No longer off the beaten tourist track, Ethiopia is now a direct flight from Dublin. Louise Hogan explores.
In a small one-bedroom house in northern Ethiopia, a woman is serving a powerful brew. The aroma is distinct and earthy. It takes just a single sup to confirm. Yes… it's beer. Although the gritty brown liquid sloshing around my cup is a tad stronger than your average Smithwicks.
This is one of the amazing things about Ethiopia. Not the earthy home brewers (signalled by a pole with a red flag on top of their houses), but the universal welcome almost everywhere you go.
More and more people are set to experience those welcomes, too. Ethiopian Airlines has just launched direct flights between Ireland and Addis Ababa, making it easier than ever to get a taste of this unique and enchanting culture.
But back to that little brewery. I may be a newbie to Axum. I may just have seen the 2,000-year-old obelisks in its Stelae fields for the first time, but it's clear that the people propped atop of boxes around the room are on more familiar territory. After a bit of negotiating, through an obliging local translator, farmers Mersea (68) and Berhe (75) tell me about their difficult lives "fighting with oxen" in the hot sun.
Ethiopia is a country of 94 million souls. Its people talk in a myriad 200 dialects. But Mersea's story is strong and simple. He tells me of great changes from the time of the "cruel" Derg government that "killed many people" during the late 1970s and early 1980s. "Today we have justice, peace and schools," he says.
Reluctant to leave, but with many more miles to travel, I step blinking out into the dry heat. I still can't believe I'm in Axum. I still can't believe I landed into the bustling city of Addis Ababa only a few days earlier.
Addis's airport is perched on the edge of this sprawling, African city. It was bright and early when we landed, but it was clear that this was a city on the move. It wasn't hard to see how Ethiopia produces some of the world's best athletes, either - scores of people were running in never-ending laps, crisscrossing Meskel Square in an early morning workout.
My sense was of a city on the rise. Ethiopia remains a poor country, but everywhere you look you see evidence of development, of large corporations buying up slices of former state assets. Traffic is teeming. Workers sup bottles of St George beer in corrugated iron-roofed shacks popping up all over.
It was just before rush-hour when I stepped into Ethiopia's National Museum. I was looking for Lucy. Discovered in the eastern Afar region in 1974, she's a 3.2 million year-old partial skeleton and one of the earliest known human ancestors. Along with local schoolchildren, I gazed in wonderment at the bone pieces. Appropriately, Lucy is called Dinknesh in Ethiopia… meaning 'You are Wonderful'. Looking at her made me realise the depth of history beneath Ethiopia's soil.
Everywhere you look in Ethiopia, however, there are reminders that infrastructure is in its infant stages. Travelling back to the airport to catch a flight to Lalibela, the electricity waned and hummed. Internal flights are surprisingly good here; the roads, not so much. As you fly over the undulating, rusty brown landscape it's not hard to see how famine could have gripped the vast plains only 30 years ago. Back then, images of starving children brought the country to worldwide attention. Today, the work of Live Aid and the name of Bob Geldof still evoke a reaction.
Landing into Lalibela, our group caught a bus transfer along the dusty, haphazard roads. We passed many pilgrims making their way to the town on foot. Faith is extremely important here, with much history dominated by Orthodox Christianity.
Lalibela's famous churches are an architectural wonder, chiselled into rock faces in the 12th century, and one of the must-see sights for any tourist. After paying the €45 entrance fee, I found myself a little breathless as we began the tour in sunshine more than 2,500 metres above sea level.
Stepping into one of the murky medieval churches felt like stepping back in time. A colourfully-garbed priest held up the 12th century gold cross of Lalibela (it weighs a hefty 7kg). I donned a thick pair of socks to walk across the well-worn sheep carpets dotting the floors. As I left, one image stayed with me - the eye-catching, cross-shaped Church of St George (above), looming up out of the rocky ground.
Ethiopian food can be surprising, too.
In the pretty surroundings of the Seven Olive restaurant nearby, with a view over the hills of Lalibela, I enjoyed a flavoursome taste of the local cuisine. A 'fasting plate' delivered a vegetarian medley of spicy chickpeas and seasoned vegetables served up on fresh injera - the country's famous flatbread-like bread, used to mop or swipe up the food. The grain it is made from, teff, is being touted as one of the new 'superfoods'. Here, it's just a fact of life.
I'd come a long way since that earthy home brew. But there's a lot further to go. Some of those tucking in around me in Lalibela were trekkers destined for the nearby Simien Mountains, a UNESCO world heritage site. Next time I'll be packing my walking boots.
Some of those tucking in were trekkers destined for the nearby Simien Mountains, a UNESCO world heritage site. Next time I'll be packing my walking boots.
Bring Euro or dollars, as it is easy to exchange money in hotels. If you are travelling onwards from Ethiopia, check what vaccinations are required, as some countries require a yellow fever vaccination. Thick socks are good for covering your feet (shoes need to be removed in churches. I recommend Philip Marsden's 'The Chains of Heaven - An Ethiopian Romance' for a read, too!
Ethiopian Airlines (ethiopianairlines.com) flies direct from Dublin to Addis Ababa from June 20, with return fares from €577pp going to press. Internal flights are a handy way to get around, connecting popular tourist spots and pilgrimage locations. Ethiopian can also connect to Jo'burg, Khartoum, Lagos, Nairobi and Zanzibar among other African destinations, via Addis.
The Tukul Village Hotel in Lalibela (tukulvillage.com) offers traditional round rooms near the ancient churches from $67/€61.50. In Axum, the Consular Hotel (consularhotelaxum.com) has doubles including breakfast from $60/€55. In Addis, a luxury option is the Radisson Blu (radissonblu.com) from $200/€184.