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krisek Gondar - A travel report by Krys
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Gondar,  Ethiopia - flag Ethiopia
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krisek's travel reports

Gondar - Ethiopia's Camelot among table mountains

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The mountainous little town of Gondar has a remarkable medieval feel. It is due to the imperial castles built there, although they do not date back to the Middle Ages exactly. The table mountains around make a fantastic backdrop. A truly great place!

Imperial castles
Imperial castles
My scheduled departure to the Africa's Camelot, Gondar - at the opposite side of Lake Tana, was leaving Bahir Dar at 08:30am, which required check-in at 7 o'clock in the morning. I arrived at the airport at 7:20 and was checked in three minutes later. The very slow lady at the desk claimed the flight was on time. And it really was.

On this flight I noticed that Ethiopian Airlines did not do a security briefing. That was a big, big minus.

Fifteen minutes on the airplane and I was in Gondar. The aircraft simply made a hop over the lake.

Until the 16th century, the Ethiopian rulers, including the legendary Queen Sheba and the King Solomon, lived more nomadic life staying at tents or provisional housing. With the exception of Debre Barhan, which was more of a fixed political centre founded in 1456. When the emperors began spending the rainy season near the Lake Tana, a few villages saw the royals more often, and eventually Gondar was selected as a permanent capital in 1635 by the Emperor Fasilides. By the 17th century, the capital's population grew to over 60,000 making it the second most populous city in the world. This is when the majority of the castles have been in town around the Royal Enclosure, including Fasilides castle, Dawit's Hall - a banqueting room, Iyasu's Palace, Mentewab's Castle, a chancellery, stables, a library and three churches. Just outside the centre, the Emperor Fasilides built baths, which have been home to an annual ceremony when they are blessed and then opened for bathing. And the Empress Mantewab erected her Qusquam complex, surrounded by its own walls, the second most interesting place to see, and seeing even lesser visitors.

It was a taboo to live in the castle built by the previous king, so the emperors kept building their own palaces and castles. This how the enclosure contained so many, rather than just one big castle/palace, making it look like a little medieval town. And that is fabulous!

Favourite spots:
The Royal Complex
The Royal Complex
After checking in at the hotel, I walked downhill to the centre. My plan was to catch still good lighting for the photos I was going to take of the castles.

The royal complex was impressive. Many castles fell in disrepair but one of them was still rather well preserved. Inside its wooden floors and ceilings did not look their age. The guides inside the compound asked 130 birr (€9) for their service so I said I was going to pass and simply walk on my own. The territory was not vast and was quickly covered in less than an hour - and I was taking my time.

The castles, built in seventeenth and eighteenth centuries did look like Camelot-style defensive living quarters. All built of gray-yellow-brown stone in a classic medieval architecture, unmistakable for strongholds. Each of the castles was built by a different emperor. I loved that the place was not swarmed by hordes of tourists. For the most of my time there I was the only obvious tourist in sight.

What's really great:
Architecture inspired by Medieval Portugal
Architecture inspired by Medieval Portugal
In all, I counted four other white faces visiting and one Asian. There was also a local married couple who wandered about the castles with a personal photographer and a group of young Ethiopians, who arrived as I was about to leave. So, for the most part, I had the imperial enclosure for myself. I hiked from one castle to another snapping freely. I felt like being teleported back in time to the Middle Ages. The lack of hordes of tourists was very refreshing and calming. Only this way, the site retained its magic and inexplainable magnetism. The complex was completely isolated from the rest of Gondar by walls and vegetation, which contributed to its attractiveness.

Weather was perfect for hiking, too. The sun was still relatively low on the cloudless blue sky and the thermometer showed 25 degrees Celsius. An optimal aura for walking around and soaking the local ambiance.

Shadow of a classic castle wall
Shadow of a classic castle wall
Later in the centre of the town, I met two schoolboys, one tenth grade, the other eighth grade, who tried selling me a trip to the mountains. I really did not want to go but frankly I was bit unsure what to do with myself for the rest of the day. Gondar did not have any other obvious sights, apart from the surrounding mountains and one very, very remote monastery, some 2 hours drive out of Gondar, near completely different town. I tested the boys' perseverance and made them try harder and harder until I finally said yes. They were offering two hour long escapade around Gondar, to the place, where, allegedly, Queen Elisabeth II stopped for tea on her way from Gondar to Aksum. For the price of 350 birr I thought I might just do it. Otherwise I would probably spend the same amount of money at the hotel bar, which, by the way, offered a spectacular view of the town - all the way to the royal castles.

View from the Goha Hotel
View from the Goha Hotel
I stayed at the Goha Hotel (sister of the Tana Hotel I stayed the previous night in Bahir Dar), which was located on the top of the hill right outside Gondar's centre. offering great views but requiring a rather tiring hike up the mountain. The rooms ($25-$40) were clean and had bathrooms.

