Claire A Davies
December 03, 2019
Addis Abeba is a city of contradictions. The construction boom has bought luxury hotels but some of the atmospheric villas left after the Italian occupation are being razed in the name of progress. In many ways, there’s an urgency to visit now, when you can take advantage of the new and easier lifestyle while still appreciating the old city which definitely has a soul.
Addis Abeba itself means ‘New Flower’, christened when Empress Taitu settled here in 1886, taking advantage of the eucalyptus trees for wood and the hot springs as well as the churches on Mount Entoto to pray.
Rapid growth now means a population thought to be around 4 million. At times, flowers, seem in short supply but the surrounding mountains make a fine view as they glow purple at twilight. Recently, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced plans for several landscaped parks with completion planned within 3 years.
With a little local knowledge, you can easily fill a week with things to do.
Cafe life is integral to the way of life, with an abundance of coffee and pastry shops. Choose a window or outdoor spot to watch the to-and-fro of city life. Daring shepherds boldly herd flocks of sheep across busy roads, women balance loads on their heads and busboys shout out the destinations of the distinctive blue minibuses as they compete for passengers.
The ancient blue and white Lada taxis are due to be phased out but for now, these and the Volkswagen Beetles, give the streets a vintage air.
Street style ranges from the traditional long white muslin shawls known as nutellas or impossibly tight jeans and platform heels with mobile phones glued to ears.
Ethiopia’s cuisine is a huge part of the national identity. The giant grey discs of fermented injera bread may need a process of acclimatisation but once the addiction hits, you somehow can’t stop eating.
Injera is served on large communal plates with bubbling stews of meat or pulses turned dark red with spices.
Some of the best cooking is often at more humble dwellings but if you want to cut your teeth somewhere comfortable then the upmarket Kategna has a vast manu. For something cheaper and more traditional, ask someone to take you to The Addis Ababa, where you can enjoy the honeymead tej with a somewhat raucous crowd.
If you need a break from injera then there are plenty of international restaurants including French, Chinese and Lebanese. The Italian occupation has left Ethiopians highly proficient in pasta and pizza which can be found on every corner.
Finish with three tiny cups of traditional coffee, hand roasted and ground in front of you or an espresso shot from the coffee bars. Coffee is just as good from the small-scale brewers who simply pitch a stool and charcoal stove at street level.
Emperor Menelik’s former palace and gardens are newly opened to the public following a $1.8 million dollar renovation project. Visitors can see a myriad of historical buildings built by successive kings, as well as 40 hectares of gardens.
The site also features a sculpture garden representing the different federal states of Ethiopia and there are reported plans for a zoo.
North of the city centre, the National Museum of Ethiopia contains items of symbolic national importance including the black and gold ceremonial robes of the former royal families and ‘Lucy’, the 3.2 million-year-old bones of the oldest human found to date in the Afar region of the country. The original bones are kept in a safe but a replica is on display.
Nearby, the Ethnological Museum gives a taste of the breadth and depth of Ethiopia’s ethnic diversity and is hosted in a former palace of Emperor Haile Selassie.
Ethiopia holds the baton when it comes to creating world-class long-distance runners. Four times a world champion, national hero Haile Gebre Selassie now organises The Great Ethiopian Run 10K run which takes place every November.
If that sounds too strenuous, rise at dawn to join people on the steps of Meskel Square limbering up before their early morning jobg. Buy one of the red, yellow and green national tracksuits if you want to look good.
Listen to Jazz
Ethiopia has a rich heritage of distinctive musical genres, one of which is Ethio Jazz: a fusion of modern jazz with the traditional, pentatonic tunes.
Stars such as Mulatu Astatke perform all over the world but you can catch him in person at more intimate venues such as the African Jazz Village at the Ghion Hotel.
Other venues include Mama’s Kitchen in Bole or Fendika Cultural Centre in Kasanchis which also shows traditional Azmari’s with their cheeky poems set to the music of the one-stringed masinko.
Art ranges from traditional to the more contemporary and experimental. Enthusiasts can t buy excellent paintings at relatively cheap prices.
Makush is popular with tourists and has a restaurant attached.
For more individual works, ask someone to take you to Lela Gallery (phone owner Lily for directions) or Guramayne north of Piassa, just off a side road from the Ras Mekonnen Bridge. There is a working artists’ studio beneath the gallery.
For serious antique shopping, St George’s Gallery just down from the Sheraton is full of rare and beautiful objects.
Places to stay
Ethiopian Airlines have recently opened the luxurious Skylight Hotel right opposite the airport to compete with The Sheraton in the luxury category.
Middle end places include Harmony in Bole (which has a popular indoor swimming pool). Ababa’s Villa is somewhat out of the centre but is in an old royal palace full of antiques and objects d’art collected by the owner.
Mr Martin’s Cosy Place in Bole Sub City is popular with backpackers.
Follow Claire A Davies on Twitter : @dispatchesfrom1
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