wife of Menelik II chose the site of the city in the late 1800s for its proximity to natural hot springs. The settlement grew – at current reckoning its population is nearly 3.5 million people. Now it’s the home of the African Union and a major hub for tourists travelling all over Africa.
Addis is steeped in traditions; the Othodox Christian festivals of Timkat (January), Fasika (Easter) and Meskel (September) see the streets fill with the devoted. It’s home to Lucy, the world’s most famous early human ancestor, whose remains are kept at the National Museum. But it’s not all about history; Addis has international hotels, a new light railway system, amazing cuisine and fun nightlife.
Photo: A devotee gets sprayed with holy water at Timkat.
Put on some stout boots and walk up behind the British Embassy, passing the church at Yeka, and heading across the ridge of the Entoto mountains towards the ancient rock-church Washa Mikael. It’s a good two hour walk, and the altitude is not to be underestimated. However, the views over Addis towards the mountains are unparalleled. The marathon runner Haile Gebre Selassie has a training ground up there, and you might be lucky enough to see some elite athletes charging past.
Later, head to Piazza, and book ahead for a table at Castellis, the famous Italian restaurant. Ask for Castel Rift valley wine and start with a plate of excellent antipasti. Alternatively, join the crowds at Yod Abyssynia or Habesha 2000 in marvelling at the spectacular display of eskista and Gurage dancing. Order a platter of injera and sample some of the many delicious ‘wots’ (stews) that make Ethiopian cuisine famous across Africa. Wash it down with a glass of Tej (honey wine) but watch out for a lethal hangover the next day!
Make your next stop Mama’s kitchen or the Ghion hotel to hear the distinctive sounds of Ethio-jazz which is influenced by American jazz but has off-kilter rhythms and a melodic feel that makes it sound almost Arabic. End your evening with a final cup of fantastic Ethiopian coffee, wafted to your table in a cloud of frankincense.
Addis Ababa is only one destination in a country of enormous diversity, beauty and culture. The stunning Simien mountains (Limalimo lodge (limalimolodge.com) is a hot tip for the most gorgeous eco-lodge in Ethiopia), the historical ‘Northern Circuit of Axum, Lalibela and Gondar), or the crocodile infested rivers near Arbaminch in the South offer a wealth of choice. Ethiopian airlines fly all over the country and indeed the world.
Open My Eyes, That I May See Marvellous Things is published by Pinter and Martin, (www.pinterandmartin.com). It’s available online and from all good bookshops.