Strange times : VSO retrospective 3 – bulletin written 3 3.10


I’ll begin today with a few comments on time in Ethiopia – suffice to say it’s all different!

First, the years are different because they stayed with the Julian calendar when most of the world went to the Gregorian –so the year here is 2003 (thus you lose 8 years of age as you step of the plane, they say, though I think the maths are a bit flawed there) – and only just that, because, second, the months are different – there are 13 months here – 12 of 30 days then a 13th of 5, hence Ethiopia’s slogan ‘13 months of sunshine’.

The new year began the day we flew – 11th Sept (or 1st Meskram here) which is maybe why the plane was empty but for us 20 VS0 types when we had put down the other passengers in Amman.

Week days are the same (7 days), though they obviously have different names, but times of day are very confusing: Habesha time is completely different from international time – they start counting day time at 6 am, so we start work at 2.30 (8.30am). Night begins at 6pm, so 7pm is 1 at night. Most business is conducted in international time – but it does mean if someone sets a time for a meeting, you have to check carefully which clock they are using! More about clocks below.

With that as background, here is an account of our week at work: Monday, obviously, we weren’t there as it was a holiday.

Meskal feast 2003 in Kebele 8

Meskal feast 2003 in Kebele 8

We met many of our neighbours as they came together for a communal feast to celebrate Meskal. At the time I wasn’t too sure what was going on, but we were certainly treated as very special guests – yet again.

Tuesday was ‘induction’ – we were shown around the offices and classrooms (ie the tin huts) and shook hands with everyone – still learning their names – very difficult since they are all so unfamiliar as well as hard to pronounce in some cases – they have explosive ‘k’ and ‘t’ sounds as well as a rolled ‘r’. Fortunately the lecturers all speak English to some level, so poor Amharic isn’t a barrier to communication.

We had tea in the ‘shai room’ – another hut – and were sent into town to do things like open a bank account, rent a PO box, shop at the enormous Tuesday market (more camels – well, we didn’t buy any, only veggies and eggs.)

Lecturers enjoy a drink and a snack at the shai bet (tea house)

Lecturers enjoy a drink and a snack at the shai bet (tea house)

Buying eggs with my counterpart, Maru

Buying eggs with my counterpart, Maru – also note the chickens for sale ….

Wednesday was a bit weird – the only students around at the moment are the 2nd years – 3rd years are on teaching practice and 1st years haven’t yet enrolled, so we rattled around our shared room not knowing what to do. The phrase ‘watching paint dry’ was used at times! Our local colleagues were out doing school visits quite a lot of the time. At the end of the day, the Dean said he thought we needed a bigger room rather than an office, and that we would all move into a classroom, to be turned into a training room. Our local counterparts were not well pleased by this and suggested if we just stayed in the office, it wouldn’t happen.

That night it rained heavily, so it was really muddy underfoot when we went to work on Thursday. We went to our new room and watched whilst chairs for trainees to sit on and a couple of tables were carried in – then we sat there for a long time. Finally I went to the office building to see what was happening about moving equipment from there. Nothing – it was still locked – and our colleagues were sitting at the entrance to the building ‘waiting for the mud to dry’!!!

Marian and I were sent with the purchasing manager to buy floor covering, and I think a few words must have been said.

At the floor covering shop near Adago market - now no longer a market ...

At the floor covering shop near Adago market – now no longer a market …

By the time we got back and the oilcloth was down, the team of guards came to help carry stuff and by lunchtime (6.30 local) we had most of the resources in there and just the office desks to come. We also plan to have 2 clocks – one showing international time at the ELIC (English centre) end and one on local time at the HDP end. (We never did achieve that – it took over 6 months to get ONE clock!)

Tables, chairs and lots of unused electrical equipment begin to appear

Tables, chairs and lots of unused electrical equipment begin to appear

By the end of the afternoon we had a functioning room, though my colleague, Maru, was noticeably annoyed that the printer he had shared had now gone to the ‘HDP’ end of the room (this is a diploma like a PGCE) so we have to use flash drives to print anything.

The Dean and Marian's counterpart check out progress

The Dean and Marian’s counterpart, Moges, check out progress

Friday was mainly spent putting up notices announcing the move and, in the afternoon, Marian held a meeting with almost all of the lecturing staff to determine when they would begin their HDP training – they follow the course before they can begin to use their enhanced methodology with the trainee teachers – at least I think that’s how it works. The part of the role our Dean says is about ‘introducing western business practices’ was all to the fore, with an agenda, an insistence on timeliness, an exchange of views before agreement about times and groups was reached and minutes and attendance registers for the 2 groups produced before we went home.

I have advertised a ‘competition’ for international teachers’ day (Tuesday) – a paragraph about an influential teacher – open to staff & students – the best to be published in our first ELIC newsletter! I will be working on a writing frame to support those with a shaky command of English later today – it’s about the only planning I need to do this weekend. Which is refreshing!

As it’s warm and sunny, we plan to take a walk later in the afternoon to see what delights are to be found along the road to Gonder. Last night we had a meal at the ‘best hotel in town’ – the Lal – but the power was off, so everything tasted faintly of kerosene. Anyway, it only cost about £2 each for a main course and a sweet – the enticingly named ‘PAN CACKS’ – and 2 beers each.

Lal hotel - with parked NGO vehicles

Lal hotel – with parked NGO and tour vehicles


Living dangerously, we came back after dark in a turbo-charged racing bajaj which must have hit speeds well in excess of 25 mph coming down the hill past the bus station. (Thanks Marian for this photo – illustration only – it was dark and moving, so the actual moment was not captured)

We have many photos of all of this and will experiment with Flickr and Facebook to see if they can be shared, bearing in mind the upload issues. (Never managed that – this is the first time most of these photos have ever gone public, except for the ones Marian took when i didn’t.)

Thanks to all who have written to me this week – will definitely be in touch if we need any items sent here – though I believe 2-4 weeks is about standard delivery time – but if anyone wishes to try snailmail, my PO box address is now:

PO box ***, Woldia, North Wollo, Ethiopia

Woldia posta bet (thanks Marian - I never took a photo - too busy using it as a euphemism!!)

Woldia posta bet (thanks for this too Marian – I never took a photo – too busy using it as a euphemism!!)

Obviously not anymore, but carried on being used by David until he came back home this summer.

Lots of love to all



Like Scotland – but with hyenas and camels Arriving in Woldia in time for Meskal 2003 (End of September 2010)


Retrospective 2 from 2003 EC ; email sent at end of September 2010

Hello again

This is the first briefing from Woldia – which I now know is a good 12 hour drive from Addis! (And which I subsequently found out was a 2 day journey by bus – the only practical way of getting there if you don’t have a private vehicle – which mostly we didn’t. Things change though – I’m told a Selam bus now runs direct from Woldia, cutting out the need to spend the night in Dessie. )

We left Addis on Friday morning at 8am – the roads were variable – starting with a long stretch of unmetalled ‘under construction’ dual carriageway as we left the city going north – apparently China is putting a lot of money into the infrastructure here – that’s one reason why the phone company has a monopoly – and also, incidentally, the reason why children here in Woldia shout ‘China’ at us (when they are not yelling ‘you, you, YOU!’)

