The ancient royal city of Gonder was to be the last stop on our month-long overlanding tour of Ethiopia and it proved to be a suitably impressive place for it all to end.
Our first evening in town was memorable – for both good and bad reasons! As was our wont in several places along the way, we chose a local restaurant from the guide book and got a taxi (well, a minibus – there were ten of us!) to take us there. Unfortunately, when we got to the address, the restaurant had shut down. However, we picked up a local who spoke good English and who offered to take us to an excellent restaurant. This guy, Ephraim, stayed with us to help us order what turned out to be a very good (and cheap!) meal. Afterwards, he took us next door to a nightclub where we were welcomed by a huge crowd of locals (mostly men) and encouraged to enjoy the mesmerising live music and try our hand at the traditional shoulder dancing. This was achieved with varying degrees of success by the different members of our group! We had a fabulous evening and were joined at one point by Mas, who introduced himself as our guide for the following day’s visits to the local historic sites. He chatted to us all and seemed quite pleasant, but later, when we came to leave, he was very unhappy that we were allowing Ephraim to organise our transport back to our hotel. He tried to get in the minibus with us, at which point the driver got out, dragged Mas out onto the street and punched him! We all got very worried, especially when wooden clubs were taken up! Safely back at our hotel, we discussed what kind of trouble we would be in the next day when Mas turned up to take us on our tour!
In the event, it transpired that Mas was not our official guide as he had led us to believe, but, rather, a chancer who thought he’d make a few quid out of a group of tourists! Our real guide proved to be very professional and hugely knowledgeable about Gonder and its monuments.
I think we were all taken aback by our first sight of the castles and palaces within Gonder’s 70,000 square metre Royal Enclosure. The buildings look very familiar to western eyes and yet it seems totally incongruous to find them in northern Ethiopia. Built in the reign of Emperor Fasiladas (1632 – 1667), and recently restored with funding from UNESCO, this World Heritage Site is truly amazing!
The most impressive building is probably Fasiladas’ Palace which stands 32 metres tall and has a crenulated parapet and four domed towers. The architectural style is a mix of Indian, Portuguese, Moorish and Aksumite influences. Enough remains of the original structures that it’s very easy to imagine the courtly pageantry, ceremony and intrigue that went on here.
Another notable palace within the Royal Enclosure is the Palace of Iyasu I, once described as ‘the most beautiful house in the world’, decorated as it was with gilded Venetian mirrors, gold leaf, ivory, and beautiful paintings. Even though a 1704 earthquake and British bombing in the 1940s have destroyed the interior and most of the roof, the shell still reeks of history.
After spending a pleasant and very informative couple of hours in the Royal Enclosure, we visited Debre Berhan Selassie Church before being taken to Fasiladas’ Bath, a large rectangular pool (empty at the time of our visit) overlooked by a charming holiday home. We were fascinated to see the huge, snakelike tree roots growing through the stone walls. Today, the complex is still used for religious ceremonies, notably the Timkat celebration, where pilgrims are encouraged to immerse themselves in the water as a renewal of their faith.
Following our morning of history and culture, we had lunch at Dashen brewery. Our attempts to be given our prearranged tour were met with blank stares, but the food was good and the draft beer was very refreshing! We then went to a local market where most of us were tempted into buying last-minute gifts to take home – authentic coffee pots, beautiful hand-woven gabis (the ubiquitous blankets worn by all Ethiopians in rural areas), T-shirts, coffee beans, and other reminders of our trip.
Our final evening together as a group was spent in a celebrated local restaurant, The Four Sisters. The food was mediocre at best, but the ambience and the entertainment were excellent and provided us with yet more memories to take away from this incredible trip.