The days were noticeably cooler now, with a morning mist hanging on the water as we sped around Kotor Bay on the local bus to Herceg-Novi (€3 one way) for the day. The narrow two-lane road hugged the coastline and in spots jutted out over the water to circumvent a sheer rock face. When the landscape widened enough, houses were built on every patch of useable land in small clusters or standing alone. At the farthest end of the bay we watched oyster farmers raft between their rows of buoys that marked the submerged delicacy growing in the depths below.
Further along the Lepetani – Kamenari Ferry (€4.50 per car, €1 for a bicycle, people free) offered a shorter and faster route that bypassed Kotor for travelers wanting to stay along the highway that hugged the Adriatic coast from Albania to Croatia.
Unlike Kotor and Budva, which were both built on flat coastal terrain, Herceg-Novi was built on a steep slope that runs many miles inland to the summit of Mount Orjen. The mountain, part of the coastal Dinaric Alps, is Montenegro’s tallest peak, which at 6210 ft is 500 ft taller than the more famous Mount Lovćen (5738 ft). The town existed as a small fishing village for several hundred years until its first defensive walls were raised in 1382, making it one of the youngest and most fought-over fortified cities along the Adriatic coast.
The old town is long and narrow, climbing up the hill from the water’s edge like an index finger poking out of the sea, making it a much harder city for the Omis pirates to attack. Let’s face it, Mediterranean diet or not, it’s much more difficult to properly sack, pillage and plunder a city when you are exhausted from running up steep flights of stairs. Though it wasn’t always the pirates that folks worried about.
The Turks built Kanli Tower on the highest point in the city after they defeated the Byzantines in 1482, only to be ousted by the Spanish for a brief stint of gentrification in 1538 when they quickly constructed Hispaniola Fortress higher up the mountain, to no avail; the keys of the city were returned to the Turks two years later. The Venetians had their turn also, strengthening walls and building towers that survived until the devastating 1979 earthquake. Its turbulent history also included the Austrian, Russian, French and Germans, all battling for beach chairs along the Herceg-Novi riviera. Fortunately, the communists didn’t see the need to impose their minimalistic architecture on such a beautiful swath of earth and left it alone. The people of the communist block were not as fortunate.
We were only an hour from Kotor when the bus pulled into the station above old town Herceg Novi, the last stop before the border with Croatia. Walking downhill, we came upon the daily market, Gradska Pijaca Herceg Novi, and took the opportunity to purchase the makings for a picnic lunch. Bread, cheese, figs and a huge pomegranate filled our knapsack. Old Town is of course surrounded by the apartment buildings of the new town, a pretty gentrification which has sprawled horizontally between the sea and the highway above town, hugging the hill for views of the bay.
The lane ended in Nikole Đurkovića Square in front of the ancient Sahat-Kul clock tower and gate, built by the Ottomans in 1667, that leads into the historic district. Once through the gate, the dark passage opened onto palm-treed Belavista Square lined with cafes and umbrella tables. St. Michael Archangel Church anchored its center. The style of this relatively modern church, built in 1911, is defined as Eclecticism, after its incorporation of architectural influences that reflected Herceg Novi’s diverse history. Byzantine, Gothic, Romanesque, Islamic and Serbian Orthodox inspirations all blend seamlessly together.
The old town was very quiet, and we had the narrow alleys and stairs to the Sea Fortress, the first fortification in Herceg Novi, practically to ourselves. At the old town’s southernmost point, the massive stone wall of the fortress protrudes several stories high from the sea, like the bow of a cruise ship. Its canons are quiet now, but during the summer tourist season it hosts citadel-top concerts and a film series from the spot where the guns once guarded the bay.
We chose not to walk down to the harbor, saving our strength instead for the longer one-mile walk to the Savina Monastery. The monks sure did know how to pick locations for inspiration. The first stones of one of three churches were laid in 1030, and the setting above Kotor Bay is glorious.
Being a Saturday, it was wedding day and we arrived just in time to watch a flag-waving crowd and brass band escort the bride and groom to their get-away car. Moments later another wedding party arrived to celebratory horns.
Next to the cathedral where the weddings were being held, the smallest and oldest church, Sveto Uspenje Bogorodice (St. Falling into Sleep of Holy Mother of God) has fascinating, ancient frescoes depicting the life of Christ. Stairs in the hillside led to a cemetery above the monastery with beautiful views.
The route back was relatively flat and took us through a pretty neighborhood filled with flowering shrubs to a smaller gateway into the old town, nearer the stairs to the Kanli Kula Fortress or Bloody Tower.
Built by the Turks in the 1500s, it was also believed “that the door to the castle opens only one way – to leave it alive was impossible.” Even with walls sixty feet wide in some places, the fortress was damaged in the 1979 earthquake that ravaged Montenegro. During reconstruction, its courtyard was converted into an amphitheater with 1,000 seats for concerts and theater productions; perhaps the music soothes the restless souls of the ghosts still wandering the dungeon. Name and reputation aside, the views from the fortress walls were beautiful.
Walk a little, café, walk a little more. Today a long climb back to the bus station awaited us after that last sip of espresso.
With the assistance of our host, we rented a car and planned a four-day road trip heading up into the mountains before ending along the Adriatic coast, then returning to Kotor. A great distance wasn’t covered, but the variety of scenery was amazing and the driving challenging in places.
Since our first cars as kids, Donna and I have been stick-shift/manual transmission aficionados, with fond memories of the rust bucket Fiats we both drove. We’ve also driven regular sedans up and down rutted, rock strewn dirt roads normally traversed by 4×4 SUVs while being told “you won’t make it in that.”
“Where are you heading to?” “Lovcen National Park will be our first stop.” “Be careful the roads are narrow and there are twenty-one switchback curves on the way. You might want to consider the longer route, it’s more relaxing,” the rental agent cautioned as he assessed our age and abilities. “We understand the views are dramatic along the way,” I responded as he handed over the keys while Donna playfully poked at me for them. Of course, I stalled the car backing out of the parking space, much to the attendant’s secret delight, I think. With a zoom zoom in mind and the windows down, we waved our thank you, only to stall again as we drove away. Hey, it was a high clutch! Some days just start that way.
Whether it’s from the bell tower in Perast or from the top of St. John’s Fortress, it’s impossible to escape glorious views of Kotor Bay once you gain any elevation. Only minutes from old town our route along Montenegro P1, also called the Kotor Serpentine Road, did not disappoint. The question was, how many times would we stop to take photos? Fortunately, there were few other cars on the road that day and we were able to pull over at the switchbacks that had room to park. Harrowing though was encountering large construction trucks and buses barreling downhill towards us, which often required pulling over as far as we could on the already narrow one lane road or reversing downhill to a wider section of paving. To say that guardrails were lacking in many places is an understatement. For centuries, the only overland route into Kotor was the old caravan trail which dates to Roman times. It wasn’t until the 1880s, when Montenegro was part of the Austrian Empire, that an easier wagon route between the seaport of Kotor and mountainous towns of Njeguši and Cetinje was carved from the mountainside. Paved now, that old wagon track was essentially the same route we drove. Eventually we came to a stop behind a local bus which was offloading hikers at Restaurant Nevjesta Jadrana which is the starting point for hiking the old caravan trail downhill into Kotor.
Warrior, poet, Prince-Bishop and ruler of Montenegro from 1830 to 1851, Petar II Petrovic Njegos captured the essence of Serbian culture and life in several epic poems that put Serbian folk tales and history to verse. “What Shakespeare is to England, Njegos is to Montenegro,” gives a clue to his influence on Serbian culture. In his will he requested Montenegrins bury him in the church on the summit of Mount Lovcen, from which “all the lands of Montenegro can be seen.” On his last days the people lovingly carried him from Kotor to Cetinje, the old capital, along the ancient caravan trail that climbed from Kotor. Interestingly, this act of devotion didn’t seem to be enough, and, perhaps insecure of his legacy, he threatened to curse and haunt them if his last wish was not fulfilled. Ascending the steep stairs to his mausoleum atop the mountain, we understood why he was so insistent in his demand. The 360-degree panoramic view was in so many ways breathtaking. A warm day bayside in Kotor can be extremely chilly on the peak of Mount Lovcen with its 5738 ft elevation, so layer up accordingly. Descending the stairs, we stopped at the appropriately named Lookout Restaurant, which offered delicious local cuisine, very reasonably priced.