So, we passed donkeys and horse drawn ‘taxis’ and street stalls selling plastic things and vegetables. The roads improved, but there was very little motorised traffic – just buses and four-wheel drives belonging to NGOs like ours – we saw several UN vehicles – usually as they overtook us – with our load of 5 people and our baggage (my suitcase was the flashest, but never the heaviest) and great big boxes of household equipment on the roof.

We stopped off at a few hotels for coffee en route – women don’t really go into the coffee houses in the rural areas – and the sanitation tends to be cleaner in hotels! The scenery in the highlands is stunning – everything very green as the rains have just ended – we identified barley, maize and sorghum and saw lovely bright coloured flowers. This season is called spring, despite being in the northern hemisphere – the rainy season is winter and coincides with our summer. Very confusing! More about time later too – it’s ALL different – clocks, days, months, years ….

Then we dropped down and it was noticeably hotter, and camels replaced the donkeys carrying loads along the road. We reached Dessie (our nearest big town, where it is already clear we will need to go to shop for many things not available here) at about half past five and then up into the mountains again as it began to go dark. At one point a hyena ran across the road just in front of the truck – scary …

Woldia is surrounded by mountains but on a plain in the middle, so it is much warmer than Addis despite being over 2000m. That ought to mean it’s not malarial, but they say it can be risky in the rainy season, so I’ll keep on the Larium to be safe. Our college dean and my colleague who is their ELIP co-ordinator (English language improvement programme) met us in town at the Lal Hotel – the best in town and one where it may just be possible for Marian and I to spend an evening without being mistaken for very elderly bar girls – will report on this later – and then came to our house.

It was a warm night and the sound of  crickets gave it an exotic feel – I recall feeling a long way from chilly England. And then, to our astonishment, someone called Marian’s name and we discovered our next door neighbours were someone she had met in Vancouver and her husband – so on arrival Zerefa greeted us warmly – and in English! She was to become a lifelong friend.

The house is in a compound with a couple of other buildings – our landlady is behind us across the small open area that serves as a kitchen. We have the luxury of 5 rooms – a big living room, 2 bedrooms, a back room, which will be our kitchen, even though there is no water supply there – though we do have a fridge, brought down from Mekele where a VSO volunteer had gone home and left it in the house they had been living in, and the power here seems pretty reliable, so that’s all good.

The other room is the 3rd world area – our sink is in the hallway next door to the ‘bathroom’, which just has room for a squat loo (think France in the late 60s) and a shower tray – with cold water. Marian’s standards are a bit more US than mine and she thought it was pretty gross, but it’s not a great hardship since the rest of the house is fine – and we will negotiate with our landlady about helping to pay for the installation of a water heater.

The housegirl from next door, who will also be our day guard and do bits of cleaning / washing for the princely sum of 450 birr a month (that’s about £18) performed a coffee ceremony to welcome us – more of this later – first of many – they are addicted here – and then we were left to unpack and sleep, which we did.

Naturally Marian began by organising the kitchen

Naturally Marian began by organising the kitchen

Yesterday some colleagues from the college (all the teaching staff is male) came for another coffee ceremony and to eat a huge loaf of cake-like bread. I now know this to be called ‘ambasha’ – a regular ceremonial thing..

coffee ceremony

Fetile, our landlady’s eldest daughter, performs a coffee ceremony


Behonegn cuts the bread

College Dean, Behonegn, cuts the bread

The staff that came to greet us, to our relief, spoke English pretty well, so we were able to talk about how the teacher training courses run. More of that when we actually go to work. The Dean and my counterpart in ELIP then took us up to the market to buy big plastic things like brushes, bowls, mops and buckets that were too bulky to bring from Addis. I’ve often looked in those shops when I’ve been travelling and now I know what it’s like to buy stuff – cheap! We filled a bajaj (local tuk-tuk) for about £15 – then you think what people earn here and wonder how they manage.

Next 3 ‘technicians’ from the college came to change a couple of non-functioning locks on the doors and to fix our mosquito nets to the impossibly high ceilings – that took about 2 hours – and a lot of intervention, too – they decided the best thing to do with the nets was to tie them to the light fittings – with string next to bare bulbs, but eventually agreed that nails in the ceiling was a better idea (no hooks here – only available in Addis, it seems.)

mozzie net


Not much to do in the evenings, and it’s dark well before 7, so we cooked pasta and tomato sauce, read a bit and had an early night – so that was he first day in Woldia. Tomorrow is the festival of Meskel, in memory of the finding of the True Cross. This evening there are bonfires, and crosses decorated with red and yellow meskel daisies are burnt, then tomorrow (our supposed first day at work) will be a day off. Not sure if this involves church or not (my counterpart is Moslem anyway) but no doubt it will involve coffee ceremonies and food! More about this next week, once I have been to the college.

PS After I wrote this, we walked to the ‘college’ to discover that it’s a bunch of tin huts in the middle of a field – however, the positive thing is that it actually exists.

A bunch of tin huts in the middle of a field ...

A bunch of tin huts in the middle of a field …

The English centre notice board - clearly some work to be done here.

The English centre notice board – clearly some work to be done here.

The only notice on the ELIC board in September 2010

The only notice on the ELIC board in September 2010

Later we went to the bonfire – so the day yielded many photos, which I now have to find a way to share*, the email speeds here being too slow for attaching them, or even uploading to a sharing site, I suspect. We have acquired celebrity status for being white and living here and were followed home by about 20 children and a handful of teenage boys** who wished to show off their English skills.

Priests gather to chant at our first Meskal bonfire

Priests gather to chant at our first Meskal bonfire

 * In the end quite a few of these photos found their way into the blog I wrote about Meskel a year later, when I knew what it was about!

** One of whom was Henok who became our Amharic teacher and friend and mentor. Much more about him on the blog too.

Main entrance to the college from the road

Main entrance to the college from the road

The Woldia CTE sign - which became a feature of almost all of my training presentations

The Woldia CTE sign – which became a feature of almost all of my training presentations



VSO retrospective 1 – arriving in Ethiopia in 2010


VSO retrospective 1 – about to leave Addis for Woldia late September 2010 (EC 2003)

 During the first year I lived in Woldia, I kept in touch with friends at home by sending emails to Steve, which he then forwarded to family, friends and colleagues at their request. It was impossible to send photos because of the slow email speeds, but for a while I’ve had the idea of turning these early communications into blog entries – and illustrating with photos from the archives.At 4 years distance then here goes at the first ‘update’ I sent.

Holiday Hotel2

View out to the hills above the Holiday Hotel compound

I am writing from the Holiday Inn (actually Holiday HOTEL) in Addis, which is grander than it sounds, believe me. Yesterday we finished the training course that prepares us to live and work here. It has involved 2 hours a day of Amharic tuition – I can count to 20 and say good morning in both masculine and feminine forms – but a lot of learning to do – the verbs are complicated – and he written script like nothing I’ve ever seen before.

