Churches, Canyons, and Donkeys: A week in Ethiopia

Ever since Akasha taught students from Ethiopia in Apple Valley, Minnesota, she has had a fondness for its culture and food. When we are visiting Minnesota, we often make a point to have dinner at her favorite Ethiopian restaurant, Fasika on Snelling. Looking at the travel sites only made us want to investigate further. So with a week off in February, we booked tickets and asked our friend Kristen to join us, and our whirlwind tour of Northern Ethiopia was in place.

We started early Saturday morning and we landed in Addis Ababa, late at night. We were there only long enough for a five hour nap, then we went back to the airport for a quick flight to Lalibela, an ancient capital best known for its 11 churches that have been carved down into the earth from solid stone.

These churches were built 900 years ago by King Lalibela. His citizens were spending 3 months walking  on pilgrimage to  Jerusalem each December. So he consulted with bishops, built a pilgrimage site, and had it ordained. Since then, it has been the center of a vibrant Christian community and it remains a holy site for the country’s Orthodox population.

Our paths kept crossing with a family dressed in elaborate clothing who were celebrating a recent wedding.They were enjoying the sight seeing and taking wedding photos.  Later, Akasha met up with he family and  found out the bride lives in Worthington, Minnesota. She had returned home to marry her sweetheart. It really is a small world.

Lalibela slide show:

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We had an amazing hike among the churches and through the landscape. It is still a mystery how they were carved down into solid rock hundreds of years ago. There isn’t evidence of where the rock they removed was taken to, though the king explained it was the divine work of angles. Our guide explained that it took 24 years, with men working all day and angels working all night.

Because they are below ground, the path to many churches lay along narrow grooves carved into the stone. There were also tunnels linking the complexes together. One of them, ‘the road to hell,’ took us ten minutes to walk through, in total darkness. It was a bit scary but we came out alive!


The top of St. George’s cathedral. The best known, St. George’s Cathedral, was one of the last to be built. It’s an impressive slab of stone with a huge set of crosses carved into the top. The ground near St George is also home to a troop of monkeys, who had no problem cavorting about on the churches and were happy to pose for pictures.

The legendary friendliness of Ethiopians was on display that evening, when we met a young man named Timothy, who offered to bring us to a local bar to see how Ethiopians enjoyed the evening. He brought us to a restaurant that served tej, the local mead made of honey and sorghum. The Tej House was off the main street and down a flight of stairs, and inside was a room lit with strings of red LED’s.

Dancing in the tej house.

It was the day before observant Orthodox began fasting for Lent, and the mood was a bit like Mardi Gras. A man strolled around the room playing a violin-like instrument with a single string called a Masinko, and a woman sang along while others danced and clapped. One of them coaxed Akasha and Kristen onto the dance floor to try out the shoulder-shaking, hip swaying moves of the locals.

After a while we were joined again by the wedding party we’d met at the church, so it was quite a day of meetings and festivites. When it was time to leave, Timothy walked us back to our hotel, and though we kept expecting him to ask for a tip, he just hopped into a tuk-tuk taxi and left. It was a wonderful night, thank you Timothy!

Hiking the Canyons
Then next morning we went on the road to hike among the canyons and farmland of the region. We took a tour that gave us three nights and four days in the farm country of this beautiful area.

We should also mention our guide, Getnet, was a wonderful resource and good friend for the three days we knew him. Good-natured, knowledgeable,  and friendly, we spent many hours chatting on the trail, and many nights exchanging stories around the campfire, and after our four day hike were sorry to lose his company. He was full of riddles and stories that he had collected from the travelers he met as a guide and we enjoyed sitting with him around the fire, trading and comparing adventure tales.

Hiking Slideshow:

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Most of our hiking was over stony paths that bordered fields being tilled for the next season’s planting. The ground here is rich but full of stones, so the farmers have to work hard. They still plow the field behind a pair of oxen, persuading them to turn with a whip that sounded sharp as firecrackers. Everyone was very friendly and eager to shake hands and say Salem (hello), and the children all rushed out to greet us. The whole trip children ran out to us, waving and calling goodbye until they couldn’t see us any more.

On our first evening, Kristen was lucky enough to spot a troop of baboons. Our guide, Getnet, led us down down to the valley floor, where the baboons congregated in a big troop to forage for grass roots. We watched them dig and walk, the babies riding the backs of the mothers while others played on the edge of a mostly dry waterfall in the golden light of the setting sun.

Here we are, chilling on the canyon edge.