Podgorica, the capital city of Montenegro, would be our destination at the end of the day, but before heading that way we detoured over to Lake Skadar National Park. Specifically, to see the beautiful horseshoe bend of Rijeka Crnojevića, the river of Crnojevića, from the Pavlova Strana Viewpoint which from Mount Lovcen is accessed by turning onto a dirt road off the M2.3. (Why the decimal point, really? There’s no 2.1 or 2.9 road that I can see on the map, but I digress.) This was a narrow track that had us wondering if we made the right decision. Our logic seriously questioned again when we reached a stalemate with an oncoming car traveling uphill. The road was so tight I was hesitant to reverse, fearing scraping the car paint and the other driver refused to budge. Somehow the locals know if you are not from around those parts! I blinked first and cautiously backed up until the road was barely wide enough for two cars to squeeze by. Continuing to descend toward the lake, several of the switchback curves were so tight they required 3 point turns to maneuver around the corner. Our persistence though was eventually rewarded with a great view of the river.
Relieved to hit a larger paved road, we continued towards the small village of Crnojevića. The weather was brilliant, and we spontaneously decided to opt for a short boat tour along the river. It was mid-week and near the end of the season, and we were pleased that we had the boat all to ourselves.
It was a relaxing reprieve, silently traveling upon the water, passing under old stone bridges and watching the birds and swans along the water’s edge. Next to the boat launch, Restaurant Mostina offered shaded outdoor dining and a beautiful view of the river. We lingered as long as time allowed, wanting to reach Podgorica well before dark. Fortunately, it was only forty minutes away.
We arrived late in the afternoon and followed our GPS directions into the city and were totally surprised when our route turned into a pedestrian only boulevard after 5 PM, with families pushing strollers down the center of the avenue and waving frantically to make us aware of our mistake. Without difficulty we quickly corrected our error. Having the freedom to roam is wonderful with a rental car, the only drawback really is parking. And finding an affordable, convenient hotel in a city with free parking is a challenge. The three-star, business class Hotel Kerber fit the bill, though finding the parking lot required that the receptionist walk us out the back door and point to the parking entrance under a building on the block behind the hotel.
Exploring the city early the next morning, we walked over the Morača River via the Milenium Bridge, one of the city’s most prominent landmarks. Its futuristic cable-stayed bridge design is so strikingly different from the architecture in the rest of the country.
In the park across the river we found the statue of Vladimir Vysotsky, a beloved Russian poet and songwriter whose verses were deemed subversive by communist authorities and barred from publication. The Bob Dylan of Montenegro, he gained fame by distributing illegal homemade recordings of his songs and performing in clubs across the communist block during the Cold War. Montenegrins loved his music and he loved them. “I regret in this life that I don′t have two roots, and I can′t name Montenegro as my second homeland.” – Vladimir Vysotsky.
The big draw for us to Podgorica was Саборни храм Христовог Васкрсења, the Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ for us non-Serbian speakers. It’s an inspiring new Serbian Orthodox church that was consecrated on October 7th, 2013, the 1700th anniversary of the Edict of Milanin 313 AD, which was an agreement between the Western Roman Emperor Constantine I and the Byzantine Emperor Licinius that decriminalized Christian worship.
Every interior surface of basilica is covered with brilliant Orthodox iconography on gold backgrounds or has controversial murals that reflect history. The one depicting Tito, Marx, and Engels burning in hell is poignant commentary on communism’s oppression and anti-religion stance that affected millions in eastern Europe. There are other contemporary political frescoes interwoven throughout the traditional iconography that are difficult to spot, but that’s part of the thrill of discovery.
To this day, the artist has chosen to remain anonymous. The architect, Dr. Predrag Ristic, is credited with building 100 orthodox churches, and took inspiration for the exterior of the church from the medieval design of the Cathedral of St. Tryphon in Kotor, with its prominent arched entry way and twin towers.
Our destination lunch spot for the day was Restoran Nijagara, located only a short distance before the Vodopad Nijagara waterfall on the Cemi River. The waterfall was beautiful and easily accessible from the shaded, riverside dining on the restaurant’s deck. Ducks floated lazily by while children playfully splashed in the crystal-clear water.
We planned on being along the Adriatic coast for sunset, but still had plenty of time for a stop in the lakeside village of Virpazar, which is a popular point for boat tours of Skadar Lake National Park. The small town had a wonderful ambience with umbrellaed restaurants, streets full of people, colorful boats tied up along its quay. A dramatic memorial to the liberation partisans of WWII anchored the waterfront, with Besac Castle rising above it in the distance. The castle is a short distance from town and has splendid views of Lake Skadar.
We continued along the lake road towards the small historic village of Godinje with its ancient, cojoined stone houses set on the mountainside. The village is unique because each home has an underground passage connecting it to its neighbors. This was developed to defend the village from Ottoman raiders. The tunneling system was so extensive that townspeople could go from one end of the village to the other without being seen by their enemy. There are many small vineyards in this region, featuring wines vinted from the native-to-Montenegro Vranac grape varietal. Some wineries offer tastings along with food. Reservations are highly recommended, especially on the weekends. Unfortunately, we did not have time to linger longer, but we did purchase homemade grape brandy from a woman selling it from a small roadside stand in front of her home.
The views of the Adriatic coastline as we drove north along the E80 were incredible, though there weren’t nearly enough pullover spots for photographs.
We arrived at the Hotel Adrovic in Sveti Stefan with plenty of time to get settled before watching the sunset, with classic Aperol spritzes from their rooftop restaurant.
We put a lot of research into selecting this hotel, primarily for its view of Peninsula Sveti Stefan and it did not disappoint. We enjoyed an incredible ocean view room with a balcony, including breakfast and free parking, for a very reasonable $80.00 per night. Later that night a lively wedding party danced to Montenegrin hits in the restaurant’s banquet room until the early hours of morning.
Budva was an easy twenty-minute drive the next morning. The walled town is one of the oldest cities on the Adriatic coast, dating to the 5th century BC with Illyrian tribes settling the area and later colonization by the Greeks as an important trading port. Its history mirrors Kotor’s with conquest by the Roman empire in the 2nd century BC, followed by the Byzantines, Venetians, Ottoman and Austrian empires all ruling for various lengths of time. And let’s not forget the French, Germans and Russians who settled in for short stays.
The historic, walled old town is much smaller that Kotor, but still fascinating. The town’s fortified walls sit right on the edge of the Adriatic with the tall walls of the citadel rising directly from the sea. The views over church spires of the old town and the coastline were beautiful. It’s from this vantage point that we decided to check out the colorful umbrellas of Mogren Beach across the water. There are actually two pebbled beaches set under towering cliffs separated by a protruding cliff face. Connecting them is a rough tunnel through the rock called the “Door in Stone.”
It was an easy walk along the ocean edge on a paved path with railings, past the Ballet Dancer Statue set on a rock in the water. There is some debate about whether the female figure, sculpted by Gradimir Aleksich, is a dancer or gymnast as she is not clothed, leading some to have nicknamed the bronze statue, “The Girl Who Lost the Swimsuit.” Idealistically he based his graceful creation on the legend of a local young woman who danced on the rocks every day waiting for her fiancé, a sailor, to return from the sea. Years passed, yet she continued to hope for his return, and she danced every day until her death. For the people of Budva the statue represents love, loyalty and fidelity, attributes that have served Montenegrins well through their turbulent history.
