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November 7th 2012
Published: November 28th 2012
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7th-9th Nov ’12 Lalibela

It was a short one hour flight to Lalibela but the air hostesses still managed to get round us all to give us a drink and a bun before strapping themselves in just as the plane was landing! We drove up into the hillsides with views of high mountains around us and soon reached Lalibela which feels more like a village than a town. We past the newer area of town which is where all the people who lived in the traditional storey mud huts have been moved too in order to preserve the buildings, no idea about how they felt about this but I guess they didn’t get much choice!

After checking into our hotel and grabbing some lunch we drove back through the town, down the straggly lanes and to the Northern Cluster of the Rock Cut Churches. We walked back uphill towards the huge new protective roofs we could see and which were the only visible sign of where the churches were.

Gazing down we got our first sight of these incredible buildings. The churches had been chiselled down out of the solid mountain rock by hand approximately 800 years ago!! during King Lalibela’s reign and are maybe an attempt to recreate Jerusalem in Ethiopia. Creating them in this way may have been to hide them from the eyes of Muslim invaders and it certainly worked!

We spent the afternoon exploring seven of these churches, which are still working churches and tourists are only allowed in at certain times of the day when services are not taking place. Inevitably we encountered other tour groups and this meant queuing for our turn to get in but even the numbers of visitors did not detract too much from the experience. A ‘shoe man’ accompanied our group the whole time and made sure our shoes were looked after while we went into the churches and he also gave a helping hand when it was needed, he was a lovely guy and a true star!

Inside the churches were dimly lit and no flash photography was allowed to help preserve the paintings and decorations. The stone floors were covered by the infamous flea infested carpets that had definitely seen better days but to our relief did not appear to have any fleas so that was a bonus. We had all coated ourselves with the flea repellent stuff and one of our group had us in fits as she hadn’t been able to find any so had just gone to a pet shop and bought the stuff for dogs! Well as she said, we are animals too!!

Inside some of the churches the Priest, dressed in his robes and finery brought out the ceremonial cross and posed for photos and our guide explained each ones history and pointed out their particular points of interest.

So we wound our way through passages, climbed up and down and along tunnels and emerged through rocks into the church courtyards and stared in amazement at these incredible structures. Bet Medhane Alem is thought to be the largest rock cut church in the world, it measures 33.5 metres by 23.5 metres and is supported by 72 pillars and is an amazing sight and was the first church we visited.

To reach our final church – Bet Giyorgis (the Church of St. George) we walked downhill past the now empty two storey huts (the ones all the people had been cleared out of) which were gorgeous and then suddenly saw the roof of the church - this is the only one which has not been covered over with the protective roofing and is shaped like a Greek cross. Seeing the church exposed really showed off just how dramatic these buildings are and how deep they go! Inside we saw an old wooden box which is thought to have been carved by King Lalibela himself and used to hold his tools. Then we climbed back out again to take yet more photos as the sun was setting.

That evening the group all decided to go to a local house for a traditional Ethiopian meal and evening. The house belonged to Sue’s friend Wobbit and we were all warmly welcomed in. The house is of typical Ethiopian style with one main room and a bedroom and a kitchen leading off it. It belongs to a priest who has rooms in the compound behing where there is a communal cold shower and a squat toilet.

Little stools with embroidered clothes were laid out for us all and as it was Andy’s birthday the family had hung up banners and put fairy lights in a vase of twigs for him which was lovely. We sat in small groups around low tables for the meal, which was served on huge round platters with a lining of Injira. There were lots of portions of different vegetarian dishes to try, some very spicy and a really nice lentil one, there was also plenty of extra injira for those so inclined. As it was a fasting day it meant there was no meat unfortunately, but as there was some gorgeous home baked bread we didn’t starve but just used our fingers and tucked in.

Wobbit’s two children were pretty shy at first but helped serve everybody and were both really sweet. Then the lights were turned off, the fairy lights plugged in and two birthday cakes were brought in, we all sang, the cake was delicious and the children seemed very happy!

The traditional coffee ceremony then began, from washing the beans, roasting them on a plate over the fire, crushing, rinsing the pot and then brewing the coffee which was then passed out. This was also accompanied by traditional honey wine (which was nice) and Araq – a very strong meths type spirit (which wasn’t so) and we all sat around chatting and learning about Wobbit and her life.

I can’t say the food was my favourite (I like my meat!) but it was beautifully presented and had clearly taken a long time to prepare and cook. The whole experience though was very unique and a great insight into Ethiopian life.