The community lodges were amazing. Made of stacked stone held by straw and mud mortar, they all stood on the edge of huge canyons with spectacular views. We had huge beds and big windows that opened out to beautiful vistas. When we arrived sofas made of eucalyptus wood and leather were brought out for us to enjoy the view and relax while we drank coffee. Even the toilets had a great view, though if you took a mis-step you’d have a much faster trip to the valley floor than you wanted! And the people taking care of us were warm and friendly. They cooked dinner at night and breakfast in the morning, even roasting the coffee over a flame, right before they brewed it. We signed the guest book at each lodge and it was amazing to see the names and comments from people going back to the first guest.

One of the guest books

We took some pictures of the coffee-brewing process and made short video. Enjoy:

Akasha in an Acacia tree.

Akasha in an Acacia tree.

On our hike we enjoyed the trees and shrubs, from the aromatic sage to the noble thistle and the cutely named ‘monkey farts.’ One of our favorite trees were the ones that branched out to form a big canopy of ground cover, and Akasha was delighted to find out they were Acacia trees. So she of course had to climb one, and now we have a photo of Akasha in an Acacia tree, which makes the world that much more complete.

And at night the sky was incredible with stars – we spotted Orion right away but had trouble finding the Big Dipper, usually the easiest constellation to find. It wasn’t till Mike played with SkyMaps for a while that we realized we were so far south, the Big Dipper was below the horizon, which never happens up north. It feels like a big world when even the stars change on you!

A few hours drive from Lalibela, in the northwest corner of Ethiopia, kings of the old Ethiopian empire built castles. They were inspired by the Portuguese and the castles have a distinctly western feel. Built from 1606 to the early 1700’s, as a series of emperors built their own castle on the grounds,  it has become a compound of great stone structures. We spent several hours here, in the old bedrooms and dining halls, saunas and courtyards. Although for us it was a brief stop, it’s a worthy goal for any castle-hunters looking for something off the beaten path, and like nothing you’d expect to see.

Gonder Slideshow

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Bahir Dar
South of Gonder is Lake Tana, the largest lake in the country and the source of the Blue Nile river. Here, we took a boat trip into the headwaters of the Blue Nile, where we saw more wildlife than we could imagine. Fish Eagles rested in treetops, cormorants stood on rocks, and hippopotamuses wandered in the shallow water. It was amazing to see them in real life, outside a zoo, even if we were only able to see their heads. One of them had a baby that poked its cute little head out!

Then we crossed the lake, which has two islands that hold monasteries – one for nuns, the other for monks. On the far side we hiked around to see more churches. This was the hometown of our guide, and he happily showed us the local plants – ferns that curled up when you touched them, bean pods that made great spinning toys, and wild coffee plants, just starting to bloom. We only had a few hours in Bahir Dar, which was a shame. Our guide invited us to meet his family and visit his village, but we had a flight to catch.

Bahir Dar

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Addis Ababa
After all that, we had a day to spend in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. Addis has a population of almost 4 million people, and it seems like they are all on the street all the time. Every road is lined with pedestrians, and ad hoc marketplaces are everywhere. Even the road up the mountain to another royal palace was filled with people carrying loads of eucalyptus, donkey caravans, and tourist vans.

Fruit for sale, Addis Ababa

We visited the fabric market, then drove through the Mercado, and stared in awe at the always-on bustle of an unfettered free market – you name it, you can find it in this sprawling landmark of the city.

Addis Ababa slideshow:

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Well, it was a fantastic trip – we even saw Lucy, the 3.3 million year old human prototype (or a plaster cast of her bones anyway) – in the national museum!

And this was just a small part of Ethiopia – there’s the whole southern section, with the Great Rift Valley, that we haven’t even gotten to. And of course there’s the entire rest of the African continent to find adventure in. So stay tuned, we’re not done yet!

German days, Teutonic knights: Summer vacation part 2

How you know where you are in Germany

How you know where you are in Germany

You’ll remember how part one of our summer vacation left us in Gloucstershire, at the Peakettle wedding. We felt our work in England was done, so we flew from London down to Frankfurt, then boarded a train up to a cluster of little towns near Kassel in the Hesse region.

Our host Stefan picked us up at the rail station and drove us to the smaller village of Gertebach, where we bought groceries, and then to his little hamlet, Ziegenhagen. It was here he tucked us into his little guest cabin behind his main house, all on the edge of the great woods. If it sounds like a long trip through increasingly smaller towns, it kind of was, and that was the point: We were looking for a rustic little spot to while away a few days in relative obscurity, and this was a great place to do it.

Fire good! Fire very good!

Fire good! Fire very good!

Our little cabin had a small kitchen, and a cozy bed, and outside was a nice chimney fireplace with a statue of Buddha to bring us peace. Down the path was a space for hammocks (shout-out to Eagle Nest Outfitters!), and that was all we needed. We basically hung out for five days, reading books and hiking in the woods and eating sausage and cheese. Vacation success!

