Castles in the highlands – Gondar, Ethiopia

After yesterdays minivan misadventure our van arrived this morning with the two front seats free at 8 in the morning. Though the space was still tight we were more concerned that the driver’s a mad man, as he abuses the horn whilst tearing through the majestic mountain country side. Rounding a corner to a freshly tipped over bus did nothing to ease tensions until we arrived at the town of Gondar.

Gonder, Ethiopia.
Ethiopian minivans which shuttle passengers between towns

‘Bless Rasta, Jah Rasta, One Love Rasta’

We’d forgotten that Matt’s stature, dreadlocks and new lion tattoo would draw this kind of attention in the spiritual home of the Rastafarian movement. Friendly enough (most of the time), we found it a starting point for many a conversation throughout our trip, leaving us with an increasing sense that the Ethiopians are some of the friendliest people to date. True to form a dreadlocked Rasta meets us as we exit the minivan and leads us to our destination, the L-Shaped Hotel. A large room with a balcony, mountain views, hot(ish) showers and a satellite TV showing premier league football cost us 250 birr. As a bonus the downstairs restaurant opens at 5am for breakfast and is equipped with a projector screen if you prefer your football full size.

Gonder, Ethiopia.
View from our room at L-Shaped Hotel

Fasil Ghebbi
Fasilides Castle, The Royal Enclosure

Located at an elevation of 2,133m Gondar sits within the Ethiopian Highlands. Covering a vast area of north and central Ethiopia, the highlands are often called the Roof of the World and with good reason – reaching heights of 4,550m most of the area sits above 1,500m.  Interestingly the local inhabitants, like the high altitude people of Tibet and the Andes, have evolved to live at such extreme altitudes with little effect to their health. The towns biggest tourist draw is the ruined 17th century Fasil Ghebbi (Royal Enclosure) castles and palaces, previously home to the emperor Fasilides. Yet with the afternoon fading we set this aside for tomorrow and hit another of Gondars lesser known attractions, the Dashen Brewery.

Gonder, Ethiopia.
The Royal Enclosure

Gonder, Ethiopia.
The Royal Enclosure

Built in 1996 it’s one of the countries youngest breweries, though it’s the only one adhering to the strict German purity laws which regulate the ingredients to be used in the brewing process. Not to mention it had quickly become our favourite Ethiopian beer. Recent international investments have seen the company boom and the brewery now has two large newly built covered bars and a large external stepped beer garden for punters to enjoy beer fresh from the brewery.

The Dashen Brewery.
Entrance to Dashen Brewery

The Dashen Brewery.
Cheap beer fresh from the brewery

Friendly table service and 400mls of unfiltered unpasteurized amber goodness for just 11 birr (35p/50c) makes this one of the best beer gardens ever. As the only faranjis here we’re the center of attention and Matt makes friends with some locals, ending up having spaghetti shoved into his mouth by one of them (it’s a sign of affection) while Sarah finds herself stuck between a rock and a 10 Birr note. This became the first time either of us had actually fulfilled the old travellers quote that

This money is worth so little I’d happily wipe my arse with it

When some other tourists eventually turned up and stole our limelight, we managed to flag down a shared tuk tuk (or bajaj) back to town for just 20 birr. With four of us crammed into the back they somehow manage to slip the camera off Matt’s shoulder and out of his bag…the thing weighs close to 5kgs!!! Luckily Matt notices as we get out of the tuk tuk before Sarah had jumped out, all’s well that ends well…until they offer to take us right to the hotel door for another 10 birr and we tell them to f*&k off.

The Dashen Brewery.
The amazing beer garden/bars at Dashen Brewery

The Dashen Brewery.
Beer as it should be

The Dashen Brewery.
Huge serving of lamb tibs 

Sipping a macchiato the next morning at Tele Café on the main roundabout (the best coffee in town for just 25p…or 30p…depending who serves you), we watched street kids sift through the crates of empty coca-cola bottles being loaded onto the coke truck. Leaping with excitement when they found one with dregs in it, a little girl hit the jackpot when she found one still a third full. With the coke man attempting to take it from her grasp, she danced out of his way with a look of pure joy on her face.

