It was hard to believe, but after a four-hour flight out of Ben-Gurion Airport, I was in the heart of Africa. I was part of a recent press tour to Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, on a four-day jaunt as the guest of Ethiopian Airlines (ET).
I must admit that at first I approached the trip with trepidation, nervous about security, personal safety, illness and the complete unknown. But all my fears proved to be unfounded, and I had a wonderful time. Looking back, I would not have missed the opportunity for the world.
It certainly helped that as guests of the airline, we flew business class (aptly called Cloud Nine) to Addis Ababa and back. Spacious comfortable seating, elegant meal service, lovely gifts and affable attention from the charming cabin crew eased us into the adventure we were about to experience.
Ethiopian Airlines, a member of Star Alliance, flies to 93 passenger destinations. It has two flights daily out of Ben-Gurion to Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa, with connecting flights to some 80 destinations in five continents. On July 1, ET added New York to its itinerary.
In existence since 1945, the government-owned airline has become one of the fastest-growing companies in the industry. With its slogan “The new spirit of Africa,” part of the company strategy is to offer competitive rates for all its flights but not to compromise on its service or amenities.
In an endeavor to promote the airline in Israel, Ethiopian Airlines has launched a campaign called Addis Sababa! For passengers flying from Tel Aviv with a layover in Addis of four hours or more, the airline is offering a free guided tour of the capital, including dinner, before driving them back to Bole Airport to make their connecting flights. For those flying back to Tel Aviv with a long connection, the offer includes complimentary hotel accommodation.
As part of the company’s environmental policy, ET’s Greening Project plants a tree in Ethiopia for every passenger the airline takes aboard worldwide. According to ET’s CEO Tewolde Gebremariam, Ethiopian Airlines services seven million passengers a year.
“Ethiopia is now experiencing economic growth, and it’s time to embark into tourism. It is a priority sector for us,” the CEO told our group when we met with him and his staff in the boardroom at Bole Airport. “The country has a lot to offer tourists in terms of ancient history, culture and natural beauty,” he said. “And Addis Ababa has more than 7,500 hotel rooms,” he added.
Naturally the question of airport security arose, and Gebremariam had a lot of reassuring things to say. “We take all possible measures to remain secure,” he said. “We have our own security staff with 400 people in our security department, plus national security,” he explained. “And we still carry a sky marshal on every flight.”
At the airport, passengers go through two full security checks – once with their luggage and then before going to the gate.
After our meeting, we visited the nearby Ethiopian Airlines Aviation Academy. The immaculate four-story building contains scores of classrooms where cockpit and cabin crews receive expert training. In addition to Ethiopian cadets, the academy trains aspiring pilots and flight attendants from other countries as well. All the courses are given in English.
Armed with all that information, we were ready to explore Addis Ababa and its environs.
FOUNDED IN 1886, Addis Ababa is the largest city in Ethiopia, with a population that exceeds three million, 74 percent of whom are Ethiopian Orthodox Christians. The city is among the highest capitals in the world, at an altitude of 2,355 meters above sea level. The name Addis Ababa means “new flower” in Amharic, the official language of the country. As our guide, Assafa, informed us, there are 82 languages spoken in Ethiopia and 200 dialects.
He also told us that Ethiopia is the only country in Africa that was never colonized, hence it retained its African authenticity and did not assume the culture of other nations.
Addis Ababa is a city of contrasts. On one hand it is a large modern metropolis with heavy traffic, high-rise buildings and modern hotels, and on the other it is a congested urban entity teeming with street vendors, donkey-drawn carts, hovels and shanties. And therein lies its charm.
One of the city’s major attractions is the Merkato, the largest open-air marketplace in Africa. Comprising streets and streets of vendors selling myriads of agricultural produce and a wide range of products for domestic use, the Merkato is a maze in which to maneuver through throngs of people, as well as cars, trucks, donkeys and chickens. Congested as it was and claustrophobic as I am, I did not feel uncomfortable or compromised, as the people – shoppers and sellers alike – were very friendly and polite.
