We arrived in Gondar after a 3 hour mini bus ride from Bahar Dar. We had organized the bus from Bahar Dar with a group of people we had met at our hotel, so we were able to have the mini bus pick us up at the hotel in the morning and the cost was only 65 birr (US$ 3.25) each. The reason it was so cheap is that it was a typical public mini bus and the driver stuffed enough locals inside to ensure every seat was always occupied. Unfortunately, I chose an extremely uncomfortable and small seat in the back and I was in great pain from the unpadded metal rails by the end of the journey. Meanwhile, Sara was having her space invaded by an older Ethiopian woman who chose to sit cross-legged. Good thing it only cost 65 birr and lasted less than 3 hours!
Prior to arriving in Gondar, Sara and I had e-mailed the L-Shape Hotel to reserve a room. It is generally quite easy to find accommodation in Ethiopia and next time I travel there I will not bother to book anything in advance. That said, it was nice to know where we were staying when we arrived in Gondar as there were a number of touts trying to sell us on their accommodations when we got off the mini-bus and we had a good excuse to brush by them.
The L-Shape Hotel has a hilarious “Candle Night Special Offer” on their website (http://lshapehotel.com) that is too good to not share. Every time I read about this “Special Offer” I cannot help but smile:
Even though it was a Thursday when we arrived, I was disappointed when we were not able to enjoy the sparkling candles and selectively organized romantic hits as promised. Instead, they had a great restaurant and bar filled with people watching football (soccer) on a large projector screen. We negotiated our room for around 230 birr (US$ 11.50) per night and were quite impressed with the view from our fourth floor windows. The bathroom and bed were about what you would expect for the price, but it was good enough for a night while we organized our Simien Mountain Trek. Sara and I had initially planned to only spend one night in Gondar, trek for five days, and then spend a night in Gondar at the end of our trek, but in order to stay with the group we decided three days of trekking would be enough which meant a couple extra days in Gondar.
After organizing our trek, we set out to explore Gondar and find a place to eat. We asked around for a good place for a late afternoon lunch and someone recommended Master Chef Restaurant. Master Chef is family owned and operated and the chef apparently trained in the UAE, so he has knowledge of preparing Western dishes if you are craving something from home. Most of our group tried local dishes and I think everyone enjoyed their meals, even though the prices are somewhat higher than other local restaurants (but still very reasonable compared to what you would find in any developed country).
That evening, we called it an early night and packed our bags so we could leave one backpack at the hotel and take what we needed for trekking in another backpack the next morning. You can read more about our amazing Simien Mountain Trek HERE.
After returning from our Simien Mountain Trek, we all had hot showers and cold beer on our minds. Unfortunately, after checking back into a room at the L-Shape hotel, we discovered that our hot water heater had not been left on (to save electricity) and that hot water would be hours away. I was still happy for a rinse after several days in the mountains and I braved the cold shower to expedite my ability to meet others from our group for an even colder beer. I also had a bowl of Ethiopian pasta, a popular remnant from the Italian occupation of Ethiopia, and it was cooked perfectly al dente and delicious. Of course, the beers also went down quickly and our group was geared up for a night on the town.
Bocata, the agent that arranged our hiking trip, led us to a cultural dancing place which was clearly intended for tourists but still fun for a quick beer. The woman dancing approached me and danced in my face, basically egging me on to dance with her, and the only way to make her stop was to stick a birr note to her sweaty forehead. It was well worth the 10 birr to make her leave me alone and I just wish I had figured out I could pay her off before embarrassing myself for far too long trying to shoulder shake dance with her.
From the cultural dancing bar, Bocata led us to a night club where I am sure he was given a commission or at the very least able to drink for free. In any event, our group had fun dancing and watching the Ethiopians shake their stuff on a week night. The highlight for me was definitely the picture of Oprah Winfrey hung on the night club’s wall. Sadly, some of our group had to depart the next day so that evening on the walk home we said our good-byes and all promised to stay in touch.
The next day, we met up with the remaining members of our hiking group for an afternoon lunch at the Four Sisters restaurant. Despite being a little difficult to find and being clearly built for tourists, I would highly recommend the Four Sisters restaurant. When we arrived, they still had their lunch buffet open (which they offered us a discount on given it was nearing the end of lunch service) as well as a la carte menu options. I had the buffet and found all of the food delicious and to be well worth the cost. The restaurant complex is large and has a beautiful stone building for indoor dining, plus a large patio and beautiful garden courtyard filled with tables for those who prefer to be outdoors. In fact, we all enjoyed the restaurant so much that we decided to book a table for New Year’s Eve dinner the next evening.
After lunch, we went back to the L-Shape hotel and met a few more members of our hiking group who were interested in visiting the Dashen Brewery with us. We all managed to pile into a mini-bus for the twenty minute drive to the brewery at a cost of 4 birr (US$ 0.20) each. The Dashen Brewery is outside of Gondar towards the Gondar airport so a car or mini-bus is definitely required if you want to visit. I honestly think the Dashen Brewery is as close as it gets to heaven. For 87 birr (US$ 4.50), we received a 3 liter beer tower filled with delicious Dashen Beer, which works out to less than ~1/12th of the cost of a beer in my hometown of Calgary.