Back at our hotel, the sparkling blue waters of the beach below us called. This part of Montenegro’s coast is very steep, but stairs from the hotel weaved down to the ocean far below. Walking down would have been easy. Returning – forget it! The parking lot by the beach was outrageously expensive for a short visit, so we opted to park like the locals, which took some creativity, and found a spot under a heavily laden olive tree. It was the last weekend in October, and the water was still warm enough to swim in.
The tall mountains along the coastline here cast a long shadow over the water at sunrise. We sat quietly on the balcony with the morning’s first cup of coffee and watched the sunlight slowly reveal the red roofs, then warm stone colors of what was once a 15th century island fortress – Sveti Stefan. The small, private islet today is an upscale resort that is connected to the mainland by a small peninsular. It’s an exclusive and dramatic setting, but we had the better view.
On the beach, workers were digging the umbrella anchors out of the sand as others rowed into the ocean to retrieve the string buoys that defined the swimming area. Offshore the crew of a sailboat was pulling anchor in preperation to set sail. It was officially the end of the summer season and time for us to be moving on. We got our swim in just in time.
Twenty-four hours out of Africa we were finally unloading our bags from the taxi, under tall palm trees across from a beautiful harbor. In front of us stood the Sea Gate, the 16th century arched entrance through ancient stone fortifications and the winged lion of St. Mark. Both were constructed in 1555 when this port city was under Venetian rule.
With little difficulty we found our host and followed her through the ancient portal under a relief sculpture of the Madonna and Child, flanked by St. Bernard and St. Tryphon, the town’s patron saints. There was a small rectangular slit underneath the stone carving where prayers were once placed. “Now it’s used as a complaint box by local residents!” our host joked.
The archway perfectly framed a quaint plaza, The Square of the Arms, lined with shops and restaurants set dramatically under the backdrop of St. John’s Castle, Kotor Fortress, which towers protectively over the city. Within the walled city it’s a wonderful pedestrian-only maze of narrowing alleys that weave about. Our second-floor apartment was at the intersection of several of them and overlooked a view of the restaurants on Plaza Tripuna.
After six weeks of continuous travel we were looking forward to being rooted for a while in an apartment, returning to our immersive travel philosophy. With a spacious living room, kitchen, hot water, and live saxophone music six nights a week, we were ready for this month of R&R in Kotor. Though by the third night the saxophonist had played the identical repertoire each appearance, without changing its sequence. We were doomed to a Bill Murray-like Groundhog Day scenario, until he took three days off and was temporarily replaced by a young violinist. She was a breath of fresh air.
But, with any new destination there is the urge to explore. Outdoor dining was still in full swing and perfect, since the hottest days of summer were long gone by mid-September. After lunch our first mission was to find a grocery store to get some basic essentials – wine, coffee and some breakfast items for the next day before we crashed from a long travel day. Through the North Gate and across the Scurda River we found Voli and Aroma grocery stores.
The second, lone mission, was to find the laundry service as our cloths were about to walk away on their own in protest. Before our host departed, she confirmed there was a laundry service, but wasn’t sure exactly where, as she didn’t use it, only that it was outside the city walls somewhere along the road that followed the bay. She waved vaguely in the general direction of the South Gate. It was a pleasant walk past the vegetable vendors in the daily market, outside the city walls, laden with fresh fruits and vegetables and FIGS!! (Our decision to call Kotor home for a month was instantly reinforced by this discovery.) Further on there was an Idea supermarket and the Sladoja mesara meat shop and grill restaurant. I walked all the way to the bus station and back tracked without spotting the laundry. Not one to accept surrender, I asked a woman exiting an apartment building with my laughable Serbian, praonica? (laundromat in Serbian.) I also showed her a slip of paper with it spelled out, just in case. Saint Jude must have been watching. She not only spoke English, but happened to work there and was returning from her lunch break. Nearing home, I found the only bakery within the old town just around the corner from our apartment and was able to pick up some wonderful fresh breads and baked goods at very reasonable prices. This became a regular stop during our stay.
Instead of ticking off destinations and sights within a short period of time, it was good to be back on track with our slow travel approach to seeing the world. Yes, we still want to see everything a locale has to offer, but at a reasonable pace with a walk a little, then café style repeated throughout the day. This approach allowed us to enjoy the Adriatic lifestyle by immersing ourselves into the ambience of Old Town Kotor for a month.
Surrounded by its ancient walls, the village really was the perfect size, impossible to get lost within and full of interesting finds and eateries. If we started our day early enough, we caught pleasant glimpses of parents walking their children through the ancient gates to school, and vendors delivering the day’s supplies by pushcart down the tight, cobbled lanes, hard work for sure.
Exploring the alleyways that twisted through the town, we found unique architectural details, remnants from past empires and seafaring wealth.
The alleys led to small intimate plazas with umbrellaed tables and entertaining street musicians. Caffe bar Perper on Pjaca od Salate made very good cappuccinos and every morning two singers sang a medley of Balkan folk songs with a sprinkling of western tunes thrown in. Across the plaza Konoba Scala Santa, the oldest restaurant (1931) in Kotor offered regional specialties and a rustic interior with a fireplace on those rainy fall nights that chased us inside.
After coffee one morning we followed the steep stairs off Pjaca od Salate past old stone homes (wondering how folks do it when we saw a baby stroller on a landing) built into the hill to the entrance of Kotor Fortress. 1350 steps to the top – we could do it! Fortunately, we chose a cool day. It was a challenging trek over a rough stone path and stairs still in need of repair from the 1979 earthquake that struck the city.
Fortifications have loomed over Kotor since Illyrian times, 4th century BC until 167 BC, with additions made by Roman emperor Justinian I in the 6th century. The Venetian Empire expanded the fortifications further in the 16th century. It’s their stones that we were tripping over. Our effort was rewarded with spectacular views of the city, bay and old caravan trail from the serpentine path that twisted all the way to the top.
As formidable and imposing as the fortress looked, it has been seized several times during conflicts with the Ottoman, French and English. Good walking shoes and water are a must for this going. 650 steps up the Church of Our Lady of Remedy marks the halfway point and is a good place to rest and enjoy the view for a while. The small chapel was built by survivors of the 1518 plague to honor the Holy Mother.
In 1979 an extremely destructive magnitude 7.0 earthquake devasted old town Kotor and many similar towns along the Montenegro and Albanian coastline which was then part of Yugoslavia, leaving 100,000 people homeless. All the stone buildings suffered some form of damage and the city was closed to the public for ten years during its restoration. Some signs of the earthquake damage are still visible, most noticeably block-long 19th century Austrian Prison that has large cracks in its exterior walls and the sky visible through its roof.
The churches in the historic center also suffered extensive damage. Their facades have been fully restored, but their ornate interiors were destroyed beyond repair. The interiors are noticeably less ornate than similar era churches in Europe, with only fragments of relief carvings and frescoes remaining, hinting at their former beauty. Priče o Potresu / The Earthquake Stories is a 2020 documentary by Montenegro director Dusan Vulekovic about that destructive natural disaster. Severe earthquakes also struck Kotor in 1563 and 1608.
The one drawback of Kotor is that it’s a busy cruise port with four or five large cruise ships disgorging thousands of passengers between 10am and 3pm every day until the end of the cruising season. But they followed a limited circuit and if we planned around them, they were barely noticeable. By October first only one or two cruise ships were anchoring in the bay each week.
Often referred to as Europe’s southernmost fjord, the walls of Kotor bay are so high and steep that they cast shadows late into the morning and early in the afternoon over the city. This is a tremendous help in moderating the heat of the Adriatic summers. Its unique geography makes it the most naturally protected harbor along the Adriatic coast, providing safe anchorage for sailors since the beginning of boat building, several millennia ago.
There were a variety of water tours available and we opted for one that took us to Our Lady of the Rocks and Perast. The legend of Our Lady of the Rocks starts in the 15th century when two brothers, fishermen from Perast, found an icon of the Virgin on a rock protruding from the center of the bay. Fulfilling the Virgin’s request of them to build a church in the bay, they began transporting stones by boat from the shore and dropping them in the bay. Soon others followed. Today there is a small Catholic church on the island and a festive boat procession every July called Fasinada that keeps the tradition alive.