Plenty of lectures from various official types: the style of teaching generally seems to be pretty didactic   – someone representing the Ministry for Education read his Powerpoint slides to us for about an hour and a half!! Don’t even ask what he said – the millions of charts of statistics just all merged into one in the end.

We have also spent some time in the city centre (the Red Cross centre where we stayed is about 20 minutes out, and a very protected environment.) Addis is busy and muddy underfoot. I’m glad I was advised to bring wellies. The rain was bad last week, but the wet season seems to be ending and it is warmer. Not hot as you’d imagine, though, since we’re 2,400 metres above sea level, so the temperature is in the 20s and no humidity – no mosquitoes either, though am taking Larium in preparation for travelling.

We have been well entertained, as well as working hard during the day – we had a reception at the British embassy when we first arrived, then the cafeteria staff taught us Ethiopian dancing one night and last night we had a ‘cultural evening’ with a local band and dancers. That was the final night of the training. There are 30+ of us from all over – about 9 English, 10 Irish, a woman from India, 3 Philippinos, a Ugandan and a couple of Americans, one of whom is a diaspora volunteer, born here but has lived in Seattle since he was 12; we are all ages from 20s to 60s as well. My housemate and colleague, who is also coming to Woldia, is Canadian. Today we ought to have been travelling, but our employer’s car broke down (was in an accident we later found out) on the way to the training session yesterday, so we are in the hotel till Friday, when we hope to be able to travel to our new home.

The good thing is we are now in Addis, in the area known as Haya Hulet. That’s the name of the road junction – it means 22! So there’s the chance to do a bit of shopping for things we may not be able to get in a small town (books, for example). The VSO programme office is just up the road, so also I intend to go and look round the resources centre there before we leave.

Internet speeds here are said to be the slowest in the world, so I won’t be sending many photos unless I can find a way to save them somewhere without uploading them as attachments. We still have a couple of IT people here till tomorrow so will ask around. The plan is to go out for some exotic firengi food later – a pizza. Better make the most of that as the staple diet here is a bread like thing called injera served up with stew (wot.) Weds and Fri are fast days for Christians, so no meat – or indeed no dairy either. But that should be ok in the pizza place, I hope.

Marian in the pizza place above Getfam - after some serious supermarket stocking up

Marian in the pizza place above Getfam – after some serious supermarket stocking up

More about religion and history will follow as time passes. But for now, dena walachu!


Part 3 Gondar and back to Addis


Funny how things happen in life: this time last year Steve and I were preparing to fly to Addis, buying items requested by friends, packing, emailing all the people we planned to see…. I last worked on this blog in the autumn, fully intending to complete it and then do something with the letters and photos from my first year in Woldia – but things aren’t always as you plan them to be. Early in January Steve suffered from a stroke (and how glad I am now that I’d completed the VSO placement and that we had the chance to return together, because there is no way either  would be possible at the moment.)


It did have a few lighter moments though – when a commode was delivered to the house just before he came home, the cat immediately made it her new place and took to using it as a frame to perform ‘catcrobatics!’


More than 4 months on, Steve is much recovered, though still not completely mobile or as mentally agile as he used to be.  Subsequently he developed diabetes, which has made life very busy – a sequence of medical appointments,  and coming to terms with daily medication routines. What with part-time teaching and all of this going on at home, time for blogging has been difficult to find. On the plus side, I’m thankful that I no longer teach full-time: I wouldn’t have been able to do that … and I’m endlessly grateful for our wonderful British NHS, and more angry than ever at attempts to pull it apart.

The third episode of this tale is, thus told very much in retrospect and from a somewhat changed perspective than the earlier 2 sections. It seems a long time since we were in Gondar with Jenny last June – in fact I saw her more recently in London in September at NATE’s 50th birthday party. (That’s how we met in the first place – as young English teachers, at an English teachers’ conference in the 1980s – so it was pretty amazing to discover, just before we flew, that she was working in Ethiopia, and living in one of the places we planned to visit.)

It was great to see Jenny: as soon as we arrived she provided us with a large bowl of pasta and home-made tomato sauce, which was just what I needed after that long bus journey. The last couple of glasses of the French wine also came out that night. Steve, ever the carnivore, went out and found a local restaurant that served him with tibs and injera. We spent the rest of the evening catching up with what Jenny was doing working at Gondar university: basically the same role Marian had had in Woldia, but with many more lecturing staff on her course, so she was supervising other leaders as well as teaching the HDP course herself.


I’d stayed at the Universal Guest House a couple of years previously, when Marian and I went on our Lalibela trip. There were quite a few volunteers living there at that time. Gondar University has a medical department, so there were a number of doctors and midwives involved in training, as well as teachers.  Jenny had her apartment to herself, which was great as we had a bedroom and bathroom of our own. She also had a good sized kitchen with luxuries, including a sink, an oven and such like. She also had a bottle of good malt whiskey and made us a most delicious nightcap of hot chocolate with a splash of scotch. Never had that before, but would again. So far so positive. But our plans to spend time together changed the following day as Jenny wasn’t well: though it isn’t unusual to be prostrated by a stomach upset from time to time in Ethiopia, this one was unfortunate in its timing.

Jenny spent the day sleeping on her sofa while we set off to town. Gondar is pretty amazing, and its attractions less well known than those of Lalibela. I had no idea there were mediaeval castles in Africa before I visited in 2011, and Steve was as impressed as I’d been the first time I saw them. As a volunteer, I only had to pay the same as a local (pennies), but this time it was full tourist price. Still well worthwhile for the best part of two hours we spent with an informative and friendly guide who explained the history of the Fasilidas dynasty to us, and the sequence of building their various palaces. It was low season and the weather was not good, so we were virtually the only people in the place, which may have contributed to the attention we received. Compared to the massive cost of touring the churches of Lalibela, this was worth the price – less than £10 if I recall accurately.



The lion cages where Haile Selassie kept the Ethiopian black lions are still at the site, but no lions anymore.


After all the walking around, we had a beer in the very modern bar at the Circle Hotel, but less impressed by the food menu.


After an enjoyable lunch in the Qwara  Hotel (one of Gondar’s tourist hotels – it made a change for Steve to be able to choose a meal from a fairly extensive  European menu after a lot of tibs in Woldia and Axum) we walked up the hill out of town to the Church of Debre Birhan Selassie – really a must see – it has the mural on the ceiling of multiple winged angel faces,  and some other impressive paintings and ecclesiastical artifacts as well.


It’s hard to get good photos of the ceiling as flash cameras aren’t allowed, for obvious reasons, but this gives an idea – also the lovely painting of Daniel in the lions’ den. (Lions are a bit of a theme in this section of the journey.)


Back to Jenny’s via Fasilidas’ Pool; it was pouring with rain by this time and we get very wet waiting for a bus, maybe appropriately. This is the place to be at Timkat, when the pool is filled with water and the event is celebrated by mass jumping in. Marian and I had watched this on our landlady’s television the first year we were in Woldia and Marian was lucky enough to be there with a visiting friend the following year to see it for herself.