Fabio, an Italian guy we had met on our hiking trip had become friends with many Ethiopians during his trip. His friend Andy, a very friendly Ethiopian guy who was working for an NGO in Bahar Dar, was in Gondar for work. Andy was kind enough to pick us all up from the brewery in his land cruiser and I thoroughly enjoyed riding back to town in one of the small jump seats in the back. We asked Andy for a restaurant recommendation and he took us to Lodge Fasil for dinner. Lodge Fasil Gondar is a friendly, family owned hotel, restaurant, and bar. When we arrived, they had a gigantic wood fire burning in the courtyard making it a wonderful setting for dinner. It was another great place to enjoy Ethiopian food and I would recommend it as a good dining option after the Four Sisters and Master Chef Restaurants.
The next day Sara and I decided it was finally time to explore Gondar and see the Gondar Castle, which is also sometimes called Ethiopia’s Camelot. It cost 100 birr for each of us to enter the castle area and there were numerous tour guides waiting to sell us their services. The tour guides all told us that it would cost 200 birr for a tour, but I noticed a sign on the wall that listed a variety of prices and it clearly stated a price of 150 birr for tourists. They were firm on their price and claimed the sign did not apply to tourists (even though it was written in English) so we decided that out of principle, we would refuse their tour and explore the castle area on our own. Of course, after two minutes of us exploring on our own one of the guides rushed up to us and hesitantly said that he would accept 150 birr for the tour. We called their bluff, and won, and I encourage other tourists to avoid being scammed to ensure it does not ruin tourism in Ethiopia (greed and scams ruined the idea of traveling in Egypt for me).
The castle area was beautiful and is filled with a number of castles, built for different kings at different times. Between the 13th and 17th centuries, Ethiopian kings moved their camps frequently and thus there was no royal capital. In 1636, King Fasil decided to settle in Gondar and built a permanent camp, which successive kings maintained and built upon. Eventually, it became a large fortified compound called Fasil Ghebbi, which had six large buildings surrounded by a 900 meter long wall. Fasil Ghebbi is now a UNESCO world heritage site and the buildings and architecture are beautiful to see in person.
After seeing the castle area, I returned to the hotel for a beer and to do some work while Sara went off with a couple of girls to explore the markets. We also stopped for a delicious fresh fruit juice as well as a local liquor store to buy a bottle of sparkling wine for our New Years celebrations. Sara said she could find just about anything in the market and was entertained by all of the local vendors. She returned with two beautiful scarves for only 200 birr total which even the locals at our hotel restaurant seemed to think was a reasonable price.
That evening was New Year’s Eve and we had already made our 7 pm reservation for Four Sisters Restaurant for dinner. Andy and Fabio suggested that before dinner we all drive up to the Goha Hotel, which is conveniently perched on a hill overlooking Gondar, to watch the final sunset of 2013 while enjoying a cool drink. Andy also brought along a pretty Ethiopian girl that Fabio had taken a strong liking to and she provided us with new insights into Ethiopia, despite having limited confidence in speaking English. The sunset was brilliant and it was also nice to see the Goha Hotel, which is possibly the nicest hotel in Gonder. It features a swimming pool, beautiful dining area, and very professional looking staff, complete with black bow-ties.
After the sunset Andy dropped us all off at the Four Sisters Restaurant, drove the Ethiopian girl home, and then returned to join us. Although the Ethiopian New Year’s Day is September 11th on our Gregorian calendar, Four Sisters was still packed with tourist visitors. We asked the restaurant staff to put our bottle of sparkling wine in the fridge and enjoyed a wonderful buffet dinner for 200 birr each. Recognizing the significance of December 31st on Westerner’s calendar, the Four Sisters Restaurant also had a number of Ethiopian women shoulder shaking and dancing to the beat of drums.
It was a fantastic dinner and a wonderful dining experience, but given that most of us had to travel the next day we decided that staying up to midnight would not be an option. Therefore, we decided to celebrate New Year’s Eve on Turkmenistan time, which meant 10pm for us in Ethiopia. Given we were with such a multi-cultural group, including two Spaniards, two Americans, an Italian, an Ethiopian, a South African, and my Canadian self, we also got to learn about the New Year’s rituals from each country. My favourite was the Spanish tradition of Las doce uvas de la suerteor “the twelve grapes of luck”. The tradition goes that with each bell strike at midnight on December 31st, you are to make a wish and eat a grape. Since we did not have any grapes available, we used popcorn instead, and each of us had a row of popcorns lined up in front of us as the time approached 10pm. We cracked our champagne, poured our glasses, and waited for the countdown. Jorge, a hilarious Spanish travel blogger (http://jorgeadiego.com/) rang the “bell” with a spoon glass. The whole scene was hilarious and our Ethiopian wait staff could not figure out what we were doing. Several of their faces were of shock and horror as each of us began tossing popcorn down our gullets in unison with each clink of Jorge’s spoon. The whole evening was surreal and may be my most memorable New Year’s ever.
In the end, I was very happy that we had extra time in Gondar due to our shortened Simien Mountain trek. Out of all the towns we visited in Ethiopia on our trip, Gondar was likely my favourite. It is not overly touristy, except for people making their way to the Simiens, yet has a lot to offer tourists. The people of Gondar are also quite friendly and I was not bothered by beggars, which is something I cannot say for Addis or Lalibela. As an added bonus, Dashen beer was my favourite beer in Ethiopia and Gondar just happens to be the home of its brewery. Overall, Gondar is a wonderful city that is well worth a visit.