The views from the bell tower of St. Nikola Church over the quaint village of Perast and the open expanse of Boka (Kotor) Bay were tremendous. It was a wonderful, beautiful day on the water that ended hours later in agony, as we both succumbed to food poisoning from lunch. Fortunately, Donna found a visiting Doctor service that provided an English-speaking physician who made house calls. After a midnight knock on the door and a short consultation we were advised to hop in his ambulance for an intravenous treatment at the local clinic. It turns out that we had visited this clinic ten days earlier for treatment of a sinus infection and pinkeye that Donna caught before we left Ethiopia. After our hour and half treatment, we felt one hundred percent better and were discharged at 1:30AM onto a deserted sidewalk with no assistance offered to get us back to town. It was too far out of town to consider walking and considering we were still recovering, we waited patiently as the occasional car sped past Finally a taxi zoomed by and, hearing my booming shout of “TAXI!” the driver hit the brakes and did a U-turn.
Our travel insurance covered the hospital visits, though the claims were cumbersome to file. (Keep your airline tickets for proof of travel.) Amazingly, the hospital treatment, including transport by ambulance, was only €50 each – extremely affordable compared to medical care in the United States. Likewise, the prescriptions we filled the next day were easily paid for out-of-pocket. It is worthwhile to compare the cost of drugs that you regularly purchase in the United States with what they cost overseas when traveling. There is an outstanding difference, with foreign prices being much lower and many not requiring a doctor’s prescription. Just check Google for the correct name of the drug for the country you are in.
The old town is also famous for its colony of “Kotor Cats,” descendants of ratters taken to sea by sailors to control rodents on board their ships. As we walked around town, we noticed small trays of cat food placed about for them. Kotor Kitties is a non-profit organization started by an American visitor to Kotor several years ago that provides food, veterinarian care and neutering for the famous felines.
Our wanderings expanded to include longer treks along the picturesque roads that followed the shoreline of the bay. Walking only minutes from old town along Put I Bokeljske Brigade on the bay’s eastern shore put us in a more relaxed world with pebbled beaches, small marinas, waterfront restaurants, private homes and small boutique hotels along the water. Though the bay water was still warm enough for swimming, the area was very quiet at the end of September, with most of the small hotels posting “rooms available” signs in their windows. Many of the beach facilities pulled in their cabanas and rental kayaks with the end of the cruise boat season, which coincides with the beginning of the rainy fall season. Fortunately, the restaurants were still open along this route and several of them enticed us enough to revisit this seven-mile roundtrip walk to the village of Dobrota weekly.
The western shoreline along the bay was equally enticing with its small coves that sheltered yachts at anchor, and the historic churches of Crkva Sv. Ilije in Gornji Stoliv and the parish church of Prcanj, Bogorodicin Hram, offered wonderful views of the bay from the top of its monumental stairs leading to the church. There were also some nice quirky finds along this route: props that looked like they were once used in a local carnival.
Montenegro is a small country; besides being known for its fabulous Adriatic coast, it has an equally impressive mountainous interior only a short distance inland from Kotor that can be visited on day trips. There were numerous tour operators around town that all offered basically the same excursions. We chose one to Durmitor National Park that included stops at the dramatic Most na Đurđevića Tari bridge that spans the turquoise waters of the Tara River. Visits to Black Lake, Lake Slano and the cliffside Ostrog Monastery would round out the day.
It was late September now and the chill of fall was in the morning air. Optimistically I wore sandals, anticipating a warm and sunny afternoon as it was the day before. As we drove into the mountains, the clouds thickened and the temperature dropped to the point were when we stopped at a small shopping center for a rest break I ran into a shoe store to buy a pair of heavy socks, much to Donna’s amusement.
The mountain vistas along the drive to Djurdjevica Tara bridge were fantastic and we arrived in time for some in our group to zip-line across Europe’s deepest canyon (4300 ft) and the turquoise waters of the River Tara – the “tear of Europe,” below.
An easy hike through old growth forests around Black Lake followed lunch at a waterside restaurant.
The last stop of the day was at Ostrog Monastery which expanded around a cave church that was built high into the mountains in the 1600s by Vasilije, the Bishop of Herzegovina and later known as St. Vasilije, to escape Ottoman raiders. Upon his death his body was entombed in the church and legend says his mortal remains have miraculous healing powers. Over the centuries, the monastery has become a pilgrimage site for Orthodox Christians, Catholics and Muslims, drawing 100,000 visitors annually. Additionally, the monastery is also known for its unigue religious frescoes, which were painted directly onto to the surface of the cave, following their natural curvature. Our guide had timed our visit perfectly to coincide with the 5:00 PM mass. It was a moving experience to hear the liturgy sung and projected from loudspeakers out over the valley as the sun was setting.
The last stop of the day was at a scenic overlook above Kotor Bay. Montenegro packs a magnificent amount of beauty into a small country and should be on everyone’s radar for an affordable, budget friendly destination.
A week later we rented a car to explore parts of Montenegro on our own.
Leaving the Buska Lodge, we turned east to cross the rugged Humu Range. Our eventual destination in three days’ time was Addis Ababa, but today we had one last tribe to visit: the Arbore tribe, whose ancestral homeland extends to the Weito River and Lake Chew Bahir.
Not far from the lodge, the compacted dirt road deteriorated into a rock-strewn obstacle course, the result of a recent rockslide caused by torrential rains earlier in August. We coined the phrase “rattled tourist syndrome” here – after a couple of hours on this road, we felt like we had suffered brain damage! Rounding a bend, we got our first glimpse of Lake Chew in the distance, before the road descended to a dry riverbed which we followed out of a canyon to the flood plain along the western shore of the lake.
When the shallow lake is full, its water covers an area 40 miles long by 15 miles wide and extends into northern Kenya. It’s been drying up slowly for more than a century, and today it is mostly a papyrus-filled marshland. Its fertile shoreland is now farmed, and the papyrus reeds are cut from it by the Arbore to construct their huts. Plots of land along the lake are redistributed yearly by the elders of the tribe, so no one family always has the best parcel.
A short while later, under a threatening gray sky, we entered a small village. Here and there, women were involved in daily chores. Off to the side some children were tasked with rounding up a few young goats scampering about, while the married women of the village were attending to various chores in front of their huts.
The young, unmarried women of the clan were recognizable by the black cloth, a symbol of virginity, they draped over their shaven heads to protect themselves from the sun. Cattle-centric like most of the Omo Valley tribes the Arbore, which means land of the bulls, add a new dimension to it with the men joining the names of their favorite cows to their wives’ names.
The Arbore are well respected by the surrounding tribes, the result of an ancient enduring legend in which the tribe defeated the devil in a battle. Consequently, they have a centuries’ old “don’t mess with us” reputation that ensures a peaceful coexistence with their neighbors and fosters inter-tribal marriages and sharing of grazing lands when there are droughts.
With the onslaught of the expected rain we were invited into a tribeswoman’s hut. It was larger than some made by other tribes, with a second room where two small children were asleep on goat skins. The front was roomy enough to shelter three of us and five villagers, sitting and standing, from the downpour outside. It was a dark but dry enclosure. The colorful beads the women wore were illuminated by the only light source, the short entryway to the hut.
There are not any convenient alternate routes between points in the Omo Valley which meant we backtracked on roads previously driven as we worked our way towards Konso and Arba Minch. We arrived late in the day to the Paradise Lodge, and the view from their terrace was spectacular as the sunny sky brightened the verdant jungle that separated Lake Abaya from Lake Chamo in the distance.
“The next time you come, we will go to the Bridge of God. It’s on the peak of that mountain that separates the two lakes. There is a wonderful track through the jungle that takes you there,” our guide promised.
In the morning we set north to Lake Awassa, and the route was humming with activity. Folks walking, charcoal and dried chili vendors, tuk-tuks, donkey carts, herds of cattle and buses all jostled peacefully for space on this artery of commerce.