8th November ‘12

This morning Howard and 9 others from the group went off to do the mule trek up the mountain. I banned myself from doing it for a few reasons – I remember the horse incident still!, you had to walk up sections of it which were up steep hills and mainly as after freaking out in the Simiens at the sheer drops and heights I knew I had no chance on this one!!

So I had a lovely lazy morning and when he got back Howard had had a brilliant time up in the mountains and said I would have hated it, so all good!

That afternoon we visited the southern cluster of churches – there were only four this time and there was a lot more scrambling through passageways, with lots of tunnels leading off in different directions (we had the same shoe man and at one point he rescued me as I couldn’t find my way down and lost the group!). Thankfully there was a lot less tourists too and once again we marvelled at the sights! At times there was an almost Petra like feel to them, particularly when we walked through the narrow alleyways and came out directly facing the gigantic stone face of one of the churches.

Once again just as we finished the rain started so although we had a free evening we just ate in the hotel.

9th Nov ‘12

Our last day in Lalibela. This morning after slapping on the flea spray we drove out deep into the heart of the Amhara region. We bumped along the dirt road passing tiny clusters of huts perched on escarpments overlooking deep valleys and with towering mountains surrounding us.

Although the soil was baked brown and dusty there were so many trees, bushes and greenery it all appeared pretty fertile. Farmers were out ploughing with oxen and small children were herding animals and everyone stopped to wave and shout hello, marvellous!

After an hour and a half we reached Genet Mariam and walked up to the hidden rock cut church. On the way we passed human bones and a skull poking out of the sides of the bank, it was the site of the graveyard but due to soil erosion the bones were popping out!!

This church was built or rather carved out in about the 13th century. It was very impressive inside as the walls, ceiling and supporting beams were decorated with original paintings from the 13th century, including a couple of elephants.

As I sat putting my shoes back on a local lad started chatting to me, he asked me what my job was and then told me he was a ‘hustler’!! We had a laugh but then he started telling me how he needed a sponsor to carry on his schooling and at this point the church guardian gave him an ear full and chased him off!

I was a bit shocked but was told that the village as a whole had agreed that no-one should hassle the tourists as it is important that people visit and then buy souvenirs and as this site is a fair way out I don’t think they get that many tourists. So the lad was breaking this agreement and would get into ‘big trouble’ as a result – oh dear! And I made sure I did buy something!

We bumped back along the road, stopping for photos and doing lots of waving until we reached the turn off for Nakotolaab. This is another rock church (and is much more visited) but is under a natural cave in the cliff, rather than having been carved down and out of the rock like the others.

We had a bit of a walk down to reach it and were welcomed in by the priest and sat in the chanting courtyard, where the big drums are kept, while the priest gave us a demo which was good. Inside there were ancient stone basins which collected the holy water dripping from the ceiling and the waters are used for healing. The church was pretty small but it did have an interesting little ‘museum’ attached and once again the priest donned his gear and brought out his big cross so we could all take pictures.

Once back in Lalibela we drove to the Ben Ababa restaurant which has been built on the outskirts of the town on top of the cliff edge. It’s a strange Daliesque type building which looks like a collection of mushrooms sprouting out of the ground and growing on top of each other. It was built and is run by a lovely retired Scottish lady in partnership with an Ethiopian man, she had been working in Ethiopia and decided to stay and invest her life savings in this venture. They employ and train local youngsters in hospitality and restaurant skills to help them gain employment. The food was great, the place amazing and the views all around were breath taking. It was here that I bought a vase made from a gord and painted all over with small scenes of typical Ethiopian life and sights. A young Ethiopian lad with no formal training makes and paints the pieces and then the restaurant sells them for him. It was the perfect reminder of our time in Ethiopia, now I just have to get it back home in one piece!

Howard and I had a walk into and around the town this afternoon, we had only gone a few yards before we were joined by several small children trying out their English and a couple of students looking for sponsors!! Still it was all good natured and they left us alone once they realised they weren’t getting anywhere.

The town was typical of others we had seen on our journey round the north, small shack like shops selling everything from dvds to steel wire, ‘supermarkets’, a hairdressers with pictures in the window of really elaborate plaited hairstyles and when I was taking a picture the hairdresser popped her head out and tried to get me to come in for a ‘do’. Lots of buying and selling was going on and boys were out in the street playing table tennis.

We past the teeny post office in a corrugated iron hut, the grand looking police station and several dusty souvenir shops. After stopping off for a drink in a local café (where our presence clearly provided entertainment for the locals) we walked back to the hotel for our final group meal of the holiday.

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