48 HOURS IN ADDIS ABABA
In many ways, Ethiopia feels like the crossroads of antiquity—it has an almost Breughel-esque landscape of flatlands, cupped by amphitheatres of hills; it is the cradle of civilisation, where the first band of homo sapiens sprang from; it is the land of 700-year-old churches chiselled from a single rock in Lalibela; a country that follows a pre-Gregorian calendar; and it is, of course, the birthplace of coffee.
But Addis Ababa, its capital, feels quite different. Founded by Emperor Menelik II and Empress Taitu in 1892, it's a fairly modern city, as chaotic and trafficked as any major world metropolis. Boasting of everything from cool contemporary art and medieval ecclesiastical crafts to Ethio-jazz and an ancient coffee culture, it's no wonder that Addis Ababa is the pulsing heart of the country.
If Ethiopia is the El Dorado of coffee, then Tomoca is probably its Golden Fleece. Born in 1953, it is said to be the city's oldest surviving coffee company. The coffee is slow-roasted onsite, and busloads of locals and tourists come to sip on it, then trundle away with bags and bags of freshly-roasted beans.
Ten minutes away by car, Ethiopia's National Museum is a monument to the country's primordial past, home to one of the country's most famous inhabitants — 3.5 million-year-old Lucy. You'll find a cast of her bones on the basement level. Upstairs, the dimly-lit museum is populated by a motley jumble of Ethiopian art and artefacts, including a massive wooden throne belonging once to Emperor Haile Selassie, and pre-Axumite fertility statues that hark back 2,600 years ago. It's an excellent introduction to the country.
Another five minutes away, the Holy Trinity Cathedral, venerated by orthodox Ethiopian Christians as the highest-ranking of Addis' four Orthodox Christian Cathedrals, is an extraordinary building cupped by a copper dome and girdled by statues and bright gardens. Within the gardens lie the graves of some of Ethiopia's finest, including Meles Zenawi Asres, beloved ex-Prime Minister, Lieutenant General Merid Mengesha, and Sylvia Pankhurst, British suffragette and Addis resident. Within the Cathedral lie Haile Selassie and his wife, interred in grand graves.
Next up, a jewel box of a sanctuary, with its colourful murals and mosaics, the St George Cathedral is where Haile Selassie was crowned emperor. Inside, you'll find a clutch of religious paraphernalia, including scrolls, crosses and holy parasols.
Ethiopia prides itself on being the only African country that never once buckled to the Western world. Consequently, throughout our travels in the country, we were told constantly about the covetous Italians who muscled their way into Ethiopia (twice) but were met at every stage with opposition. Even so, the Italians did occupy the country from 1936 to 1941, and in their wake, left a rather large culinary footprint—Italian food and Italian-style coffee is available almost everywhere. Ristorante Castelli was built by an Italian soldier who loved Ethiopia too much to leave; the restaurant is famous for homemade pasta and is constantly filled with chattering locals and foreigners.
After lunch, go to nearby Merkato, a warren of wriggling alleyways, with vendors hawking pyramids of everything from frankincense to fruit. Wade carefully through the maze of gritty, messy, higgledy-piggledy shacks, and you may find treasure. However, you may also find that your pocket has stealthily been picked. Stay sharp (and take a guide with you)!
The coffee-drinking ceremony is at the heart of Ethiopian life, a ritualised ceremony that can take up to two hours. Enjoy it in the cool climes of the Hilton Addis Ababa lobby.
Refuel at Dashen with a plate of kitfo (spiced minced raw beef) and lamb dulet. Once you've appeased your growling appetite, lie back and enjoy the vibrant tunes of the Dashen Band. Then dance away the night at the historic Ghion Hotel's African Jazz Village bar.
Go for a run at Meskel Square, site of many demonstrations and festivals. Then, to ease your sandpapered throat, step into the Kaldi outlet on Airport Road; it's the Starbucks of Addis Ababa and offers (wobbly) WiFi as well. Apart from coffee, Kaldi also offers fresh juices, including guava, pineapple, avocado, mango, and papaya, and a variety of eggs and pancakes for breakfast.
Perched high above the city on a hilly outcrop, Entoto Maryam Church is delightful but alas, usually closed to the public. Next door is its museum, pillowed with dust and feebly lit, but still worth a walkthrough if only for a look at Emperor Menelik II's crown. Fondly regarded as the founder of modern Ethiopia, Menelik defeated the marauding Italian army in the Battle of Adwa and, together with Empress Taitu, founded the new capital city of Addis. His palace (a hop away from the church), however, is singular in its simplicity; it is a sparse, single-storeyed building. The big draw of Entoto is the vista—a grand panorama of Addis Ababa below.
At Gusto, you can dine on fine Italian fare. Try the Tpetto Di Anitra Al Vino Rosso E Marmellata Di Cipolle Rosse, a hank of duck breast wallowing in red wine sauce and onion jam. Finish with cannoli, with a shiver of chocolate laced through it.
Addis Ababa's garden-hemmed Ethnographic Museum makes an excellent after-lunch pitstop. It is a repository of Ethiopian cultural history, offering chambers brimming with religious icons, crosses and diptychs, anthropological artefacts and, most charming of all, the rooms occupied by Emperor Haile Selassie and his Empress (including his blue bathroom).
Stroll over to the Yekatit 12 monument, a tumulus rising dramatically from a traffic island, testament to the thousands of Ethiopians killed by the Italians in 1937.
Away from the bedlam of car horns is the Addis Fine Art Gallery, home to some of Ethiopia's finest contemporary artwork. This is the ideal place to shake off your post-meal slump. If shopping floats your boat, then it is onwards to Salem's Ethiopia, purveyor of stylish (and ethically-produced) clothes, accessories and home decor; the focus is on empowering the local craftspeople and supporting their indigenous art. End the evening with a jaunt to Ariti Herbal Products for essential oils, frankincense, and medicinal herbs.
In the gloaming, hopscotch across to the Addis Ababa Railway Station for a look at the statue of the Lion of Judah, fabled for centuries as a symbol of Ethiopian royalty.
At Yod Abyssinia, dig into shiro (chickpeas, onions and spices, cooked until it all collapses into a spicy, smoky puddle) and doro wat (nubs of chicken stewed with spices until they turn silky-soft, then tossed with creamy boiled eggs), spooned up with injera, thin like a dosa, faintly sour and spongy. Then pour yourself some tej (honey wine) while watching musicians and dancers perform on its stage.