Before spending the night in Awassa, we detoured into the Senkele Wildlife Sanctuary, a 13,000-acre reserve established to protect a herd of 700 Swayne’s hartebeests, an endangered antelope.
At the ranger station we parked our truck next to a large acacia tree, where to our delight a colony of weaver birds were frantically darting to and fro, constructing their intricate hanging nests.
The guide drove us deep into the surrounding grasslands until he spotted a herd, and then encouraged us to walk across the plain with him. Just exiting the vehicle made a huge difference in our appreciation of this gently rolling, beautiful landscape.
The air was fresh, and an earthy aroma rose from the ground. Farther down the track the ranger turned a blind eye to a young herder quickly moving some cattle through the reserve. And to everyone’s surprise we spotted a rare Ethiopian wolf, which was stealthily shadowing a dik-dik.
Our destination the next morning was the Hawassa fish market, next to Amora Gedel, the smallest national park in Ethiopia. The market is a daily open-air event where fishermen paddle anything that floats, in order to eke out a living from the over-fished lake and its dwindling stock of tilapia, catfish, and Nile perch.
It was a colorful, chaotic affair as the fishermen gutted and filleted the freshly caught fish on the ground as soon as the nets were emptied. It attracted a huge number of birds ready to swoop in to scavenge the scraps when the activity died down.
There were a large number of ugly marabou storks, with their peculiar scaly heads, but we also saw hamerkop, ibis, pelicans and cormorants waiting patiently. Ringing the parking lot, there were food shacks that prepared fried fish and a fish soup that is popular locally for breakfast.
Afterwards we headed to Abidjatta-Shalla National Park, which is known for its two large alkaline lakes surrounded by hot springs and flocks of flamingos, as well as a vast variety of bird life that favors the encompassing savanna. We hired a ranger at the main gate and followed him along an unmarked path through the open woodland.
Soon we spotted a go away bird, warthogs and our favorite blue-eared glossy starlings. Farther on we crept slowly up to a dominant male ostrich watching over a small flock. Our guide wanted us to go home with spectacular photos, so he instructed my wife to give him her camera, and to approach the large ostrich.
“It will be good photo,” he said in his broken English. “Closer, closer, closer.” My wife eyed the massive claws and muscular legs of the beast, and uncomfortably crept closer to the ostrich than she thought wise to do, the guide motioning her on all the while. “Stop!” the guide suddenly whisper-screeched and began snapping. He was right – they were pretty dramatic photos. Seconds later the ostriches were spooked by an unexpected antelope bounding through, and trotted off.
Back in the truck, our ranger guided us across the park to the shore of Shala Lake where we observed lesser flamingos feeding on cyanobacteria, abundant in the lakes’ alkaline water.
After cresting a small ridge, we were overlooking a hot spring that bubbled up through the earth in a gully several hundred yards from the lake shore. Surprisingly, there was a good size makeshift camp around it, supporting folks doing laundry and cooking food in the hot water. Farther downstream people were bathing in ever cooler pools before the water emptied into the lake.
After soaking our feet in a suitable pool, it was time to return to Addis Ababa for our own day of laundry and rest before the next part of our Ethiopian journey, the rock churches of Lalibela.
Below us, down an extremely steep embankment, a dugout canoe waited to take us across the Omo River to visit the Dassanech tribe. “If we trip, we are going for a swim,” I mentioned to our guide. “Don’t worry, the crocodiles are further downstream, closer to the delta,” he replied with his dry sense of humor, as several people helped us down to the water.
Sitting low in the water, the dugout canoe was stable like a kayak and large enough for three of us. Standing on the stern, a tribesman poled us upstream for a distance before letting the current take us across the river to the equally steep, opposite bank.
At the top of the riverbank freshly tilled fields, bordered with narrow irrigation canals, gave way to a flat dry landscape that extended to the horizon. The Dassanech are the southernmost tribe in the Omo valley, and their territory extends south to the Kenyan border at Lake Turkana and west to South Sudan. Even with the river and lake nearby it’s a dry inhospitable terrain that has suffered from years of extended drought and climate change. The temperature often exceeds 110°F. Consequently, as cross border tensions over diminishing grazing lands have increased, the Ethiopian government has discouraged the nomadic ways of the Dassanech. In exchange for reducing the size of their cattle herds the government is helping them farm along the banks of the Omo River by providing resources and irrigation pumps.
We entered the village through an opening in the corral that encircled it. Roughly made of tree branches, it serves to keep cattle in and hyenas out at night. Low dome-shaped huts called miede constructed from foraged branches, twigs, river reeds and leaves used to be covered in cowhide for protection from dust storms and infrequent rains. Now corrugated tin is used instead as there are fewer cattle to slaughter.
The huts must be roasting hot inside! Children hoop rolled an old bicycle tire along the irrigation canal while others played with empty water bottles tied to sticks as tribeswomen sat in the meager shade provided by huts.
The more plentiful shade of the few large, ancient trees still standing by the river is reserved for the men of the village and is off-limits to women and children.
This unforgiving environment created the atmosphere of a desolate refugee camp whose tribespeople were awaiting an unknown future. To borrow a phrase, it felt like “the doorstep to hell.” I don’t say this to be derogatory, but to describe the intensely harsh environment. It’s remarkable that roughly 20,000 Dassanech can survive in such brutal, extreme conditions. In such an environment, people wear very little clothing except when going to town.
Visiting the Dassanech gave us a new understanding of the effects of climate change and the desire to migrate as a consequence of it. As we left the village, some of the tribeswomen had gathered to display their crafts. There is a social contract that, aside from paying for photos, tourists should purchase handcrafts from the villagers. It’s an additional way to help.
Back across the river, we stopped for a late lunch at a small place along the road, before heading to a Hamar village near Turmi. Outside the restaurant was a small collection box for the local church.
Just a little aside: we had no intestinal issues with the food during our time in Ethiopia. The pit toilets, on the other hand, were truly frightening and we are convinced that they could only be mastered if you grew up with them. The privacy of a “bush toilet” behind a large termite mound was the more sanitary alternative. And bring hand sanitizer! (Surprisingly, after a year on the road, we only succumbed to food poisoning when we were back in Europe.)
A brief torrential rain dampened the dust and cleaned the air as we headed for the afternoon’s destination.
The golden hour was quickly descending when we arrived in the Hamar village and we only had a short time to work our way around the village before the sun disappeared behind a cloud bank.
We were supposed to camp overnight in the village, an activity my adventuresome, good sport of a wife reluctantly agreed to when we planned this portion of our tour. “It will be fun!” I reassured her at the time. But seeing our pup tent set up in a small corral surrounded by dried cow dung and imagining how we would deal with a bush toilet in the darkness of the savanna, I had my doubts. I had imagined more of a glamping experience. Thinking of our aching backs in the morning from sleeping on the ground without any kind of padding, we asked our guide for plan B.
Since the guides would have been participating in this camping adventure with us, they didn’t put up much argument about changing plans. This brought us to a comfortable room at the Buska Lodge, an eco-inn isolated in the thorn tree-studded savanna outside Turmi. It was an oasis after a long and hot day. By the time we arrived the generator and water had been turned on. At dinner we discussed returning to the Hamar village the next day, but early enough in the afternoon to give us enough time to enjoy the tribe and their village.
Early the next afternoon, before we entered Turmi, we crossed a dry riverbed where several teams of men were digging deep into the sand to find water. Towns without any water infrastructure rely on these hardworking and enterprising men to fill the ubiquitous yellow jerry cans with water and deliver them by donkey cart to people’s homes. It was another sign of climate change that reinforced its dire consequences.
The men of the village were still out with the cattle herds, but we were greeted by a throng of women and children. The Hamar are known for their tradition of “bull jumping” or “bullah,” a purification and rite of passage ceremony for young tribesmen to prove their worthiness for marriage. It’s a complex ritual that culminates with the young man jumping over the backs of 10 bulls, which are smeared with dung to be slippery, four times without falling. If he falls he will have to wait a year until he’s allowed to try again.