More appealing for us as a group was the indoor market, which is where local crafts and clothing are sold. A large emporium of neatly arranged shops, the indoor market offers everything from woven baskets, jewelry, artwork and sculpted items to scarves, shawls, dresses and shoes. Bargaining is, of course, de rigueur, and the vendors are persistent but not pushy. The currency in Ethiopia is the birr; 5.74 birrs equal NIS 1. At the indoor market I bought a beautiful set of three purple baskets with intricate beading around the rims, for which I paid 200 birrs. A visit to the Merkato is included in the stopover tour of Ethiopian Airlines.
Another interesting attraction in Addis Ababa is the National Museum of Ethiopia, which houses some of the country’s artistic treasures, as well as many important archeological finds. The museum’s most prestigious claim to fame is the fossilized remains of what is believed to be the oldest hominid in the world. Dubbed “Lucy,” this ancient ancestor, discovered in 1974, is estimated to be more than three million years old. Two casts of Lucy’s remains are showcased in the museum, while the actual bones are preserved in the museum’s archives.
ADJACENT TO the museum is the Lucy restaurant, where our group went for lunch in the midst of a rigorous day of touring. The restaurant was lovely, adorned with leafy foliage. It serves Ethiopian food as well as many Italian dishes.
Traditional Ethiopian food consists of a variety of sauces and pastes made with meat and/or vegetables, scooped up with pieces of injera, a spongy sourdough-risen flatbread made with teff flour.
Although Ethiopia was never colonized by any other country, there was a period in the 1930s when it was occupied by Italy. A legacy of that period seems to be Italian cuisine, as many restaurants offer Italian dishes on their menus. The scenic Top View restaurant, for example, where we had lunch another day, had some truly top-notch Italian fare.
In Ethiopia it is advised to drink only bottled water and not to have ice cubes, even though many beverages are served at room temperature.
The coffee, however, is superb. I was surprised to learn that it was Ethiopia that introduced coffee to the world. The Arabica coffee bean originated there, and coffee is one of the country’s major exports. We also went to an upscale store-cum-café called To.Mo.Ca., where we had the chance to buy packages of ground roasted coffee to take home.
There are no kosher restaurants (yet) in Addis Ababa, but there is a Chabad House. Although we didn’t meet with the existing Jewish community, we did see a synagogue tucked away on a side street in the downtown area, which is no longer in use.
While we got to see many of the sights in Addis Ababa by day, we also had the opportunity to enjoy the city’s nightlife. At a rollicking club called Yod Abyssinia, we spent a wonderful evening sharing a traditional Ethiopian supper, drinking wine and watching a rousing stage show of African folkloric music and dancing. This event, including dinner, is also part of the airline’s stopover program.
At the nightclub I discovered a delectable beverage called honey wine. Made from fermented honey but tasting like orange juice, that sweet, innocent-looking liqueur really packs a punch. I just about floated back to our hotel that night and slept like a little log.
WE STAYED at the Harmony Hotel in downtown Addis Ababa, a modern four-star hotel with all the amenities, including an elegant dining room and a spa and swimming pool.
In addition to spending three days in Addis Ababa, we got to see some of the surrounding areas. Debre Zeyit (also called Bishoftu) is a resort town located 45 kilometers south of the capital. Situated amid five crater lakes, the area is lush and scenic. We stayed there for one night at the Adulala Resort & Spa, which is composed of modern, tastefully furnished villas for each guest. The hotel offers activities such as canoeing and bicycle riding, but since we were there during the rainy season (which in Ethiopia extends from June to September), such sports were not on the agenda. However, I did get to take in the panoramic view overlooking the lake, and that was truly magical.
On our last morning in Addis, the group was taken on a jeep tour to an area on the outskirts of the city, which also had some breathtaking views, as well as a village, where the group was warmly welcomed.
Back at the hotel, I wanted to make sure that I didn’t leave the country without a few more souvenirs of Ethiopia, so I did some last-minute shopping at the gift shop. I bought two bracelets, a ring and a combed-cotton shawl, for which I managed to bargain as well.
It’s not just that I wanted to have several more beautiful items to take home with me, but I also wanted to earn the bragging rights so that when people said, “Oh, what a lovely shawl/bracelet/ ring. Where did you get it?” I could smile and reply, “I got it in Ethiopia.”
If things go according to plan, more and more people will be able to make such a claim as well. The writer was a guest of Ethiopian Airlines.