Solange Hando visits this panoramic boutique hotel in the world heritage site of Lalibela.
Flying north from Addis Ababa, you can’t imagine how you will ever land in this harsh mountain desert but there you are, an hour later, bumping on a runway in the middle of nowhere and not a town in sight. It’s a 25 km drive to Lalibela, up a long winding road climbing to 2600 metres and beyond the main settlement, the Maribela Hotel.
The name comes from ‘Lalibela’, the medieval saint and builder of rock churches, greeted on his birth by an auspicious swarm of bees. So his mother called him ‘honey eater’, in the local Amharic language, and as you step out of the hotel shuttle, slightly dazed by the altitude and blazing sun, you are welcome with a glass of honey wine, ‘tej’, with a special medicinal herb.
Local stone, brown and red, dark wood, wickerwork, the first-floor reception prepares you for a unique traditional place, rustic yet elegant. Above are 17 character rooms on four floors (no lift), each one with gorgeous views over mountains and valleys from your private balcony, complete with plants, flowers, day bed and the most spectacular sunset you simply cannot resist. Then if you wake up at dawn with the Orthodox call to prayer, just peep through your curtains and see the barren mountains glowing all pink and gold in the rising sun.
Rooms include king or style suite (both with four-poster bed), deluxe, twin, single or family. Expect generous space and lots of light from picture windows, comfortable bed and seats, desk, kettle and tea bags, en-suite shower. Most enticing are touches of local craft, rugs on the wooden floor, wall hangings, angel image on the ceiling, sculpted bedside lamps with scenes of local life on the shades. Some rooms have TV, fridge is available on request (chargeable), WiFi is free but be patient at busy times. Cleaning is meticulous, likewise along the corridors enhanced by plants and crafts.
The restaurant serves Ethiopian and international food, mostly sourced locally. Breakfast is continental, plus omelette and French eggy bread, while main meals might offer a superb avocado salad in season, sizzling meat, combo rice (with egg, meat or fish) or you could settle for pizza, spaghetti or vegetarian options. Enjoy the views from the dining room or the adjoining panoramic terrace. After dark the open fire might add its own magic as crickets chirp all around. Drinks? Of course, order from the bar and relax in the cosy lounge, on the terrace or in the small but lush front garden where you can spot the birds.
But if you really want to feel Ethiopia, make sure you attend a Maribela coffee ceremony, usually held twice a day. This is a highly respected tradition, they say, which will sweep away any problem. For the lady of the house, it’s a slow almost mythical process, from cleaning the beans to grinding, roasting, infusing then pouring the best coffee you ever tasted in your tiny bowl with a sprig of rue (just dip and stir). Incense is burned throughout, and the drink may be served with a crispy pancake of wheat, honey and oil.
What can you do around the hotel? Walk along the trails in the surrounding countryside but if you’d like to trek further away in the mountains, a guide is recommended. Ask the hotel staff, they are always helpful and friendly. Either way, look out for the reforestation funded by Maribela who planted 2000 trees and other drought resistant flowering plants in the past three years or so.
Or you could visit the local market, browse around town or if you’d like to try another restaurant, the futuristic hilltop Ben Abeba (near Maribela) is a must, as seen on the TV program ‘New Lives in the Wild’: authentic Ethiopian food cooked and served by trainees from the nearby village school, run -alongside the restaurant- by a 70 year old lady from Glasgow and her Ethiopian business partner. Amazing…
Of course, you cannot miss the rock-hewn churches, especially the stunning St George’s, but there are 11 of them scattered around Lalibela so check your itinerary. Take care as exploring below ground can be challenging with narrow passageways, steep steps and even tunnels (take a torch). But when you get back to Maribela, you’ll hardly notice the stairs and before you know it, you’ll be gazing at the scenery from your quiet balcony away from it all.
Tell me more about Maribela Hotel, Lalibela, Ethiopia
Maribela Hotel, 80, Lalibela, Ethiopia.
T: +251 92 233 5490
Doubles from £86
Health and safety measures updated.
Ethiopian Airlines Flies regularly to Addis Ababa with internal connections from UK. London to Addis Ababa (round trip) from £540 Addis Ababa to Lalibela (round trip) from £78