We did not witness a bullah; what we did see were the results of the whipping ceremonies that precede the bull jumping. Displayed on the bare backs of the women of the village were large raised scars, which were inflicted by the men; the women receive the beatings as a show of loyalty. Before the bull jumping, the sisters and other female relatives of the initiates from the surrounding villages gather, and with sorghum beer brewed for the occasion dance, sing and blow horns. As the dancing intensifies the women are said to ask, beg, or provoke the maza, young men who bull jumped but haven’t married yet, to whip them with long birch branches called miceres. This act of scarification is a visual reminder of the women’s loyalty to the young man about to bull jump and earns them the right to his help in the future should they ever need it. “If your sisters, female cousins, or aunties need your assistance in the future your debt to them is sealed. You can’t ignore their requests, period. After all, they nearly died for you!”
By western morals this is a brutal practice, but with the Hamar it’s an ancient ritual that has been performed for centuries. They have a saying, “Women with scars are as strong as lions!”
The Hamar tribeswomen are also very distinctive with their dress, wearing long goatskin garments adorned with cowry shells and beads. The first wife of a tribesman wears an iron neck ring with a protruding knob on the front, called a binyere, that visually distinguishes her status as the first wife, above two esente, simple iron collars, that she has worn since her engagement. The collars are permanently placed on the woman by the village blacksmith and only removed by her husband upon her death. Additional wives only wear simple metal necklaces to indicate their lower status.
We stayed late into the day, wandering through the village watching children play atop the cattle corrals while waiting for the herds to return and the sky slowly deepen to darkness.
Turning off the packed dirt road at Turmi, we headed into a xeric savanna along a sandy vein, barely visible on Google Map’s satellite view, our destination the Kara tribe’s village of Korcho. Occasionally, we would pass a tree with pink flowers, called a Desert Rose (Adenium obesum), which brightly contrasted with its surroundings.
Numerous red earthed termite mounds rose from the plain. “What do you think they look like?” our guide queried as we stopped to photograph a large, fluorescent blue agaminae lizard climbing one. Not sure how to politely reply, we hesitated with a response. “Dicks, they look like big dicks!” our normally reserved guide chuckled out before a round of laughter filled the truck. Hey, we know how to have a good chuckle in the bush. Obviously, we were traveling with the “Benny Hill” of Ethiopia.
Picking up on our interest in wildlife our driver, who was excellent at identifying birds, stopped every time he spotted something. Thanks to his eagle eye, we were able to photograph red and yellow barbets, white crowned shrikes, guinea fowl, and red billed hornbills along with a dik-dik and an Arabian bustard.
The track ended in the Kara village of Korcho, located on a high embankment, above a curve in the Omo river – it was a stunning view. The Kara are the smallest tribe in the southern Omo Valley. Their population was decimated in the late 19th century during a sleeping sickness epidemic spread by the bite of the tsetse fly.
With an estimated 1500-3000 people left in three large villages, they are trying to keep their bloodline pure and have strict rules forbidding intermarriage with the surrounding tribes. Traditionally pastoralists, they prefer goats over cattle, as their grazing lands have been reduced by conflicts with larger neighboring tribes; also, they now practice flood-retreat farming and fish in the Omo River.
The Kara are also famous for their body painting. Using designs inspired from nature, they apply local chalk and clay, iron ore, charcoal, and ground yellow mineral rock in intricate designs. They paint themselves or each other as there are no mirrors. Done for beauty and ceremonial reasons, the body painting also helps to keep insects away and reduce sunburn.
Men and women also make a single piercing below their lower lip and insert a single thorn or carved twig for decoration. Scarification is practiced by the men to commemorate a courageous act, while women lash themselves because the raised welts are viewed as a sign of beauty on mature women.
Visiting stools called, borkotto, double as headrests and are carried by tribesmen wherever they go. Courageous Kara tribesmen are entitled to wear a red and grey colored, clay hair cap which is decorated with a large feather. This symbol of honor can last up to six months and is ritually protected every night when sleeping by using the headrest to protect it from the ground.
We were invited by a tribeswoman to have coffee in her hut. The Kara build relatively large huts, sturdily constructed of branches and thatch with a small low entrance. We followed a small group, who dipped low and slid inside gracefully. I, on the other hand, to the amusement of onlookers, resorted to crawling on all fours through the portal. The knees just don’t bend the way they used to. Over an open fire our hostess was preparing a coffee beverage, more like a coffee tea, called buno which is made by steeping the dried husks of coffee beans in hot water. The drink was passed around in a hollowed-out gourd which we all drank from.
Later that day we headed to visit part of the Nyangatom tribe living near the Omo River. They are thought to have migrated into the Omo Valley region from Uganda in the mid-1800s. The Nyangatom are semi-nomadic agro-pastoralists, though some members of their tribe that have lost their cattle now farm and fish along the Omo River. Their permanent villages feature tall huts with a distinctive, pinnacled thatched roof.
Inland other clans drive large herds of zebu cattle, along with some goats and donkeys (as pack animals) through a large arid grazing area that extends west to the Sudanese border and north to the Suri territory. In times of drought they dig deep wells in the dry riverbeds so they and their animals can drink.
The Nyangatom name their generation groups. The oldest have names like the Tortoises, Mountains and Elephants. The youngest generation is called the Buffaloes. Every fifty years the older generation steps aside for the younger one to rule.
Nyangatom tribeswomen are recognized by the elaborate bundle of colorful necklaces they wear and never take off. The first strand of beads is given by a girl’s father. Every year after she adds another strand, mounding pounds of them up under her chin over her lifetime.
Some traditions never change, but as we were leaving the village, we noticed a small solar panel atop one of the huts. Probably just powerful enough to recharge a cell phone or run a light bulb.
Walking, walking, walking! The countryside is full of folks out and about on their feet. There is a rural minibus network connecting larger villages once a day, and Lalibela has tuk-tuks, of course. But mostly, whether it’s due to lack of affordability or availability, people walk to and from everywhere. Sometimes it is necessary to travel great distances to accomplish simple, everyday tasks like gathering water, heading out to tend a remote field, going to market, or even farther to visit a doctor. In the rugged agrarian highlands surrounding Lalibela, all the fields are tilled by farmers walking behind teams of oxen, as it has been done for centuries, on farmland passed down through a communal hereditary system called rist.
The land does not belong to an individual but to the descendants who can never sell, keeping the land in the family for perpetuity. Without mechanization, planting, weeding and harvesting are done communally. If the rains are good excess crops make it to a local market; if not, it’s subsistence farming until the drought ends. Some NGOs are having an impact by drilling community wells for fresh water and remote irrigation.
We passed many individuals and groups walking as we made our way into the beautiful highlands surrounding Lalibela to visit St. Yemrehana Krestos Church, named for the king that commissioned its construction around 1100 AD.
It’s only 12 miles from Lalibela as the crow flies, and until the road was put in not too long ago, a two-day trek from town. Now, twenty-six miles of dirt road and an hour and half later we were there, a world away from Lalibela.
The path to the church took us across a footbridge spanning a boulder-strewn stream where women were washing clothes in the rushing water below. They agilely jumped from rock to rock as they spread their laundry out to dry. As we headed uphill, we stopped at the bottom of a set of stairs to wait for a group of church elders to cautiously descend.
Situated at 8500 ft above sea level, the altitude was catching up to us and we were glad to sit for a while in front of the church to admire its setting. St. Yemrehana Krestos is not a legendary rock church, but a cave church built at the mouth of a deep cavern, behind a tall slender waterfall.
It’s constructed in a distinctive pattern of horizontal stone block, followed by a recessed layer of timber in an architectural style copied from the Aksumite Kingdom that flourished from 400 BC until the 10th century AD.
The cave is very spacious and actually contains two buildings. The second directly across from the church is thought to have been the king’s humble palace or treasury, according to our guide. The door to it was open, but it appeared to be used mostly for storage now. The floor between the buildings is covered with reed mats that hide a substructure of large olive wood beams built over a shallow spring-fed pool that can be reached by a trapdoor in front of the church.