Gonder, Ethiopia.
Amazing macchiato’s at Tele Cafe

Gonder, Ethiopia.
Tele Cafe

Taking the short walk to the Royal Enclosure, we pay the 200 birr (USD$10) entrance fee, which has doubled in recent years, and enter the walled site. The Castle complex is an oasis from the outside world of hustles and hassles. Fasilides Castel is one of the favourites and we shun the offer of a guide to walk in peace with the Lonely Planet descriptions allowing us to envision the spaces. Some of the palaces are shells only while others, plastered and altered by the Italians during their short lived occupation, were being repaired. In the middle of the enclosure you come across two lion enclosures where the emperors would keep their pet lions.

Gonder, Ethiopia.
Fasilides Castle

Fasil Ghebbi.
Fasilides Castle

Gonder, Ethiopia.
Inside Fasilides Castle

Gonder, Ethiopia.
The Royal Enclosure

Gonder, Ethiopia.
The Royal Enclosure

Fasil Ghebbi
The Royal Enclosure

The ticket also gives you entrance to Fasilides Baths, a sanctuary whose walls have been overtaken by big rooted trees. Surrounding a deep pool with an isolated palace in the middle, once a year on 19th January the pool is filled for the Timkat epiphany ceremony, resulting in hundreds of bodies jumping en mass into the waters in a reenacted baptism. Without seeing a single other person while we were there, it was hard to image this place being anything but peaceful.

Gonder, Ethiopia.
Fasilides Baths

Gonder, Ethiopia.
Fasilides Baths

Gonder, Ethiopia.
Fasilides Baths

Gonder, Ethiopia.
Fasilides Baths

Gonder, Ethiopia.
Fasilides Baths

Back in town we headed to the bus station to brave our first ‘local’ bus. Immediately we’re surrounded by people shouting destinations at us until we say where we want to go and are pointed in the right direction to buy tickets. The only way to get to our next destination without flying is the early morning bus to Shire followed by a minivan the final stretch to Aksum, a trip that would take us an entire day. Tickets in hand we headed for a late lunch at the upscale (for us) Quara Hotel. A massive place with foreign prices to match, the Shiro Tegabino (spicy chickpea paste with injera) was amazing but the chicken avocado salad was a letdown due to the lack of white meat.

Gonder, Ethiopia.
View from Qarah Hotel

Gondar university attracts students from across the country, including the largest number of Rasta’s we’d seen in one place, most of them from the town of Shashamane. Flattered by the Rastafari movement in his name, the emperor Haile Selassie (previously Ras Tafari) granted 500 acres of his private land for Africans to return from Jamaica and other parts of the Caribbean. Most of them never did however the town of Shashamane inadvertently became Ethiopia’s home of the Rasta, and is therefore known as a tourist hot spot for smoking weed.  Many of the students moonlight as touts attempting to sell you non-existent day trips to the Simien Mountains. Aware that it’s not actually possible to get to the mountains and back in a day (not to mention the unfailing afternoon downpours) we politely decline and they’d move to plan B…

You know Rasta man I’m from Shashamane, yeh, you wanna buy weed?

 

For more photos of Gondar and Ethiopia in general, hitup our Flickr page here.

 

Tips for Gondar

  1. Be on your guard here, for us Gondar wins the title of seediest place in Ethiopia. Touts, beggars, minivan/tuk tuk rip offs and shady looking characters abound. This was also the only place in the whole of Africa that Sarah was groped on the street.
  2. A minivan from the main roundabout in town to Dashen Brewery is 5 birr, ask the driver and he’ll let you off right out the front.
  3. Be very wary in shared tuk tuk’s, especially at night. We had both good and bad experiences. If in doubt avoid them.
  4. Fasilides Baths are a little way out of town, it costs 2 birr each way in a local minivan from the main roundabout.
  5. The local bus from Gondar to Shire leaves at 5:30am and cost 135 birr. Arrive early, the scrum is horrific.
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