Gondar Town and Surrounds
Some of the images of Gondar which will always stay with us: Donkeys everywhere carrying sand from the river to building sites as well as carrying tons of fleas; dogs without owners asleep in the road; carts and horses as a main form of transport after Bajaj/tuktuks and minibuses (there are hardly any cars or motorcycles or bicycles on the roads); lots of small shops, many of them windows into people’s homes; men carrying sticks to make ladders and scaffolding; women carrying grain on their heads; young boys crowded around open air pool tables; butchers displaying their products for customers and flies.
Gondar Castle and Ruins
The magic and majesty of Gondar’s castles and ruins reveal that Gondar was once and not too long ago an important town. In the late 17th century, it was known as the Camelot of Africa and the largest city in the Fasilidas Empire. The tower standing in the middle of a sunken bathing pool is the Emperor’s Pool which is filled by the river at the time of Timket (Epiphany) and which is surrounded by twirling trees. The castles were looted by the British and most of its artefacts remain in the British Museum – our initial reaction was one of embarrassment but when we saw how some very old books in the castle’s museum were exposed to direct sunlight and withering away, we did not feel quite so bad. With our Western pop culture, we also had to look twice at Haile Selassie’s Empress, who looks like she may have been the model for Rowan Atkinson’s Bean. The birdlife circling around Gondar and the ruins of Kuskuam in particular is fabulous.
Debre Berhan Selassie Church
Until visiting the church, we had rarely seen another Western tourist in Gondar. We could walk for a whole day around the town and market and not see another tourist. Yet, when walking to the church, we realised where they all congregated. Like the castle and the few other tourist sites around Gondar, it costs 100 birr to visit the church for ‘faranges’ but only 10 birr for residents. But it was definitely worth entering to see the most famous ecclesiastical art in the country: the beautiful 17th Century art covering the ceiling and every wall, depicting cherubs and biblical stories.
Gondar Arada Market
The market is huge at around 2 square kilometres. It is incredibly organised, so that customers know where to go if they want to see the sections selling vegetables, grain, electrics or shoes or to go to the men repairing clothes. At the same time, the place is chaotic, with people, horses and Bajaj all bustling for room to get by.
Some Unusual Products
We have found some quite unusual products for sale – snail and snake oil hair products and a black cumin oil soap which makes our hands look even dirtier than they are when washing. We made the mistake of washing clothes with the soap and they now have black stains!
Ethiopian food has the reputation of being among the best in Africa. We have found that it is definitely up there with other African foods, but it really lacks the variety of meals found in places like Egypt and Morocco. Food here is generally not so spicy, yet the streets are public spaces where women dry spicy food to store or to sell, for example the photo here includes chickpeas, onions/shallots, cloves of garlic (in the little bowl) and two qualities of chillis called berbere. The whole chilli pepper is first put to dry and then women separate by hand the pulp and skin from the seeds, stalks and poor quality chillis. Everything is then put to dry again before being ground into two different powders. The pulp and skin give a deep red aromatic powder while the seeds and stalks provide heat. The red powder is much more expensive than the yellow one and in order to create berbere seasoning, the two powders are mixed with up to 26 other spices including cumin, cardamom and garlic.
Without cooking facilities in our hotel, we have now tried every one of Gondar’s restaurants which have been recommended by guide books and friends. The menus are very similar, made up of ‘fasting food’ on Wednesdays and Fridays, essentially injera with vegetables and pulses but no meat, and on all other days ‘non fasting food’ which is made with meat. Dessert is not a common feature on menus, but we have discovered avocado juice which is delicious. In fact, avocados have become very popular throughout Ethiopia since the craze for them started in the West five years or so ago and have even replaced some coffee plantations because they bring greater profits to the farmers. Every week, we visit a special restaurant, the Alliance, with friends to whom Sylvie teaches English and we have such a laugh. The conversation is a dialogue of non-sequiturs – we ask a question and they answer on a completely different subject. It’s hilarious and we know they have as much fun as us. One special meal we had in Gondar was at the house of a friend’s parents, where Sylvie had the pleasure of making injera. Some of the more fancy hotels attempt Western food, like spaghetti, but with mixed success. We certainly cannot complain about the prices – a good meal will generally cost around £1. It is going to feel horrible to pay a lot for a half decent meal in London again! For snacks, quite a few cafes serve samosas, but they are very different from those found in India as they are not at all spicy and filled just with lentils and fried onions. A lot of people snack on chickpeas taken straight from their pods on branches sold on street pavements. We do genuinely love the food here but long for some variety – right now, we could devour a salad with virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar with lots of fine French bread and butter! And a nice bar of chocolate would also not go amiss! I guess we will at least lose some weight here which will not be a bad thing.
We are both in agreement that Ethiopian coffee is the best we have ever had, even better than Turkish coffee. A day does not got by when we do not attend a ceremony. We always sit next to the lady or young girl making the coffee and watch her roast the beans while taking in the beautiful incense around us. The coffee is luxurious and sensuous and we are regularly joined by friends for a chat.
We are staying in a modern yet quite run down hotel. Rooms are dirt cheap though not dirty. They do however lack a decent supply of water, electricity and wifi. And it hardly has a ‘room with a view’ as the first photo below illustrates, unlike the adjacent photo taken from the Goha hotel, the most luxurious place in Gondar set high up on a hill overlooking all of Gondar. We had lunch there one day and met a lovely group celebrating a birthday. One big problem we have had with our hotel is fleas! Hopefully they have now been removed. What we love about the place are the people – we have jokes every day with the cleaners and waitresses, who are so funny. And the laundry lady’s little daughter is the sweetest and most unspoilt child we have ever met. We sit down with her every day to draw and play games and we just love it.
More to come soon on the Christmas and Timket festivities in January, our volunteering work and, after hearing lots of gunshots in town last night, we will note how we stay safe here. We are off this weekend to the Simien mountains where we will be trekking and camping for 4 days/3 nights. So, we will be offline from Friday 4th January for 4 days. Please keep in touch through WhatsApp, email or via this blog, and we will respond on our return. Much love, Jeff and Sylvie