Behind the church are two tombs draped in fine cloth, to indicate their royal significance. The larger tomb is thought to be the grave of King Yemrehana Krestos and the smaller one that of his slave, Ebna. Deeper into the cave there is a mass grave of several hundred now mummified bodies, which have been piled on top of each other for centuries, the corpses of pilgrims and monks who could go no further.
It took our eyes awhile to adjust to the dim interior of the church as we worked our way through a columned interior, the tops crowned with wood and stone carved capitals. Never restored, centuries of accumulated candle soot partially obscured an inlaid wooden ceiling with geometric designs and, on the walls, what are thought to be the oldest examples of mural paintings in Ethiopia.
Outside a local teenager was selling small clay figurines of animals. His rendering of a Walia ibex, native to the Ethiopian Semien Mountains, caught our eye and we made his day with a purchase.
Heading back, we passed Bilbala St. George Church, a rock church built in the 5th or 6th century AD by King Kaleb. It is legendary for its sacred bees that have lived in hives in the courtyard since its founding. Their honey is renowned for its healing properties, especially for the treatment of skin problems and psychological disorders. We were crazy not to stop; in retrospect, we regret our decision.
Walking, walking, walking. Coming or going, people carrying umbrellas for shade traveling along with goats or chickens, for sale or for dinner – the road was crowded with activity as we drove through the village of Bilibala on its market day.
With no semblance of trying to attract tourists, we had a better chance of coming home with a donkey from the pre-owned animal auction lot than a souvenir.
Outside the village at the turn to our next stop, a magnificent ancient fig tree provided shade under its graceful canopy.
After walking briefly through a shady forest and crossing a narrow stream rock to rock we could see a large, what was once a turtle-shaped, monolithic rock rising from the ground before us, its front curve altered a millennium ago. The façade was chiseled smooth to be a high flat wall with an entry door centered in it. This was the wall to the courtyard that surrounded the church; from the outside only a small section of the upper part of Bilbala Kirkos Church peaked above the wall.
Hearing us approach, the caretaker emerged from behind his home, swishing away pests with a cow tail fly-swatter as he approached, and told us that the church was locked because the priest was away in another village to attend a funeral, but we could go into the courtyard.
Shoes off, we crossed through an ancient threshold hewn in the 6th century AD into a spongy moss-lined trench that encircled the church on three sides and served as its courtyard. The eastern wall or back of the church was still attached to the living rock. High arched windows were piled with stones to keep out birds and other critters.
Worn entry steps testified to centuries of use. As we were getting ready to leave, the caretaker offered us tella, an Ethiopian home-brewed beer made from teff and sorghum grain and fermented with buckthorn. Out of concern for maintaining our good health, we passed on the offer, but our guide enjoyed it and shared that “tella is used for religious purposes when holy wine is not available.” Sacred bees and holy beer – we’re on to something here.
There is not a definitive count, but it’s thought that there are nearly two hundred rock churches scattered about the remote northern highlands of Ethiopia. The highest concentration of eleven in one locale, collectively known as the “Rock Churches of Lalibela,” is the most famous. In the immediate rural area surrounding Lalibela there are several additional rock churches and ancient monasteries worth seeking out. Asheten Mariam Monastery is perched at 11,500 ft on a lower ridge of Mount Abuna Yosef, (at 14,000 ft Ethiopia’s sixth highest mountain) and St. Na’akuto La’ab Monastery behind a waterfall, both located southeast of Lalibela. Farther afield, to the north of Lalibela, St. Yemrehana Krestos and Bilba Kirkos Church lie in remote farmlands. All four required a little more physical effort to get to, but were well worth the effort.We started our day listening to bird calls and watching the morning clouds burn off from the valley below our hotel as the sun rose higher into the sky. The Mountain View Hotel Lalibelawas the perfect spot on the outskirts of town, with extensive views and a wonderful variety of birdlife in the trees outside our room. Farther along the ridgeline was an odd, futuristic structure that looked like it was a tower for a water ride in an amusement park.
The day before after touring the Lalibela churches, our guide suggested we hire a driver with an SUV to take us into the mountains. “We can drive to the end of the dirt track, but then it’s another forty-minute hike to the monastery,” Girma explained. “How difficult is the trek?” “It’s a gradual climb until the end and then there is a short steep section,” he replied. The shops were busy, and the roadside Ping-Pong games were in full swing as we departed Lalibela. The road into the mountains rose quickly from Lalibela into a semi-forested landscape. Too steep for crops, the land was used for cattle, which grazed on clumps of wild grasses on the hillside. We stopped at one clearing for the view and noticed a herder gently nudging his cows away from recently planted tree seedlings. “This is part of our government’s commitment to reverse deforestation and help mitigate climate change. It’s called the Green Legacy Initiative,” Girma shared. “On July 29th Ethiopians planted 350 million trees in a single day, a world record!” he proudly shared. “The farmers know how important this is and help shoo the cattle away, but the government has also chosen a tree seedling that doesn’t taste good.” This annual Ethiopian project is part of the African Union’s Great Green Wall initiative to reclaim arid lands that border the Sahara Desert with a living wall of trees. This belt of greenery will stretch from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Aden. The road deteriorated after this, with deep mudded ruts tossing us from side to side regardless of how slowly we navigated through, over or around them. Our “rattled tourist syndrome” is the most appropriate way to describe the ride, while optimists might refer to it as an an “African deep tissue massage.” We were the only truck to park at the trailhead to the Asheten Mariam Monastery and were greeted with children selling handicrafts, and young men renting walking sticks and offering to accompany us on the hike. Confident in our abilities we declined, but they tagged along anyway. This was a good thing. What our guide had forgotten to mention was that there was a short steep section at the beginning of the hike, before it leveled off. Within minutes, between the altitude and the terrain, our hearts were pumping and my wife, who struggles with asthma, was gasping for breath. We are unfortunately not the 7 second 0-60mph vroom, vroom of a 1964 Corvette anymore, but more like the putt-putt of a classic Citroën 2CV. We get there, eventually. So, our guide, forgetting his youth and our age, led the way from a distance, as if he was channeling Shambel Abebe Bikila, Ethiopia’s famous marathon runner. It was at this point that my wife spoke up. “Girma, you must think of me as the same age as your mother.” Instantly, his attitude became very solicitous, and he smilingly offered her a hand or other assistance at every opportunity. We marveled at the agility of the local kids. They nimbly scampered up and down the trail, easily outdistancing us, in order to set up their little trailside displays of carvings and beadednecklaces. When we didn’t purchase at first, they simply packed up and reappeared further up the trail. We had to reward such perseverance with a couple of purchases.Meanwhile, we regained our pace as the trail leveled off and tracked along the base of a cliff face that fell away to terraced farmland far below. The incline of the trail continued to rise; the walking sticks were now invaluable in helping us steady our footing on the rough path. Around a curve the trail abruptly narrowed at a sheer rock wall broken by a vertical chasm, slightly wider than our shoulders.
Occasionally we had to plaster ourselves to the rock wall to make room for descending parishioners to pass. It took a moment for our eyes to readjust to the brilliant sunlight after emerging from the darkness of the tunnel as we exited onto a plateau above the highlands.
A young priest answered our knock, greeted us and led us into a small chamber lit only by the light of the open door. The priest proceeded to show us the treasures of the church: a large ebony cross, 900-year-old parchment manuscripts, elegant processional crosses and illuminated Bibles, as well as iconography. Imprinted at the bottom of a page in one ancient text were the thumbprints of the ten scribes who helped copy the book. Legend has it that it was the first church ordered built by King Lalibela during his reign in the twelfth century and that his successor, Na’akueto La’ab, who only ruled for a short time, is buried there.