It was still raining when we got off the bus on the main road; the walk down to Jenny’s takes ten minutes or so, so we sheltered in a nearby bar, where everyone made us very welcome, as we had a couple of beers. Jenny still wasn’t up to a night out when we got back, so we invited out her neighbour, John, a recently arrived Canadian volunteer,  who had the misfortune to contract malaria almost as soon  as he arrived in Ethiopia – though he was much improved by the time we met him. The deal we struck was that if we treated him to a meal, he’s do the same for Jenny once she was fit to enjoy it!

We walked to a restaurant on the main road, not far from the bar we’d been in earlier. This proved to be a cosmopolitan place called Hard Rock, though lacking in the typical memorabilia you might find in similarly named establishments in London or New York!  Many young and very westernised Ethiopians were having a good time eating burgers and pizzas. The food we had was good (I suspect the burgers were less so – Ethiopian beef is not hung, so it’s often incredibly tough), the boss was very friendly and spoke extremely good English, John was entertaining company: it was a really enjoyable evening.

In the morning, we had a leisurely breakfast (Jenny was back on her feet and eating by then) and took a taxi to the airport in time for our lunchtime flight back to Addis. This was uneventful – though it still felt strange as ever to go from the traditional city to the air-conditioned modern world of the airport. Addis, of course, is even more of a contradiction in that way. I felt like an old hand as we strolled out of arrivals, walked straight past all the taxis who want to charge around 200 birr (about £8) to drive the couple of miles to Haya Hulet, and negotiated a line taxi under the interchange near the airport entrance. I fended off a trio of juvenile pick pockets like a true professional (they seem to prey on people straight off planes – I suppose if you’ve been on a long flight you’d be sleepy and disoriented – but our flight only took about an hour. )

From Haya Hulet, we texted all and sundry to sort out a place to meet – ending up having a late lunch in Road Runner.

Steve attempts not to share his 'chippes' with the Road Runner dog

Steve attempts not to share his ‘chippes’ with the Road Runner dog

We were soon joined by Abbie and, after work, Marian and Liz. I can’t remember where we went that night but I think Marian may well have cooked a goodbye meal for us: she was leaving for Canada herself only a couple of weeks later and was hoping we could stay long enough for her farewell meal – more tibs – a whole sheep involved in this one.  Unfortunately we had to be back in England the week before that, me to take part in GCSE standardising, Steve to travel to work at the G8 conference in Ireland.

After that it was a sequence of goodbyes – lunch at the Ambassador Gardens with Henok – he tried a club sandwich and was disappointed that it ‘was not what I thought it would be’. We promised we’d all try to be back for his graduation from medical school in some 4 years’ time. We did a bit of sight-seeing that final day – I got to see The Red Terror Museum near Meskal Square – been trying to do that ever since I was in Woldia – a searing memorial for all the political victims who died under Durg persecution.


We walked up to Arat Kilo and found the Lion Zoo – the last remaining black lions in Addis, descended  from those kept at the palace of Haile Selassie, and a few other native species.


Loved this big male gelada baboon!



Some souvenir buying – a shekla tibs cooking pot found in one of the tourist shops on Meskal Square, and finally, it was nostalgic to hop off the line taxi at Shola market, where Marian and I had bought our bedding and kitchen equipment in the September of 2010, and to get into some serious bargaining for an injera basket.


Liz gathered together a group of volunteers who had stayed on in various roles in Ethiopia – quite a few of them still teaching though some now in private schools – some now with Ethiopian partners.


 We had a long evening meal at Road Runner before heading back to Liz’s and picking up the bags to take that taxi back to the airport for the late plane to Istanbul.  Bought a couple of tourist t-shirts at the airport – they didn’t sell stuff like that at the market – and boarded the plane back to Europe. It was a long journey involving a stop-over of 5 hours at Istanbul.  Drank cappuccino and got online in the café. This was the journey ‘home’ – and the end of an experience in a way. It underlined the VSO experience but not in any way ended  my relationship with my ‘other home’.

Over the summer I was reading a lot of travel writing. The paragraph below moved me so intensely that I copied it down as it sums up in so many ways my experience of living in, and travelling around, the highlands of Northern Ethiopia.

“There’s something profoundly intense and intoxicating about friendship found en route. It’s the bond that arises from being thrust into uncomfortable circumstances, and the vulnerability of trusting others to navigate those situations. It’s the exhilaration of meeting someone when we are our most alive selves, breathing new air, high on life-altering moments. It’s the discovery of the commonality of the world’s people and the attendant rejection of prejudices. It’s the humbling experience of being suspicious of a stranger who then extends a great kindness. It’s the astonishment of learning from those we set out to teach. It’s the intimacy of sharing small spaces, the recognition of a kindred spirit across the globe.

It’s the travel relationship, and it can only call itself family.”

Lavinia Spalding’s introduction to Vol 8 The Best Women’s Travel Writing


Return to Ethiopia 2: Tourist towns of the North: Lalibela and Axum


Before we left England, I’d been in contact with Susan, who co-owns and runs the amazing Ben Abeba restaurant and she had booked us rooms in the Top 12 hotel newly opened and run by a neighbour of hers a short walk up the road from the restaurant. After the journey – and after the rather basic experience of staying with David – sleeping on the floor and washing with cold water from a bucket – the hotel was the epitome of luxury. Get this for a bathroom!


OK I know it looks like any bath store catalogue picture in the UK: you had to be there to really appreciate it. So we had a long hot shower and then went to drink chilled South African white wine on one of Ben Abeba’s flower-like terraces.  Fantastic to see how this amazing building looks finished, and to be entertained by the local staff Susan has trained so well. One of the waitresses is from a village very near to our sponsor daughter, Tamralech – this is absolutely a meeting of two worlds as Ethiopia begins to enter a global twenty-first  century culture. Speaking of which, Susan had just had wireless broadband connected to the restaurant, so do take your laptops / tablets / phones etc there with you.


NB Marian with South African white wine nicely chilled – and Steve with Susan’s laptop.

It’s a little breezy up there on the terrace.

On Wednesday we had breakfast with Marian and then set off with our PLAN guides to Tamralech’s village – a shame we didn’t realise the road passed the airport, or we could have given Marian a lift there to catch her plane back to Addis.  We did see her plane come into land on our return journey, and experienced another of those collisions of the old world and the new.


Once past the airport, there was no road to speak of. We bounced up and down hills in the 4 wheel drive and crossed several river beds. Tamralech’s village really is remote. Even in good weather it must be a good two hours walk to access any amenities at all – and in the wet season it must be impossible to go anywhere.


One of the uses PLAN has made of sponsors’ money is to build a school which you can see from where the family lives. Tamralech started school last month, aged 6, and is the first person in her family to go to school. Previously the walk to the nearest school would have been daunting (and dangerous) for a young girl, and in any case, with no running water, girls have a full-time job on their hands carrying jerry cans to the nearest stream to supply the family’s water needs.