This is a little known part of Germany and we feared we’d have a hard time getting around. But no worries, German efficiency to the rescue! Trains run everywhere, and even the most remote places have bus service at least twice a day.

Also, Stefan was a fantastic and generous host; he let us rent his car for a day, and on others we borrowed a set of bicycles and a motor scooter. So we were able to get down to the train station and make a day trip into Kassel, historic home of the Brothers Grimm, noted librarians, folklorists and fairy tale collectors.It was an amazing collection that didn’t pander to kids , Ari would have loved it. There’s an entire Grimm Brothers Trail that leads along the Wesse, out through the woods that inspired the tales we all know, and at the museum was great artwork of old tales I hadn’t heard of like The Cold Heart, and the legend of Frau Holle.

This pork sandwich was brought to us by Castle Berlepsch

This pork sandwich was brought to us by Castle Berlepsch

This area of Germany is also, no surprise, chock full of old castles. One of them stood just over the line that defined the old East Germany-West Germany border. This was Burgruine Hanstein – the ruins of the Hanstein castle. We also visited Schloss Berlepsch, which is in better condition. In the spirit of the times, it’s been converted to a hotel and destination restaurant, and on the night we went a cover band was rocking out to highlights of the 90’s and 00’s. Hearing their music bounce off the ancient stone while we munched on pork sandwiches was almost like being a time traveller… sort of…

After a week of bicycles, scooters, hammocks and cars, though, it was time to move on. We took a train up to Berlin, then east into the heart of the old Soviet bloc: Poland. We spent our first night in the ancient capital of Poznan, then continued up to the coast city of Gdansk.

Gdansk was an amazingly beautiful city. There are apparently no big stones in northern Poland, but there is a lot of clay, so everything is made of brick. All the train stations and churches, palaces and fortresses are all made of red clay brick.

Our AirBnB was a beautiful attic dormer with a recently renovated bathroom and a grand view of a (brick) church. We had no clue that the 740 year old St. Dominic’s Fair was going on for our entire stay and we had a view of the kids playland next door. It was an amazing fair with a thousand vendors selling art, crafts, food, toys all temptingly beautiful and amazing.  My favorite vendor, Coolawoola, sold these wonderful circular sweaters.  Every night the fair was closed and the streets clean by 10 PM and reopened the next morning at 10.  We were nervous that it would be too crowded and loud, but it was just right and we met other visitors from all over the world. I’d love to go again!

Gdansk at Night

Gdansk at Night

Gdansk is a working class town dominated by the shipyards to the north. They played a big part in the fall of communism – the Solidarity movement started here. But in the historic old town we found a vibrant art scene. We stopped and ate at a restaurant just to listen to the musicians who were playing funky covers of cool songs on accordion, cello and guitar.

The food here was amazing as well. There was of course the traditional Polish comfort food of sausage, ham hocks, potatoes, and saurkraut washed down with beer. But there was also a great variety of international food. We ate Paella and sangria one night, and Thai food with french wine the next.

The courtyard at Marienberg Castle

The courtyard at Marienberg Castle

Did I mention we visited a lot of castles last summer? Not far from Gdansk is Marienbourg Castle, the medieval home of the Teutonic Knights. We showed up around 3, just in time for the only English tour of the day. Our guide, Bogdan, was a law professor at the local university, who looked happy just to have someone show up for his tour. As it turned out, we were glad to have him to ourselves as he was one of the best guides we’ve ever had.

He told us all about the Teutonic’s origins in Palestine, and how they moved to Poland at the invitation of a King, and of the founding of the castle in the 13th century. For centuries, the knights had a great influence on medieval European history. The castle itself is one of the largest brick fortresses in the world, and survived siege after siege before being almost flattened by the Soviets in 1944 on their way to Berlin. It made for a spectacular afternoon.

The Beach at Hell

The Beach at Hell

You’d think that would be enough for a summer vacation, but no! We were also able to squeeze in some beach time. Across the bay from Gdansk is a spit of land ending in a little ball of sand and a tiny village called Hel. We took the ferry in the morning, and whiled away an afternoon with cribbage, then lazed about on a white-sand beach.

Street Performer in Berlin

Street Performer in Berlin

But there was more! We spent two more nights in Europe, wandering the streets of Berlin. It’s a big, bustling city, exciting and full of culture and history. Blah blah blah, we said. Perhaps we’d had enough of history and excitement, but Berlin just wasn’t our cup of tea, even with a street fair on Alexanderplatz featuring street performers on slacklines and acrobats doing all sorts of stunts in front of us.

It was fun, of course – we took a cruise on the river Spree, and wandered  up and down street after street, but after two days we boarded an overnight train for Frankfurt. From there, it was a hop to Istanbul and and skip to Ankara, and finally we were tucked into our own bed again, with our dog by our side, ready for the school year to start.

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