The way the church is cut from the mountain made it difficult to get an overview as part of it is obscured by protective roofing. The real rewards of this endurance trek were the fantastic panoramic views over the Lalibela highlands. Awareness of your surroundings are vital here as there are not any safety railings at the cliff edge. The walk back was slightly less difficult, but the young men who tagged along and assisted truly earned their payment. Back at the trailhead, parked next to our truck was a tiny blue, Fiat Panda, a sub-compact car with extremely low road clearance. How it managed to traverse the same rutted road we drove hours earlier remains a mystery to us.
Our guide suggested we lunch at Ben Abeba, a curious lunch spot that turned out to be that futuristic building visible from our hotel. Its spiral ramps led to various dining platforms from which we watched raptors soaring along the updrafts of the ridge. The food was exceptionally good. But there was a quirky feature of the restaurant that we found very amusing. The restrooms were something out of a science fiction movie, with cylindrical stalls that resembled cryogenic tubes. It was definitely a Lalibela oddity.
St. Na’akuto La’ab Monastery was closer to town. As with many rural communities, Lalibela included, the cluster of development ended abruptly, and we were instantly in the countryside. Villagers in robes walked purposefully to church along the road that bordered their fields, as we made our way to the hermitage. Coming to the end of the road, we could see the monastery dramatically situated behind a small waterfall, in a long shallow cave at the bottom of a cliff.
It was an easy short walk, from where we parked, down a trail with noisy birdlife. The buildings behind the entrance wall to the cave are not particularly unique; it’s their location that’s inspiring. The oneness with the natural environment.Stone bowls smoothed from centuries of use sat in various places on the rough floor to collect the water seeping from the cave’s ceiling one drip at a time. It gets blessed by the priest and used as Holy water, continuing a tradition from the 12th century when King La’ab ordered the monastery’s creation.
“Miraculously the water has never stopped flowing since the monastery was built,” the priest shared as our guide interpreted. Outside doors to the monks’ cells lined the exterior wall as it narrowed into the cliff face. In the learning area, layers of carpet attempted to smooth an uneven, rocky floor where the novitiates sit to learn the ways of the orthodox church. In the corner rested several large ceremonial drums used during worship services. Picking one up our guide beat out a rhythm that would normally accompany liturgical chanting, or Zema, by the young monks. We’ve noticed that the treasures of the Ethiopian churches are not determined by their monetary value and locked securely away, only to be used on religious holidays, but by their spiritual connection. Precious, irreplaceable, ancient bibles and manuscripts, lovingly worn and torn as they are, continue to be used every day, as they have been for the last nine-hundred-years. It is well worth the effort to visit these remote churches and monasteries. The physical strength required and hardships endured to build these remote churches as a testament of faith continues to be inspiring.
Often overshadowed in recent decades by its East African neighbors recognized for their safaris, Ethiopia has been known to Western culture for millennia. It was first mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, around 1000 BC (3,000 years ago!), when the Queen of Sheba, hearing of “Solomon’s great wisdom and the glory of his kingdom,” journeyed from Ethiopia with a caravan of treasure as tribute. Unbeknownst to Solomon their union produced a son, Menilek, (meaning son of the wise man). Years later, wearing a signet ring given to him by his mother, Menilek visited Jerusalem to meet Solomon and stayed for several years to study Hebrew. When his son desired to return home, Solomon gifted the Ark of the Covenant to Menilek for safe keeping in Ethiopia, and to this day it is said to reside in the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion, in Aksum, where only a select few of the Ethiopian Orthodox church can see it.The story of the lost tribe of Israel or the Beta Israel (meaning House of Israel) begins with the 12,000 Israelites that Solomon sent to Ethiopia to help Menilek rule following biblical laws. According to legend, Menelik I founded the Solomonic dynasty that ruled Ethiopia with few interruptions for close to three thousand years. This ended 225 generations later, with the deposition of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974. Blasphemy, I know, but let’s not forget the Hollywood legend with Indiana Jones rescuing the arc from the Nazis, only to have it unceremoniously stored in an underground warehouse in the Nevada desert. That is an aside, but as the writer I’m allowed to digress.Around the same time that Ethiopia appears in the Hebrew Bible, the Greek writer Homer mentioned “Aethiopia” five times in the The Iliad and The Odyssey. In the Histories written by Herodotus (440 BC,) the author describes traveling up the Nile River to the territory of “Aethiopia” which began at Elephantine, modern Aswan.
Ethiopian tradition credits the introduction of Christianity to an Ethiopian eunuch in 34 AD, who was baptized by Philip the Apostle. (Acts 8:26-39) He then preached near the palace in Aksum after returning from Israel.
Ethiopian ports on the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden were important stops along the trade route that brought spices from India, along with ivory and exotic animals from Africa to the Roman Empire. In the 4th century AD, Ethiopia’s first Christian king, Ezana of Aksum, sent ambassadors to Constantinople, a newly Christian Byzantine Empire, setting the stage for debates about which country – Armenia, Ethiopia (330AD) or Byzantium – was the first Christian state. Archaeologists point to Ethiopian coins minted in the 4th century bearing a cross and Ezana’s profile as solid proof.
After Ezana’s declaration of Ethiopia as a Christian country, civil war broke out between the Christian and Jewish populations, resulting in the creation of a separate Beta Israel kingdom in the Semien Mountains around Gondar that lasted from the 4th century to 1632. With the Ethiopian Orthodox Church having a site in Jerusalem since the sixth century, Ethiopian pilgrimages to the Holy Land, which took six months, were common until the route was blocked by Muslim conquests in 1100s and the journey became too hazardous. As it became surrounded further by Muslim territories, the country sank into isolation from Europe. Ethiopia’s early history and its connection to Judaism and Christianity is a twisting tale, like caravan tracks across the desert, meeting then disappearing behind sand dunes, the story buried by the blowing sands of time.Distraught by this, King Lalibela commissioned eleven architecturally perfect churches, to be hewn from solid rock, to serve as a New Jerusalem complete with a River Jordan for pilgrims to visit. He based the designs on memories of holy sites from his own pilgrimage to the Holy Land as a young man.Considering the limited availability of tools in the 1100s, I can’t imagine what a daunting task this must have been. I’m sure the chief architect said, “you have to be kidding.” It’s believed that 40,000 men, assisted by angels at night, labored for 24 years to create this testament to their faith. Masons outlined the shape of these churches on top of monolithic rocks, then excavated straight down forty feet to create a courtyard around this solid block. Doors would then be chiseled into the block and the creation of the church would continue from the inside, often in near total darkness.
European contact with Ethiopia was sporadic over these centuries, until the Portuguese circumnavigated the African continent in the late 1400s and began to establish trading ports along the East African coast. Early in the 1500s the first European to visit the churches of Lalibela was Francisco Alvares, a Portuguese priest assigned to the Ethiopian court as an emissary. He declared them a “wonder of the world,” penning “I weary of writing more about these buildings, because it seems to me that I shall not be believed if I write more… I swear by God, in Whose power I am, that all I have written is the truth.” It would be almost four hundred years before the next European, Gerhard Rohlfs, a German cartographer, laid eyes on them in the late 1860s.
The magnificence of this accomplishment didn’t reveal itself subtly, like a vision slowly rising from the horizon, but smacked us in the face with a WOW! as we emerged single file from a deep and narrow moss-covered trench dug from the reddish volcanic rock.
“The setting was intentionally designed to give the pilgrims a ‘spiritual journey’ of ascending to heaven as the sky and the 40 ft tall façade of Bete Medhane Alem (Church of the Savior of the World), burst forth before them after exiting the darkness,” our guide explained. The largest rock church in Lalibela and in the world is also significant because it’s believed “The hand of God touched one of its columns in a dream King Lalibela had,” our guide Girma Derbi shared as he explained the church’s columned façade that looks like it was inspired by the Parthenon.
Pilgrims in long white robes made their way through three doors that in all Ethiopian Orthodox churches face west, north and south. The nave is always on the east side of the building. “All visitors must remove their shoes before entering the church and leave them outside. You don’t have to, but it’s good if you hire a shoe guard to watch them. Unattended shoes have been known to disappear,” our guide advised.