You can see the metal roof of the school building top left with the hills behind it.

We had a good visit with the extended family – we saw traditional tukul huts that each family group has for sleeping – and we were invited into the large communal tukul to eat injera and berbery with most of the adults  – along with a young goat, several chickens and a small cat.



Injera is served in the big tukul

Initially Tamralech was very shy and had to be coaxed out to meet us by her mum.


Once she saw the baby toys we had brought (thanks to my colleague Louise) she was overcome with delight and was soon playing happily with us. There is a new baby in the family, but I don’t think there’s much chance of her getting her hands on these any time at all.


We gave sweets and pencils to all the other children in the extended family and mum seemed very pleased with the coffee beans.


This is the fourth visit we’ve made to a sponsor child, and it’s always awe-inspiring to meet these families and to join them briefly in their daily lives. It makes the routine correspondence by letter and exchange of photos very special. Actually, these days I often send emails. Who knows how soon we’ll be using Skype to show each other what we’re up to?

After an hour or so we said our goodbyes and were driven along the track to visit the school. Our arrival got us a lot of attention – not many ferengi visitors come to this part of Lalibela I suspect. From there we went back towards the airport and called in on the PLAN financed health centre. Here the staff spoke English and were pleased to show us round – and not slow in telling us that for all the equipment they have, they always need more. Again, it was rewarding to see how sponsors help improve the lives of whole communities, not just the individual children they sponsor.


We were back in Lalibela in time for a late lunch at Ben Abeba and to watch the Irish film crew who were using the restaurant as a backdrop for a film I believe will be called ‘Wild’ when it is released. They had converted the toilets (also noted for being the best in Ethiopia) into a basic laundry. Susan had the inspired idea of their giving each of the girls who work in the restaurant an allowance to buy an outfit for Fasika (orthodox Easter) which would then be temporarily used as ‘washing’ hanging up near this ‘stream.’ All very colourful – and everyone benefits.


The following evening we ended up sitting by the bonfire with a sound technician and had a very convivial evening. A final comment from Susan: “Tell everyone we make other good food as well as shepherd’s pie.” A comment in the Lonely Planet guide seems to have made this the default order for most people, which is a shame as the menu has lots of good stuff on it, local and ferengi. I really liked the soups – all made with local vegetables, so that’s another section of the community getting an economic boost from Susan’s initiative.


A lovely mosaic in Ben Abeba – and the inside restaurant


Before we left, we had a day to look round Lalibela. I’d already seen the  churches when I visited with Marian (to celebrate William and Kate’s wedding – since it was a bank holiday in England I thought I’s have a day off too) in 2011.


Bet Kidist Georgis in 2011 – definitive tourist pose! NB my hair still in their Fasika sheruba

Steve didn’t want to go on his own – too expensive for one thing – it’s better if you can share the cost of a guide – so we went to The Seven Olives for lunch. Like most of the Durg era hotels it has beautiful gardens though the rooms aren’t as snazzy as Top  12.


Seven Olive’s garden above – Top 12 room below


We went to the bank to change dollars into birr for the weekend, bought some post cards, and talked to a fair number of local youngsters, most of whom wanted money, obviously, but they were pleasant and at least offered services in return – shoe shine, a coffee ceremony etc We’ll be back so there will be other chances for Steve to have the full tourist experience.

Friday was an early start and our turn to take a minibus to the airport. The first time I visited Lalibela it was a strange experience from being very much in the minority as a white person to suddenly being in a polyglot ferengi crowd with hardly any Ethiopians at all, on the bus and even more so at the airport. Actually this time there were not many people of any nationality. Our plane to Axum was less than half full. This was when I really began to feel like a tourist. I hadn’t managed to travel as far north as Axum whilst living in Woldia, so the town was new to me, and so was the language. It hadn’t occurred to me that Tigrinya was so different from Amharic and it was a shock not to be able to communicate or to understand at all what was being said around me. I thought my Amharic was pretty poor but now realised it was good enough to be useful, for shopping, using local transport and in restaurant s and cafes.

Fortunately we were lucky enough to be staying with Viv and Gareth (VSO colleagues), so that helped us to find out how to visit the stellae field, how much bajajs ought to be charging and where to find a pharmacy to get Steve some anti-biotics to kill off whatever it was that had upset his stomach since the stay in Woldia. They, like David, were managing without running water in the house, but they did have a good kitchen and a massive fridge, so we ate well. We also had a very pleasant evening out at the Yeha hotel the last night we were there – another really lovely mature garden. Our more routine evening entertainment involved them thrashing us at Scrabble – they know many 2 letter words I never knew existed!

Axum is an interesting place – a very old culture, from the beginnings of Christianity – indeed the Ark of the Covenant (the actual biblical one, not a replica of the kind kept in every orthodox church) is said to be kept in the holy of holies in St Mary of Zion.

The stellae are some kind of funerary item – they have carvings on some of them which reminded me of the temple carvings in Luxor. They look like enormous headstones, but seem to represent whole buildings – like skyscrapers. The museum explains some of their history and I’m sure a guide could have told us a lot more if we’d hired one.




I particularly liked the Queen of Sheba’s bath – she must have been a big girl to need all that space – and I liked the locals doing their washing and watering their livestock as the afternoon grew cooler.


Gareth and Viv took me on a walk round the hilly perimeter of the town and showed me where there were some very old tombs – again reminiscent of Egypt – and led me to a most odd experience of being let into a corrugated iron shed in a field where there was a massive stone with the same text carved in three ancient languages.  It’s called King Ezana’s inscription and is known as Ethiopia’s Rosetta Stone.


King Ezana’s inscription – in Ge’ez

Steve missed this as he was in bed nursing his poorly tummy, though thankfully he was beginning to recover by the time we got back.

Axum was definitely worth visiting – and from what Gareth and Viv said was a good place to live. Much, much more on that topic can be found on the blog Viv wrote during their time with VSO.


Viv and more stellae

Now our journey took an interesting turn. We’d planned to fly from Axum to Gondar than make our way back to Addis on the bus via a night in Bahir Dar. Unfortunately the flight was full on our chosen day, so we went for plan B. It looked possible, though quite a long way, to travel by road. We found out that this would mean a short journey to Shire and an overnight stay so as to be on the early morning bus to Gondar. This was another occasions when I wished I knew some Tigrinya! It began well enough – we found out where the minibus to Shire picked up at the bus station and I don’t think we were overcharged.

As we walked out of the bus station in Shire, right in front of us was a hotel and I swear the sign read The Shit Hotel, so I burst out laughing and said, “Well we have to stay there!” Actually when we got right up to the door, it actually said ‘Snit’ – which I think was an Anglicisation of the fidel which seemed to read ‘Senit’ (Senate??) Anyway it wasn’t that posh – but not as ‘snit’ as it might have been Our room cost 150 birr, which is quite expensive to say the en suite had only cold water and a broken shower.  The room was clean though – no bugs or cockroaches, so we slept well after eating in the restaurant there.


