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African lion

Two Great Old Places in Addis Ababa
by John Graham

Taitu Hotel: In the Piassa area just past the road on which the famous Castelli's restaurant holds court, is the oldest still functioning hotel in Ethiopia. Founded by Empress Taitu of Ethiopia in 1914, the hotel started a new tradition in the country. It may be hard to imagine now, but food and accommodation for travelers was entirely through private hospitality up until that time. The generous and hospitable nature of Ethiopians was clearly exceptional. In Europe the notion of Inns dated back thousands of years, and even in the nearby Middle East, Joseph and Mary could rely on an Inn 2000 years ago.

Early European visitors to Ethiopia report that hotel accommodation was rare and not that good. For hardy types like William Thesiger in the 1930's, that was just fine. He was happiest riding a camel and sleeping in a tent. The British novelist Evelyn Waugh, on the other hand, was used to the comforts of the upper crust, and deplored the simple accommodation he was afforded in Ethiopia, especially when he was forced into the overcrowded conditions experienced during the coronation of Haile Selassie in 1930.

The early Scots explorer James Bruce had no Inns to rely on in the 1760's, but he made do with the generous room in the castle, with built in bookshelves, which the Empress Mintwab provided him in Gondar.

Clearly the Taitu Hotel was designed to be a model for elegance and comfort for Ethiopia. Restored from dilapidation to its former glory, the hotel now exhibits the charm that it must have had when it was new. Clearly Empress Taitu wished to have a decent place for visitors to stay, to match the modernized status which the Ethiopian Empire enjoyed with the construction of the railway from Djibouti. As the railway crept closer to Addis, the relative ease of travel attracted a growing number of foreign visitors.

The front building is 3 tall stories high, in elegant white with a faded 'Taitu Hotel' still visible on the front. The new name of the hotel is 'Itegue', but I think many people join me in insisting on calling it the Taitu. You enter through a wonderful old wood revolving door, which must have been restored with some difficulty.

The main lobby is wide and open, with a grand wooden staircase decorating the side. There are small tables for coffee or meals scattered through the lobby, which is cut off from the bar and restaurant at the back by large archways. The fixtures have been restored to their art deco style.

The artwork ranges from cheaply framed photos to modern Ethiopian style, to depiction's of various ethnic groups. Over the bar is a big traditional painting of a nude woman, with a curious monkey in the corner.

Recently redone wood floors are already showing signs of coming off. Less glossy, but nicer, are the original wooden floors that have been left. They are worn but retain their original charm. All of the three areas on the main floor are nice to sit in - the main lobby for coffee, the bar for a beer, and the restaurant for a good meal of national food. Unfortunately, as too often in Ethiopian restaurants, the atmosphere is marred by two loud TV sets.

Near the back door there is a bulletin board for tourists, both with information about tours and such and a place for travelers to leave messages to each other.

Up the staircase in the main lobby is the gracious and large hallway of the second floor. The wooden floor is wide and gorgeous, leading off to the rooms that line both sides. The rooms look comfortable enough, if a bit worn, and go for the same price for foreigners as Ethiopians. The birr 145 with shower, or 120 without seems reasonable for a foreigner at least. Same price with one or two persons.

At the end of the hallway on the second floor is a narrow staircase that leads up to the small third floor. There is a nice view over the Piassa from the small windows. The room was under preparation when I visited, so it was empty and barn-like. The plan is to turn it into a nice loft restaurant. I look forward to trying it out!

Behind the main building is a large two-story set of rooms. On the bottom is the hotel reception. I was told the rooms and rates were the same as the rooms in the main building. My kind host and guide, Demoz Beyene from reception, assured me that business was good and that the Taitu Hotel was doing fine.

Finfinne Restaurant And Hotel

The Finfinne restaurant is one of the great sites of old Addis. It is right near the center of town, on Yohannis St. at one of the turnoffs to the Sheraton Hotel behind the National Palace. Now both a restaurant and hotel, this started as the mansion of one of the leading nobles of Ethiopia. The Finfinne hot springs just up the hill from the villa were a popular spot; in fact they were probably the main reason that Addis became the capital. Empress Taitu was so fond of the hot springs, which she visited from Entoto hill where she lived, that she is said to have insisted that the capital be Addis Ababa rather than Addis Alem 30 kilometers away. The partially constructed Addis Alem was abandoned, although the nice church built at the time is still good for a visit.

The villa at Finfinne was converted to a restaurant during the time of Haile Selassie. Now it is a popular spot, not only for lunch or supper, also for Ethiopian weddings and receptions. The setting is perfect. You go in through a main gate into a large parking lot, staring down the long entryway with corridors of rooms on either side. The center of the building has the restaurant, which is a wonderful two-story affair. Latticing decorates the archways, and the overwhelming effect is of wood. This is something you rarely see these days, when wood has become a scarce and expensive commodity.

The main floor of the restaurant has a huge polished wooden bar, where patrons can sit comfortably on bar stools and sip a beer or something from the extensive collection of bottles behind the bar.

Two sets of stairs lead from the bar area to the upper restaurant. This appears to be used only for special occasions. The walls are lined with traditional Ethiopian paintings and artifacts. The upstairs is a fairly narrow corridor, with the center opened up above the bar area. At weddings, the guests are lined up on the tables stretching down two long corridors, with the wedding party holding court in the front center corridor. It is reminiscent of old paintings of feasts, where the guests sit in long parallel rows stretching in front of the head table.

Behind the bar at the back is another long room where most of the restaurant patrons sit in booths or at tables. It is pleasant enough, and there is pretty good Ethiopian food at 10-15 birr a dish (I like the spicy meat - kaye wot).

Around the back of building is an extension of the restaurant in the garden area. There is a nice tukul to sit under, as well as a row of tables next to the back wall. The garden is a bit decayed, but I prefer the eating area outside unless it is raining. The washrooms are also decayed by Western standards, but apart from that it's a nice place to visit.

The above article appeared in the Addis Tribune. Permission for its use was granted by the author, Mr. Graham.

Off the Beaten Trail by John Graham
Journeys Inside Ethiopia
Ethiopia is a country of endless stories and histories, many never heard outside this elusive country. John Graham has tirelessly traversed Ethiopia, and explored many nooks and crannies of this ancient land. From the China Road to the most remote mountain monastery Mr Graham has visited and documented those parts of Ethiopia rarely seen or discussed by the outside world. Beyond Aksum, Lalibela, and the Blue Nile Falls are places, ruins, and sights seldom exposed to the world at large, John Graham's Ethiopia: Off the Beaten Trail takes you to these unseen gems. US$ 25.00 ISBN 1-931253-11-0 Paperback

Food and Lodging In Ethiopia: We first met John Graham in La Petit Paris, a charming French Restaurant in Addis Ababa, and during our conversation he suggested we try Castelli's, mentioned briefly in the following article. We loved the Italian style food at Castelli's, and I am certain our readers will enjoy any location Mr. Graham recommends. Editor