Ethiopian Christmas Day in Lalibela
Updated: Aug 18, 2021
On Wednesday 6th January, we left from Gondar to Lalibela. Slightly frustratingly, at the last minute I spotted a direct flight between the two taking just 30 minutes and super cheap about 1300 Birr (£24) for the two of us which I booked but then Ethiopian Airlines decided to scrap the flight and fly us instead via Addis Ababa. It was a bit worrying leaving the AG Hotel as I had been told I should leave at 7.30am to get the 9.30am flight (to Addis) and had booked a car with two separate people but when I arrived at the Reception at 7.30am the chap behind the desk looked quite surprised and the car didn’t materialise until 8am and only after me getting a bit panicky we’d miss the flight. The airport is a fair old way from Gondar – some 15km – but we made it ok and onto the plane. Transiting through Addis though was just crazy as we arrived in one place then literally had to walk around the whole airport to re-enter it, then through 3 security checks each in which I had to get Tiger out of her carrier, shoes off, and through. Our second flight to Lalibela was due to leave at 11.30am and we were literally running through the gate, onto the bus, at 11.25am. It didn’t seem to bother anyone though but I did find it quite stressful – it seems that they always wait for the connecting passengers and our bags made it all the way through so clearly the system does work!
At Lalibela, we again had a bit of confusion. We were due to be staying in an Airbnb so I had been in contact with the owner who had said he would send a car for us as again Lalibela airport is 25km from Lalibela itself. At the same time Eddie, the guide from Bahar Dar, had connected me up with a guide in Lalibela called Tadessa and it turned out that Tadessa was waiting at the airport and managed to pick me up rather than the Airbnb guy’s driver. All was well that ended well, and pretty obviously tourists are thin on the ground and everyone wants my business, but was a little bit disconcerting when I realised I was in the wrong car! Still everyone hooked up and we made it to the Airbnb apartment ok and it was fabulous, easily the best place we have stayed in Ethiopia. It cost £150 for three nights and had literally the best view from the (child safe) balcony. We had an open plan kitchen with cutlery and a cooking hob (but no fridge), a living room area, a balcony with a sofa, a large master bedroom and a small single bed bedroom which Tiger slept in. Just bliss!
After the flight, we more or less went straight to sleep (I am really getting into joining in on the siestas!) and arranged that Tadessa would come back to discuss the guiding plan for the next few days at 5pm. Also our Airbnb host Habtamu was very happy to sort us out with an alternative, but also it seems like here everybody knows each other and there shouldn’t be any ripping off of the extremely few tourists here anyway. When Tadessa visited, the costs we agreed were $50 entrance fee for the Lalibela churches (this is a standard for all foreign tourists), $40 for the driver for day 1, then $30 for the entry to the Yimrhane Kristos monastery on day 2 (again standard), $45 for the car to get there on day 2 (42km away), then $20 for entrance into the monastery church of Asneton and $30 for the car for the afternoon on day 2. In addition to this I paid the guide fee of $30 per day (2 days) for Tadessa himself. So, all agreed, I asked Tadessa to take us out shopping so we went to the supermarket for wine, bought 2kg of bananas for Tiger and had dinner in a restaurant garden.
On our first official day in Lalibela we had to be ready to leave at 7.30am for Ethiopian Christmas Day, 7th January. Well, it was just incredible. The town had 300,000 pilgrims visiting so was so busy! Our guide Tadessa told me that these people had walked for up to a week to come to Lalibela, some of them would then walk back and others would take a bus back. From the balcony of our Airbnb we could see all the buses! He also told me that usually they would have 7000 foreign tourists but that the day we had flown in there had been four flights and they had counted about 15. In the end, I saw two Americans at the restaurant the previous night, two guys (from afar) on Christmas Day who looked to be doing professional photography (and the policeman told me they were Brits) but that was it.
With covid being in the back of my mind somewhat, today was not the day for “social distancing” – in fact quite the opposite. The place was packed to the rafters, the first place we went to try and glimpse a view people had climbed up high into the trees, we were sardines, squeezed up against our neighbours and I was so grateful to have Tadessa to guide us as there’s simply no way we would have found our way around without him let alone manage to find ourselves perched on a rock to see the jaw droppingly, amazing Christmas Day ceremony. It was certainly no place to be claustrophobic! I am not claustrophobic but I am (slightly) afraid of heights and got a bit panicky when we were up so high with a (maybe) 20m drop from the bit of rock we were sitting on. It was fine and everybody looked after us but also with a toddler on my back, I had heightened awareness for safety and was a little nervous. When we headed down, Tadessa carried Tiger – I am not sure my nerves would have held to do it – and that was definitely the best solution. Leaving the ceremony was another case of sardines and it just freakishly reminded me of being at the Glastonbury Festival just crammed together with bodies. Tiger was a gem though. At one point we met another “baby” about the same age as her being carried by his Dad, and the two of them kept holding hands as we exited, it was so sweet. And a theme which continued throughout the day was her saying “bye bye” to everyone passing us in the opposite direction. It was precious as literally hundreds of people throughout the day said “bye bye” back to her.
After the utter madness of the Christmas Day ceremony we toured around the Lalibela church complex, a cluster of 13 medieval rock-hewn churches and chapels that today functions as a kind of shrine to King Lalibela, the saint accredited with excavating them in the 12th century. Inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978, the meticulously sculpted churches of Lalibela are the indisputable pinnacle of architectural traditions. We finished eventually with lunch in the Kana restaurant which was lovely and they even had a high chair.
After the afternoon nap back at the Airbnb Tadessa picked us up to see more of the churches and we finished up at an amazing restaurant (although not very child friendly with plenty of places for her to fall off the edge of a precipice!) called Ben Abeba which was co-owned by our Airbnb host Habtamu. That said, it was a beautiful place to see sunset!
The following day, 8th January, we went out with Habtamu driving and Tadessa guiding and we stopped first at the Axumite cave church of Yemrehanna Kristos. The entrance fee was $30 for adults but free for children under 9 and we had to walk a short way up. Tiger didn't go in her backpack but Tadessa carried her the whole way. Eerily, at the back of the church, there was the bones of some 10,740 Christian pilgrims who travelled from as far away as Egypt, Syria and Jerusalem to die at the monastery. It was really special. On the way down, I bought Tiger two toys - a cow and a sheep - made out of wool for 100 Birr each (£2).
Tiger fell asleep in the car on the way back and we had lunch again at the Ben Abeba restaurant before heading back for Tiger's nap.
About 4pm, Tadessa picked us up again and we went out by car to Geneta Maryam, a large monolithic church carved into a pink-tinged outcrop near the source of the Tekeze River. It was a very bumpy road to get there and then a short, steep footpath upwards (Tiger in her backpack with Tadessa carrying her) and very beautiful.
We had a lovely morning chilling out before the flight and Tiger had her first scrambled eggs and ate them all up! It is hard to sum Lalibela up but it truly was so impressive and I think the absolute highlight of our trip. So special, and a place I know Robin visited some 25 years before.