Well what does that sign look like to you?

So far so good, but OMG! That bus journey. We finally left at nearly 7am, so we’d been up over an hour longer than was strictly necessary. It was an old local bus, not like the Sky and Selam buses that we’re used to for long distance journeys.


On the bus – there was actually an enormous digging machine just outside the window near the back door

– the bright sunlight has wiped it out – but believe me it was typical of the whole journey’s sights

But the roads were indescribable. Yes, the Lonely Planet guide is quite right about the stunning mountain views, however China infrastructure improvements have turned this into a hundred or so mile long road works! Not one section at a time, but the whole road is strewn with earthmovers, diggers, flatteners, piles of stone, men in fluorescent jackets with stop and go signs (mainly stop.) It was late afternoon before we got back onto a decent road surface in Debark with a good 50 miles still to cover. A word of advice: if you’re thinking about doing this route by road, I suggest you wait about 3 years – it should be a good (though mountainous and bendy) road once finished. Do not attempt it before then!


Stunning mountain views as we drove through the foothills of the Simians

Added to this we misunderstood the purpose of the only stop we made in a very small town – we couldn’t see anywhere much to go and eat – or indeed any potential for a toilet that we might contemplate using, so we thought there would be a proper lunch stop later. Wrong! And given Steve’s recovering bowels it was a matter of some concern if he’d actually make it to Gondar without incident. He did, but you have never seen anyone run so fast when we found a hotel near where the bus put us down. It was a case of, ‘Shintabet – ahun – URGENT!’ Fortunately we were back in an Amharic speaking town!!

Anyway, we did get there, just as it was going dark, and after a very much appreciated beer in the hotel (it seemed polite to repay them for the use of their facilities), we took a bajaj to Jenny’s apartment at the Universal Guest House. And more in the next instalment about what happened when we hit Gondar the next day.

Return to Ethiopia – first part – Addis and Woldia

Return to Ethiopia – first part – Addis and Woldia

“Ethiopia will always be your other home.”

That’s what they said to us as we completed the day of training provide by VSO to help us settle when we returned to our various countries – some of origin, some of choice. And of course it is true: 16 months in Woldia had made the town very much a home to me and even Addis felt very familiar compared with the first impressions formed over those initial days at the Red Cross Centre.  There was never a question about whether I would return.

When I retired from full-time teaching in March, I’d been back in England for about the same time I spent in Ethiopia (sixteen months.) There were still quite a few VSO friends there, some of whom would be returning home this summer, so this seemed a good time to go and visit. An additional reason was that our PLAN sponsor daughter in Sri Lanka had reached the point where her community was ready to carry on developing without PLAN’s support. We chose to move our sponsorship to the Lalibela area and had just heard that our new daughter, Tamralech and her family, could be visited while we were there.

Plans were made, planes booked, and then came the difficult part of deciding exactly how much travelling would be feasible in 3 weeks and who we could visit. An itinerary began to take shape and we were lucky to get generous offers of places to stay all over the northern regions of Ethiopia. In all cases, we asked what we could bring from UK, and the most surprising items ended up being packed into the enormous suitcase (which was definitely not leaving Addis for the travel by bus we envisaged.)  Flea collars, for the dogs in Marian’s compound; dried fruit for Susan at Ben Abeba (who’d have thought this was so impossible to find, even in Addis?); a laptop charger for Henok; books and posters for Woldia College; sweets and pens for the children in Tamralech’s village; some good French Bordeaux wine, to be shared between some of our hosts – they wouldn’t get a lot each, but such a luxury compared to Goudar, the local red wine. Just before we left, my colleague Louise (the one whose maternity leave I had been covering in school) gave me 2 carrier bags stuffed with toys and baby clothes her girls had outgrown. We had to sit on the case to fasten it!

We arrived in Addis late at night on May 22nd. It took a phone call to locate the taxi Liz had organised to take us back to her house, but soon we were on our way from Bole to Haya Hulet – along utterly familiar streets where I’d spent much time walking between supermarkets in search of cheese, corned beef etc.  Liz had waited up to let us in then went straight off to bed – she had completed her time as a volunteer earlier in the year and had taken a job at Sandford School through till the end of the term.

Steve repacking in the bedroom at Liz's

Steve repacking in the bedroom at Liz’s

We had 3 days in Addis, so there was a lot to do: sorting out the contents of the suitcase to reduce it to 2 backpacks was quite a task. A quick visit to the bank to change some dollars into birr was relatively uncomplicated. I was relieved to recall enough Amharic to ease the way for this, and to use the line taxis with little difficulty. We also had to book some onward transport: the Selam bus to Woldia (Marian was joining us for this part of the trip) and flights between Lalibela, Axum and Gondar. This took up much of two days – in Ethiopia you go to the office and wait in a queue rather than using the internet.

More complex was the issue of my phone, since my Ethiopian SIM card had expired and it proved difficult to locate the Addis ‘tele’ (Ethiopian Telecom) – so in the end we decided this would be more quickly done in Woldia. It did mean using expensive UK connections for the first few days, though. We did find the station (La Gare) while we were looking though – an impressive building – and will be even more so once the planned reconstruction of the railways is underway.

La gare

We met up with Henok for lunch in the Ambassador Gardens – a very pleasant green space not far from Meskal Square, and near to the Black Lion Hospital where his medical studies take place. It was great to see him and to catch up on family news. Very exciting that his older brother has a place to study for a master’s degree in northern Italy, if the family can raise the funds to make this possible. His younger brother, Binyam, is hoping to follow him to study medicine in Addis when he finishes Grade 12.

We also found time to catch up with various VSO friends for a beer in the Pride Bar (no longer the ‘local’ now the Programme Office has moved) and to eat at Road Runner.

New look at the Pride

New look at the Pride

In the dark of early Saturday morning, we went through the familiar routine of getting up for the bus at 4.30am (helped that the power was on, which is not to be taken for granted) picking up Marian on the way to Meskal Square, and discovering that the Dessie bus now picks up on the opposite side of the road. After a small amount of confusion we were soon on board and made good time as far as Debre Sina. Here I was ripped off for a bag of oregano, but no matter – it wasn’t expensive once you did the currency conversion, and every time I cook with it, it reminds me of drinking  makiato in the café – but will try not to recall the toilets – see International Toilet day blog entry from 2011!

Then there was a complication: we heard a loud bang as the bus hit a pot hole just before the tunnel, now complete –one reason why the journey is usually much faster than when we first made it 2 years previously. It turned out the axel was broken and we had to wait for other buses to take us on the remaining half of the route to Dessie. After a couple of hours, we and our various pieces of baggage were squeezed on to a number of minibuses. So much for choosing the safe option of Selam!