I could not decide whether I should eat at the hotel again or try a place in town. My stomach was leaning towards a pizza but my mind was not sure if there was a good pizza place, meaning a place serving good pizza. I was planning to go out with my schoolboys, who wanted to drag me to the piazza for a local concert and traditional dancing. That might be a good occasion to try a local place in town, I was thinking. Dinner at the hotel was served from 7pm and the boys were to pick me up at 7:30pm. I am quite capable of shoving up a meal within thirty minutes easily, but I did not trust the service (at the sister Tana Hotel in Bahir Dar it was terribly slow).

Table mountains around Gondar glowing in the setting sun
Table mountains around Gondar glowing in the setting sun
I stepped in an excruciatingly overpriced local bar with traditional dancing. I did not feel comfortable in that small place. The female dancer and the male instrument player kept giving me much too much attention. When I was charged 20 birr for a bottle of Pepsi I almost flipped. Instead I paid and left immediately. A regular local bar charged me 3 birr and the same cost me 9 birr at the hotel, so naturally I really got seriously annoyed. I called it a night. I would have hated to get angry after being overcharged at other bars.

Such bars seemed the only way of nightlife in the small, and somewhat conservative town of Gondar. There were indeed regular drink bars and cafes but these closed at about 9pm or 10pm. I heard about a disco but I also heard it was rather sleazy and not entirely safe.

Emperors' enclosure
Emperors' enclosure
At the hotel, I descended onto the bar's terrace for a sundowner. I wanted dark beer but the bar did not have any so Pepsi had to do the honours. I liked Pepsi so it did not matter and I guess I was being a little kinder to my body (but not to my mind!). The castles were glowing slightly in the setting sun and I attempted a few snaps. It was hazy so it was not easy to snap with much success. Well, the sunset was great. Our great star hid behind a table mountain quite spectacularly. This bar might actually be the ultimate hanging place in Gondar. The views were spectacular and the sunset were dreamy. Everyone was welcome at the mountain and the hotel bar (not entirely sure about the local folk but the security guards were friendly to my 'new friends'), and I saw travellers, who did not stay at the hotel but dropped by for a drink and the view.

View from the Goha Hotel's restaurant's terrace
View from the Goha Hotel's restaurant's terrace
I checked at the hotel what was for dinner and having realised that there was virtually no choice I asked about an Italian restaurant in town. The Toskany came recommended by local people (some worked at the hotel) so I went there. It was in the very centre of the town, some 500 yards from the castles.

Their excellent pizza could only rival the polite and professional service. A large 18 inch pizza was about 33 birr. The restaurant did not look for much, but it was clean and almost cosy. The choice of dishes was good enough, and apart from pizzas, they could do spaghettis and other pastas and had a good selection of sweets. But the service really impressed me. The lads were attentive, made sure my glass was never empty and kept me updated on the delivery, which was really quick.

Other recommendations:
Simien Mountains
Simien Mountains
The Simien Mountains were close. At a village, local kids swarmed me, some asking for pens, which I strategically did not give out. The view was of mountains, but they were so distant. The second stop was at an extremely ruined house, which quite unbelievably hosted a tea break for Queen Elisabeth II. I made it clear that I did not believe that. This almost upset the guide. I explained that the Queen must have visited Ethiopia fairly recently, at least in the last 40 years, and the house looked like it had been a ruin for over a century.

The last stop was at the trail I was taking. It had to be my stop since the car broke down. The gear shift box collapsed. I feared that I would gave to walk back to Gondar. This would take me approximately twelve hours. Maybe longer. However the driver said that he would call for a mechanic and by the time I would have been back from my hike the car would be fixed.

The hike was easy and it can be easily organised with local youth in Gondar.

Published on Sunday August 24th, 2008

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Wed, Sep 03 2008 - 02:12 AM rating by davidx


Mon, Sep 01 2008 - 07:54 AM rating by rangutan

About an empire I never heard of till now. Great stuff! [4.7]

Mon, Aug 25 2008 - 12:21 PM rating by jorgesanchez

How nicely written, bravo!

Sun, Aug 24 2008 - 11:44 PM rating by mistybleu

Krys, a wonderful report; I would really like to visit Ethiopia and this makes it more intriguing.

Sun, Aug 24 2008 - 11:22 PM rating by terje

Thanks! Gondar has been on my wish list for some time! Thanks for sharing, particularly the photos!

Sun, Aug 24 2008 - 11:08 AM rating by eirekay

You've shown us a part of Ethiopia that I had no idea existed! This is marvelous! Well done!

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