It’s not what Gonder is, but what Gonder was that is so enthralling. The city lies in a bowl of hills where tall eucalyptus trees shelter tin-roofed houses, but rising above these, and standing proud through the centuries, are the walls of castles bathed in blood and painted in the pomp of royalty. Often called the Camelot of Africa, this description does the royal city a disservice: Camelot is legend, whereas Gonder is reality.
Surrounded by fertile land and lying at the crossroads of three major caravan routes it’s easy to understand why Emperor Fasiladas (reigned 1632–67) made Gonder his capital in 1636. To the southwest lay rich sources of gold, civet, ivory and slaves, to the northeast lay Massawa and access to the Red Sea, and to the northwest lay Sudan and Egypt. At the time of Fasiladas’ death, Gonder’s population already exceeded 65,000 and its wealth and splendour had become legendary.
Drifting through the old palaces, banqueting halls and former gardens it’s not difficult to imagine the courtly pageantry, ceremony and intrigue that went on here. The city flourished as a capital for well over a century before infighting severely weakened the kingdom (see the boxed text, The Rise and Fall of Gonder on p38 ). In the 1880s what remained of Gonder was extensively looted by the Sudanese Dervishes.
Despite this, and the damage sustained by British bombs during the liberation campaign of 1941, much of Gonder remains amazingly intact. Today, Gonder is a great place to spend a few days and is a convenient base to make the leap into the Simien Mountains.
Although Gonder is fairly spread out, it’s still a great place to navigate on foot or by bicycle. The piazza marks the centre of town and is laden with the most shops and services. Just south of the piazza is the Royal Enclosure and all its treasures, while the road leading north is dotted with restaurants and hotels.
Circle Internet Cafe (Circle Hotel; per hr Birr15) Some of the town’s fastest connections.
Golden Internet Café (per hr Birr12) Possibly even faster connections.
Birhan Tesfa Clinic (0581 115943; h24hr)
Gonder’s best medical facility.
Goha Pharmacy (h8am-9pm Mon-Sat) Helpful and well stocked.
Commercial Bank (h8am-4pm Mon-Fri, 8am-noon Sat) Changes cash and travellers cheques.
Dashen Bank (h8am-4.30pm Mon-Fri, 8am-noon Sat)
Has an ATM that accepts international Visa cards only.
Post office (h8.30am-12.30pm & 2-5.30pm Mon-Fri)
Tourist information centre (0581 110022; firstname.lastname@example.org ; h8.30am-12.30pm & 1.30-5.30pm
Mon-Fri, 8.30am-12.30pm Sat) Helpful information and licensed city guides (Birr150 per day). Can arrange out-of city 4WD tours (Simien Mountains day trips etc).
These reliable agencies can arrange everything from city tours to Simien Mountains treks. Prices range and negotiations are always in order.
Explore Abyssinia Travel (0581 118965;
www.exploreabyssinia.com ) As well as countrywide tours and car hire, it also has a book exchange.
Explore Simien Tours (0581 10040; email@example.com ; Quara Hotel)
Galaxy Express Services (0115 510355; Goha
Hotel) All bookings must be made through this AddisAbaba phone number.
Dangers & Annoyances
Several travellers have complained about children hassling them for money with improbable sob stories. Other people have reported having beggars yelling ‘fuck off ’ or other such welcomes at them. Another annoyance, especially if you’re left lathered at the time, is Gonder’s lack of water – do your best to conserve.
VOLUNTEERING GONDER STYLE
Yenege Tesfa (0918 774745; www.yenegetesfa.org) is a local NGO working with street kids in Gonder. It has an orphanage and provides educational programs for the town’s children, as well as medical facilities. Following the success of Hope Enterprises in Addis Ababa, Yenege Tesfa also sells meal tickets that you can distribute to the town’s street children. Tickets are available from most of the bigger hotels for Birr0.50 per ticket. It also actively encourages tourists to visit some of its project sites. Contact Yenege Tesfa in advance if you’re interested in doing this.
Link Ethiopia (0911 748055; www.linkethiopia.org) is a UK-based education charity providing materials and volunteer teachers to schools in the Gonder region. Each volunteer is given predeparture training.
Yimam Hotel (0581 110470; without bathroom Birr60) The rooms here, set around a large courtyard, are a toe-curling pink colour, cramped and not very inviting, but compared with the common toilets, which smell like two-week-old injera , they are heaven indeed.
Belegez Pension (0918 772997; d with/without bathroom Birr120/80) Once again retaining the crown of best-value cheapie in Gonder, the small and simple rooms here are spick and span and the showers gush forth steamy hot H2O. The sunny courtyard provides safe parking and is a good place to make new friends. The staff are very traveller-aware. Reservations are wise.
Circle Hotel (0581 101991; d/tw Birr115/150) Spinning up the staircase to the top of this hotel is like being on a fairground ride. The bright, tiled rooms are spacious, but the bathrooms aren’t too special and the toilet seats are ripped up and painful to hangout on. The downstairs bar shows the big English Premiership games and match times are posted on the door outside.
Misrak Pension (0581 110069; d Birr150) Prices are entirely faranji-fied but the rooms are spotless, the mattresses comfortable and the tiny bathrooms ‘oh so clean!’ It’s set around a pleasant garden.
Quara Hotel (0581 110040; firstname.lastname@example.org; with/without bathroom Birr200/150) A friendly hotel that acts as a home base for various local NGOs. The rooms are tidy, but you’d better have eaten all your carrots when you were young because the lighting is terrible.