We did have an interesting conversation with a pair of Peace Corps volunteers who were based in Kombolcha, but still the time passed slowly until we finally pulled into Dessie, thirsty and definitely in need of any kind of toilet by this stage, before a very quick sprint to the bus station to find a bus to Woldia. Negotiations followed with a driver who wanted the three of us to hire his minibus and travel immediately, which we made clear would not be happening, but with the help of an Addis dweller who, coincidentally, was travelling to the same wedding mels we had been invited to attend the following day, we sat waiting until the bus was full and then set off. It was on the verge of dark by the time we reached Woldia – a long day – and it was with great relief that Steve and I reached the house of David (my colleague at Woldia College and next door neighbour) whilst Marian went to stay just round the corner with Aisllng, Woldia University’s first VSO volunteer.

David's: Bed ...

David’s: Bed …

... and breakfast!

… and breakfast!

It was amazing to be back in Woldia – in some ways feeling as if I’d hardly been away any time at all as we went into town to revisit some of our regular hangouts  (shekla tibs and Dashen jambos at the Yordanos 2, the sit down toilets at the Lal, and the best bayenetu around at the little Yordanos in Adago, in addition to queuing for a new sim card at the tele – in just one visit!) though some changes were impossible to ignore. The market had moved somewhere and major building work continues all over Woldia town. Several banks have opened, which must be a sign of the booming economy. The kebele 8 children were all grown up.

Bride and bridesmaids at the mels

Bride and bridesmaids at the mels

On the Sunday night we went to the mels held for Zerefa’s (friend and Woldia next door neighbour) nephew, who lives in Washington DC, and his bride – a local girl who he got to know on Facebook before visiting her in Ethiopia early this year. We guess it’s probably Woldia’s first internet wedding.

Bride and groom receive their guests

Bride and groom receive their guests

Most startling was the building work in the college: buildings all but finished, though electrical work and mains water appear not to be quite as planned.  The disabled access to the large hall which will be the venue for graduations and other formal events says something about local attempts to offer inclusive education – as my sight impaired friend and colleague Zelalem summed it up ‘not quite finished’!

Wheelchair access

A real delight was to see the 3rd year English major students (these were the first year students Marian and I worked with when they  arrived in college about a month after we did.) As they near completion of their training, David and my successor Alain had been running some sessions on pedagogy and timetabled the final session to coincide with our visit. The students didn’t know we would be there and their surprise and delight was very clear. We had a great time singing Incy Wincy Spider:

... climbing up the spout ...

… climbing up the spout …

singing Heads and Shoulders …:

Head and shoulders - knees and toes!

Head and shoulders – knees and toes!

and doing the Hokey Cokey:

You do the hokey cokey ....

You do the hokey cokey ….

They will, after all, be teaching English to children aged around 6-10 years old. Then I was invited to present their certificates for the course. It was a total delight.

Two of the girls who had been enthusiastic members of the girls’ discussion group then took possession of Steve as we went for our refreshments of bread and tea and were chatting away to him with real confidence. It was hard to believe that when these same girls arrived in college they were too shy to enter the English centre and just stood at the door looking in and giggling nervously when spoken to. As David said, the young people were beginning to look like teachers – and I wish them all the very best of luck in their first appointments.

Shelagh and some of the girls' discussion group

Shelagh and some of the girls’ discussion group

It was sad to leave but with our visit to Tamralech scheduled for Wednesday, we took Tuesday’s bus to Lalibela, after buying some fresh coffee beans as a present for Tamralech’s mum in the market. Coffee plays a significant part in supporting women’s social life and friendship and I hoped she would think it a special present.

More about this in Part 2 – a tour round the towns of the Northern Highlands.

We left having achieved a one and only: all 5 of the Woldia VSOs in one place at one time – unlikely to be repeated!

Marian, Aisling and Shelagh awaiting bayenetu at the little Yordanos.

Marian, Aisling and Shelagh awaiting bayenetu at the little Yordanos.

Alain's masks - worn by Alain, Shelagh and David - in the original ELIC - now no longer standing!

Alain’s masks – worn by Alain, Shelagh and David – in the original ELIC – now no longer standing!

Italian sojourn


Reasons not to visit Verona in December:

  1. It is freezing cold
  2. It is damp and misty
  3. It rains when you get lost searching for your apartment
  4. Getting lost makes a 1km stroll from the bus station into a 6 km hike round and under the railway tracks!!

Reasons to visit Verona in December:

  1. When you eventually find the apartment, it is lovely and toasty warm.
  2. There is a LIDL right next door.
  3. There is an offer on Prosecco: €2.25 a bottle.
  4. The bus into town stops a 2 minute walk away (wishing we’d known this earlier!)
  5. If you wait long enough, the sun comes out and you can explore all the sights for just €15 on a 2 day Verona card.
  6. There are lots of great places to eat.

This Christmas was the 20th anniversary of Steve and me meeting on the airport bus in Djerba, so it had to be celebrated, specially so since for the past 2 years I’ve been in Ethiopia and not actually celebrating Christmas or anything else at all. We planned to go somewhere at some point during the school holiday but it was all a bit flexible and needed tying in with spending some time with my parents, who have also been neglected for 2 Christmases, and Steve’s work. He was waiting to hear from 2 potential employers in November and, obviously, the Christmas period offers a fair opportunity amount of security  work.

We looked at a return to Djerba – very appealing and very romantic, but difficult to get flights other than by travelling on from Tunis, which was likely to make it quite expensive. We then looked at Hammammet – not quite so romantic but easier  to get to. Problem was, the dates either would have meant being away on Christmas Day ( a bit mean from the parents’ perspective) or not getting back home till after New Year (not great for Steve’s work).  Problem solved at the last minute by the discovery of a very cheap flight to Verona  leaving from Manchester very early on Boxing Day – so we could spend Christmas day with mum and dad, have 3 full days in a place that ticked the ‘romantic’ box and still be back for New Year footie matches.

Christmas was good – lots of parcels unwrapped – Nigel and Pat joined us for that bit – than a late (and extremely long) lunch of duck

All tuck into their duck

All tuck into their duck

and my non-allergenic Christmas pudding (no suet, no nuts, just lots of dried apricots and brandy to help preserve it.)  And cheese. And mince pies. And 3 bottles of wine. Etc. Of course parents reminded it us regularly that it could be their last Christmas (even mum this year) so we’re glad we made that decision.


Steve oversees the flaming pudding

Next morning was a very early start to be at the airport on time for a 6.50am take off. That wasn’t too pleasant, though landing in Verona with the whole of Boxing Day in front of us was a plus, except for the weather – see above! However the local shuttle bus service from airport to bus station was very quick and easy to negotiate.

We had to shelter from the rain on a couple of bars on the way to the apartment, so decided we approved of that aspect of Italian life before we even got into the city centre. Steve is still talking about his breakfast of cheese and ham toastie.

View from the balcony - apartment, not Juliet's

View from the balcony – apartment, not Juliet’s

The location of the apartment (Verona Inn – try to look at picture) in a suburb a couple of km from the town centre wasn’t the most convenient for the sights, but it was a good way to merge into normal life rather than being a tourist – 3 local market /supermarkets very close by,  and good cooking facilities for preparation of long, late breakfasts and the odd lunch / evening meal.

