Lalibela – the epicenter of Christian Orthodox faith in Ethiopia and Eastern Africa, a small town busting with myths and stories about saints, apparitions and unbelievable wonders happening on the holy grounds around the churches. Under the reign of King Lalibela and his successors, 13 rock-hewn churches were carved out of the ground in this area, culminating in the perfect symetry of Bete Georgis or Saint George chapel. Hundreds of faithful Ethiopians visit the churches every day, chanting along old hymns while slowly walking along the narrow passages underground. Early in the morning, around 6 am, the people gather in the churches for the services, the air thick of frankincense and the monotonous chanting. Later in the day, it is mostly the tourists, also coming in in the hundreds these days, and the souvenir sellers who flock to the famous landmarks. In the early evening, the place calms down again, and with the setting sun, the chanting takes up again.
Lalibela itself is a rather small town quite overwhelmed with the recent inflow of tourists. There are numerous hotels with rooms on offer but even at a quite high rate, one might not expect too much. Tourism is becoming the most important source of income so one finds oneself surrounded by all kind of self-appointed guides for all kinds of tours. Even the kids are quite skilled in relating elaborate stories about their school and the funds needed for their soccer team. While understandable when confronted with the average living situation in the Lalibela area, the constant begging and nagging was quite tiresome around Lalibela. We really loved the country and the Ethiopians which made it especially hard to deal with these incidents on a daily basis. I am still struggling to find a responsible way around these issues. However, once you enter a restaurant or a bar in Lalibela, the locals are happy to get to know you, invite you to dance and make you try their famous honey wine.
There is a quite expensive entrance ticket for the churches for foreigners- about 50 USD for three days, a tattered piece of paper one needs to present at most of the churches. However, the money seems to be used to restorate the churches and protect the cultural heritage of Ethiopia, therefore, I hope it is an investment into the country and its future. All the exploring around the churches can be done by foot, however, the streets of Lalibela are running up and down some hills on around 2800 m altitude so even smaller distances might feel quite tiring by the end of the day. All the churches can only be visited barefoot – so I was glad I packed my well-travelled birkenstocks, my favorite “temple shoes”. Bring a few coins and small bills to donate to the priests in the churches – the Ethiopians themselves are donating at every church and you earn a lot of smiles when doing so yourself.
So after all the exploring, time for some rest and some food. We stayed at the Mountain View Hotel in Lalibela which had a great view down the valley from our balcony. The rooms were quite basic albeit the high rate (around 70 USD per night) but the views were indeed great.
Just up the road, perched on the edge of a cliff, you can find a nice restaurant called Ben Abeba, a joint Scottish-Ethiopian venture. The futuristic building, somewhat reminiscent of a fusion of a snail shell and space ship, offers spectacular views down the valley at its hill-top location. They offer Ethiopian dishes and a few Western classics and one can also order Doro Wat, the Ethiopian national dish here. Doro Wat is a stew that traditionally cooks for 24 hours so one has to order it a day in advance. The time the chilis need to diffuse all their flavor (read: SPICE). Traditionally, one chicken is cut in a special way into 12 pieces and every dish of Doro Wat comes with a small piece of chicken and a lot of super spicy chili stew on injera. I only managed to eat a third of my meal, the chilis burning in my mouth. I thought that a Doro Wat, prepared for the tourist’s palate in this rather touristic restaurant, must be tuned down in its spiciness, but if this was the tourist version, I don’t want to know about the real deal. Pictured below is a more enjoyable meal for the average spice-adjusted palate we had in this restaurant. I really enjoyed the food culture in Ethiopis. Usually, one would get a big plate with all kinds of stews and sauces, pickles and meats on injera along with a few more rolls of injera, and everyone on the table would share the plate. Family and groups of friends or work colleagues likewise enjoyed their meals together. Ethiopia is a great country for vegetarians since the Orthodox church orders for some 200 fasting days when only vegetarian food (also dairy-free) is allowed. Even if one cannot read one word on the menu, one can safely always order the “fasting plate” and have a great mix of lentil and potato stews along with some spicy chilli-based dips. Enjoy!