Now the second largest city in Ethiopia, Gondar is best known to visitors for its striking 17th century palaces. These are a serene reminder of Gondar’s heyday as the Imperial Capital of Ethiopia.
Known as ‘the Camelot of Africa’, Gondar has an impressive, and slightly surreal, collection of stone castles and palaces built by Emperor Fasil. These are now a World Heritage Site. With their Portuguese and Indian influences, they would not look out of place in southern Europe. Certainly they are very unexpected in the heart of Africa.
Nearby the serenely beautiful Fasil’s Pool is heaven for photographers at any time of year. The surrounding area is also one of the best areas for birding in such an urban area. The vast sunken moat is only filled once a year at the hugely popular Timkat ceremony on Ascension Day. (It takes a week to fill!) This multi-day religious celebration is held in mid-January when thousands of white-robed pilgrims descend on Gondar. They come to parade their own churches’ replica of the Arc of the Covenant. The celebration ends with all young men jumping into the moat.
Highlights of Gondar
- Fasil Ghebbi (Imperial Palace) with its six castles and palaces
- Dibran Birhan Selassie church with its elaborate 18th painted walls. Row upon row of angels gaze down from the ceiling.
- The beautiful Fasil’s Pool
- Kuskuam royal palace
From Gondar it is only an easy 2 to 2½ hour road transfer to the attractive lakeside town of Bahir Dar on Lake Tana.
Lake Tana & Bahir Dar
Lake Tana is Ethiopia’s largest lake and the source of the Blue Nile. It offers excellent birding, island monasteries and scenic attractions such as the Blue Nile Falls. So it makes for a wonderful relaxing stop on any visit to northern Ethiopia. The lake’s backdrop is the craggy mountains of the Abyssinian Highlands.
The Blue Nile Falls are best visited during, or just after, the rainy season. Then they are at their most impressive and reliable, but the charming circular walk to the Falls is enjoyable at any time of year.
The island monasteries mainly date from the 13th and 14th centuries and offer treasuries filled with ancient artefacts. Some are only accessible to men, but the 18th century Narga Selassie on the island if Dek is open to all. It is reminiscent of the palaces of Gondar.