Breakfast in the Verona Inn -or maybe later, looking at the glass of wine

Breakfast in the Verona Inn -or maybe later, looking at the glass of wine

A present from the apartment manager of 2 kilos of rice contributed to a great big pan of chicken and ham risotto. Really nice local bread too – a bit smoky / charcoally so I think maybe it was baked in a pizza oven.

Of course we had to go and look at the sites of interest – which turned out to be far more varied and historic than just the Romeo and Juliet related locations we knew about. The Verona Card gives you entry to more than 15 places – we did it in a day, though 2 days is probably more leisurely. A bargain at €15 – at one time it also gave access to city bus transport, however that is no longer the case. It’s not so large a city centre that there’s massive walks between most places anyway.

We actually bought the tickets the evening of our second day and had a quick look round the arena immediately (how ignorant am I? I knew they had operas in Verona – I had no idea they were in a Roman amphitheatre – must be amazing.) It’s a great building and the view for the top of the walls is worth the climb up the enormous steps. Saw it again in daylight on Friday.

Shelagh braving the chill in the arena

Shelagh braving the chill in the arena

Then we went to the Capulet place. The Lonely Planet guide explains all about how the location was identified, and the balcony built, to capitalise on the release of the Cukor’s 1930s film. It might be fake, but it has a mythology of its own now, having been used as a location in Zeffirelli’s 1960s film – the bed from the memorable morning after the wedding scene is in there, and some of the costumes.

Steve and the Zeffirelli bed

Steve and the Zeffirelli bed

There are also many Romeo and Juliet related ‘art’ works on the walls and samples of the text with old book illustrations. In the courtyard (which is nothing like the garden the play suggests is below the balcony) there is a bronze statue of Juliet – no sign of the gold one of the lovers the parents suggested they’d erect.  Visitors rub its right breast as some kind of fertility ritual. We signally failed to push through the crowds to get near enough to do this.

Not easy to get near with the flash, but you get the idea!

Not easy to get near with the flash, but you get the idea!

OK - it's fake - but we saw it ourselves - and stood on it looking into the gift shop.

OK – it’s fake – but we saw it ourselves – and stood on it looking into the gift shop.

Next morning, we began with an ascent of the Torre de Lamberti and more stunning views of the surrounding area.

Piazza Erbe from the torre

Piazza Erbe from the torre

From the torre - you can see the arena centre right - and our apartment location centre top - just in front of the communications tower

From the torre – you can see the arena centre right – and our apartment location centre top – just in front of the communications tower

From there to a museum (Maffeiano) which was mostly old stones and stuff from classical times– an interesting renaissance (or older) villa in its own right – but with some good Greek and Latin stones to look at.

With R & J in mind, a relief showing Phaeton's chariot crashing - how symbolic! (see opening line of 3.2)

With R & J in mind, a relief showing Phaeton’s chariot crashing – how symbolic! (see opening line of 3.2)

Column inscription translation - very useful if you are planning a ritual sacrifice any time soon

Column inscription translation – very useful if you are planning a ritual sacrifice any time soon

From there to another film tie in – Juliet’s tomb – an atmospheric garden and an interesting house – but the crypt is not at all authentic – just a stone box –and no sign at all of shelves full of moldering ancestors as you would be expecting in any half way decent crypt. Also more old museum stone stuff. And another gift shop.

Japanese R & J story - commemorated at the site of Juliet's 'tomb'

Japanese R & J story – commemorated at the site of Juliet’s ‘tomb’

Time for lunch, and as we planned to cross to the east bank of the Adige, we just found the nearest pizzeria (Due Forni) and had the best meal of the 3 days. Very simple home cooking –  charcoal pizza oven again – Steve had the biggest rump steak I’ve seen in some time and I had a roasted sea bass –it was the best – cooked to perfection with that smoky charcoal flavour. Local white wine, a simple green salad and a handful of fries – followed by really good cappuccino – fantastic!!

Then  across the river to see what was there. The museum of Storia Naturale turned out to be closed on Fridays, and we didn’t have much time to do full justice to Teatro Romano and yet another museum of archaeological artefacts, as we were on the way to somewhere a little less expected that caught my eye: The Museo Africano. This turned out to be a small museum connected to a building that housed some kind of Catholic mission to Africa. The items on display were a bit of a loosely themed mishmash from many countries in Africa which had little connection with each other, however we found plenty to stop and look closely at – a bit like those toy museums where you see things you used to play with.

Coffee pots from Amhara and Tegray – what are these doing in a museum? You can buy them from Woldia market.

coffee pot

Skin robes from somewhere in Ethiopia – is it baboon? What is it for?  Some tribal celebration? Not entirely explained.


And very close to a masenko (a kind of 1 string violin) – also not something  I’d associate with a museum. We had an annoying little boy in Woldia (one of 2) whose attempts to be an asmari were very irritating when all we really wanted  was a peaceful beer at the Arsema.

What about this painting? The first Amharic I’d seen since leaving Addis last year (well, apart from postings on Facebook).

amhara pic

An extra treat was the exhibition of African art in a separate annexe.  As far as I understand the leaflet in Italian, Longinos Naila is a Kenyan artist who seems to have some connection with Milan – I love the market day painting.

africa guitar


Market day - love the colours

Market day – love the colours

The other exhibits were by artists called Kikoko and Milena Barberis who now live in Milan. Not sure whose is which of these, but they were well worth a visit on their own.

I'd hang this on my wall

I’d hang this on my wall

If you get to Verona, make a point of walking up the hill to find this – it takes a bit of looking for as you can only get in from the road on the right (Via Pozzo) though you can see it from the road on the left where one of the churches has a splendid Our Lady of Nigeria shrine outside.

By this time it was beginning to get dark so we hurried down to the Castellvechio Palace – so massive you can’t miss it – we had to get inside there. This was a quick sprint round its various rooms – again lots of carvings and paintings – many religious given its renaissance connections. My very favourite is this Story of the Bible in pictures – saves a real lot of time and the main details are there. Must be the original Ladybird Book.

Who needs all those words? From Creation to Resurrection in 30 pictures

Who needs all those words? From Creation to Resurrection in 30 pictures

As far as eating out goes, in addition to the places already mentioned, we would  recommend the Osteria da Ugo. I won’t say which of the house specialties Steve enjoyed to avoid shocking British animal lovers. (reassurance – not cat or dog)

Good food here

Good food here

Also, some of the cafes in the Piazza Erbe are OK and not as tourist pricey as they look as if they would be. Café Ai Lamberti does pasta I’d make a return visit to eat.  The restaurant Greppia – very near the Osteria – is also said to be good, but we never got there . There’s always something to go back for – and that includes visiting some of the churches and the Cathedral which are said to have some impressive artwork. We’d stay in the same place, as we now have the buses sussed out, but probably try spring or autumn so it is a bit warmer. Or maybe even go in the summer when there’s a chance to see the opera, though I imagine you have to book up rather further in advance to arrange that.

Anyway, a good 3 days – and Happy New Year to one and all!