MIDRANGE & TOP END
o Genetics Guesthouse (0918 049191; d/tw Birr150/250) This new guesthouse is a jewel in the mounds of dross. The rooms are huge, immaculate and the stylish bright red-andwhite walls frame numerous pictures. The beds are divinely comfortable and guarantee a decent night’s kip, the furnishings are good quality and there’s piping hot water (most of the time!). It’s easily the most exciting hotel in town.
Fogera Hotel (0581 110405; s/d US$20/25) While the rooms in this old Italian building are fading fast (though room 3 has retro-cool flowery wallpaper), the garden tukuls (conical thatched huts) have aged better and are a fair deal.
Atse Bekaffa Hotel (0581 117711; s/d US$25/30) A massive new venture with equally massive rooms. What really sets it apart are the little extras – ornate bed heads and colour coordination. Longer stays bring discounts.
Hotel Lammergeyer (0581 122993; s/d/tw US$25/35) Very close to Fasiladas’ Bath this clean place, which has received lots of positive feedback, has a warm, family vibe, bright, sunny rooms with small bathrooms. There’s a small cafe-restaurant.
Goha Hotel (0581 110634; email@example.com; s/d US$38/51; i) Perched on a high natural balcony providing a vantage point that would make a soaring vulture sick with envy, this is easily the best top-end hotel in town. The rooms have wool wall hangings, stone walls and embroidered bedding, but the water and electricity are as erratic as everywhere else in Gonder. You needn’t pack your swimming costume for the pool – the tide is out!
Eating & Drinking
Hash-Baz Café (snacks Birr2) With great croissants, cakes and pastries, this is a fine spot for breakfast. It also whips up some cool juices to match the cool interior.
Sky Line Café (mains Birr12-15) With a raised terrace overlooking the bustling streets and a decent breakfast menu (though do make sure you pronounce juice very clearly, otherwise you’ll end up with several portions of chips just like we did!), this is a fine place to kick off the day’s events.
City Bar & Restaurant (mains Birr20) Many locals will tell you that this place, on the 1st floor of the Golden Gate Bridge (which isn’t actually gold, or even a bridge), produces the finest injera and wat in Gonder. We won’t argue. If injera isn’t to your tummy’s liking, the faranji food is OK too.
Habesha Kitfo (mains Birr20-35) Lovingly and traditionally decked out with a woven mat floor, cow-hide stools, leather chairs and the odd live duck, this place drips in character and is the ideal spot in which to indulge in great Ethiopian food. Vegetarian fasting food is available daily and there’s a decent gift shop attached.
Quara Hotel (mains Birr28-32) When the residents of Gonder want to impress, it’ll be to the restaurant of this central hotel that they take their guests. Most of the food is designed to suit the belly of faranjis and includes such items as steak and chips and pizza.
Ras Dashen Supermarket (h8am-9pm) Load up on Simien Mountains supplies here.
Goha Hotel (beer Birr8) There’s nowhere better in town for a sunset drink than the hotel’s lofty garden terrace.
Ethiopia Café (drinks Birr2-4.50) This classic artdeco Italian cafe in the heart of the piazza is a true throwback to the days of yesteryear. The coffee is strong and the beer is cheap.
Abkeilish Tej Beat (bottles of tej Birr5-7) This wellknown tej beat (purveyor of honey wine) is the best place to delve into some stiff tej.
Sofa Juice (juices Birr6) If your insides are calling for drinks of a healthy variety, get your vitamin and fruity fix at this juice haven.
Mimicking the success of Bahir Dar’s Balageru Cultural Club, several traditional bars have opened in Gonder. Azmaris (see the boxed text, p60 ) sing along to their masenkos (singlestringed fiddle), women dance and everybody has a good time.
Bar Balageru (admission free) The most fun and most packed. A glass of tej is Birr6.
Dashen House (drinks Birr6-8) The large outdoor terrace here is indisputably the town’s favourite beer haunt. Further up the road, towards the Genetics Guesthouse, is a whole series of truly grimy and hard-core bars and clubs, but be warned that almost all of the women at these hang out under red light bulbs.
Merkato (h sunrise-sunset) The obvious choice for shoppers. Within the market, and on surrounding streets, you’ll find baskets, pottery and cloth stalls.
Getting There & Away
Ethiopian Airlines (0581 110129) flies once or twice daily to Addis Ababa (US$158, 1½ to two hours), Bahir Dar (US$74, 20 minutes), Lalibela (US$98, 30 minutes) and Aksum (US$110, 1¾ hours).
Buses leave for Addis Ababa (Birr94, two days, 6am), Bahir Dar (bus/minibus Birr23/35, four hours, three buses daily, many minibuses), Debark (Birr22, 3½ hours, several daily), Gorgora (Birr12, 1½ hours, two daily), Woldia (Birr84, two days, 5.30am) and Metema on the Ethiopia–Sudan border (Birr31, six to seven hours, 5.30am). For Aksum, go first to Shire (Birr57, 10 hours, 6am). For longer journeys, buy tickets a day in advance. Salem Buses (Birr170, 11 to 12 hours, 5am) and Sky Buses (Birr204, 11 hours, 5am Thursday & Saturday) run luxury air-con buses complete with reclining seats, TVs, toilets and, on Sky Buses, even snacks to Addis Ababa.
A taxi to or from the airport, which is 21km from town, costs between Birr50 and Birr60. Chartering a taxi to see Gonder’s sights costs about Birr50 per hour, but you’ll have to negotiate hard for this. Taxis and minibuses congregate near the piazza. Minibuses charge between Birr0.60 and Birr1.75 for hops around town; garis (horsedrawn carts) cost around Birr1 to Birr5.