When I decided to visit Ethiopia there were two main goals. 1st one was have a stunning photo of me having coffee with the Bete Medhane Alem Cathedral in my background – FAIL; I however got some good pictures whilst in Addis Ababa. My 2nd goal was to be awed by the over hyped Rock Hewn churches of Lalibela. I am not sure if it’s because Gondar had stolen my heart and not left much room for being blown away or that my expectations were too high.
I am not saying I didn’t have a great time in Lalibela because I really did but I didn’t have the Holy Grail moment I was expecting to experience. We left Gondar for Lalibela by air and had a lovely scenic 30 minute flight. We were picked up and started our 40 minute drive from the airport to the town of Lalibela and the drive was great with lovely scenes of miles and miles of rolling hills. My excitement started to grow as I could imagine that if the views were anything to go by then Lalibela would surpass my Gondar experience. As soon as we got to the town, my spirits crashed, I gave a side glance to my sister and from her no expression face I knew she was thinking the same. “Where are the jacaranda flower filled street paved with cobble stone that would take us back in time? As I had started to sulk she had to take the good cop role and said we shouldn’t be so quick to rule out a place in the first 7 minutes.
I had booked a hotel slightly out of the main town against most people’s suggestions to stay within the town. As we got further away from the town and the views started to manifest themselves I knew that something good lay ahead. Lalibela is a dusty rural town isolated from the modern world and goes about its days much as it has for several hundreds of years. It only recently received electricity and has few motorized vehicles, no gas stations and no paved streets. Were it not for the extra-ordinary rock hewn churches, Lalibela would be totally off the tourist radar.
There are 11 rock hewn churches, all carved out from a single rock and their roofs on ground level. King Lalibela, upon his return from his visit to Jerusalem, decided to build a New Jerusalem without exactly replicating the churches for those who would not be able to make it to Jerusalem. The churches are connected by tunnels and walkways and since the roof tops are on ground level they are reached by stairs descending into narrow churches.
Some of the churches have paintings inside as this was a way for the people to get the gospel even though they couldn’t read or write. The churches have resident monks and are all in use till date and thus are as much a tourist destinations as well as active places for worship.
After visiting a few churches, it started to get monotonous with the dime lighting and you started to know what to expect. Also after removing and wearing my shoes more than 15 times, I was a little tired. After having visited 6 churches I was ready to call it quits but our guide said lets go see “my church”. So off we went and standing on a hill, a cross appeared and I had my little AWE moment. St George’s church is the most stunning of them all from the top. It is free standing and not connected to the rock on sides. The inside however is plain and dull with no paintings or designs.
The tour of the 7 churches out of the 11 took us all morning and we opted not to see the other 5 churches – There is something like too many churches in a day. Having a guide is encouraged as it is not the easiest place to wander alone; they also provide great information on the churches and lifestyle of the locals. Our guide was very informative and did not take offense when we opted to take the afternoon to relax.
Ideally, if the churches were the only interest, my stay in Lalibela would have been complete in 4 hours. Luckily, my intuition of booking Sora Lodge outside the town allowed for us to have a whole day of just enjoying the views and sipping wine.
Sora Lodge is a German – Ethiopian family owned lodge located on the edge of the town facing some of the most stunning views. We were lucky to get a room on the 3rd floor allowing us stunning views from the bedroom on both the front and back. In the afternoon the rain seemed like it wanted fall out but instead we had a stunning double rainbow. The food at the lodge was not impressive at all and so the extremely friendly and helpful staff recommended the Ben Abeba restaurant where we fell in love with the views and Axumite wine.
Would I recommend Lalibela? YES…however, I think one day is totally sufficient if your main interest is the churches. Fly into Lalibela (because driving from Addis Ababa will take you 2 days) to arrive mid morning and immediately jump into exploring the churches. Have a sundowner, sunset views and dinner at the stunning Ben Abeba restaurant, spend the night at Sora Lodge and have the morning to enjoy the views and off you go by mid morning of the next day. If you are like me and don’t mind a day of perfecting the art of doing nothing then have an extra day and just BE.
Would I return – No thanks, I’m good, but I had a good time
Facts and Figures
Entry Fees – US$ 50 for non Ethiopians to see all churches (regardless of how many churches you visit)
Guide Fee – Guide fees range from US$ 15 (Kes 1,500) to US$ 40 (Kes 4,000) based on the guide and number of people
Sora Lodge – US$ 45 for a single and US$ 55 for a double on Bed and Breakfast
We Live to explore,