The rock-hewn churches in Lalibela, Ethiopia, are not to be missed. The most famous of the churches, because of its arresting design, is the Church of Saint George which was carved into the shape of a cross. Photos: The Star/S. Indramalar

The rock-hewn churches in Lalibela, Ethiopia, are not to be missed. The most famous of the churches, because of its arresting design, is the Church of Saint George which was carved into the shape of a cross.

I was prepared to be blown away in Lalibela. Every photo I’d seen of the famous rock-hewn churches in the northern Ethiopian city was nothing short of spectacular. One of the country’s seven Unesco World Heritage Sites, Lalibela’s monolithic churches have been touted by many as the eighth wonder of the world.

I couldn’t wait to visit, naturally.

The 30-minute drive from the small but busy airport into the city was enough for me to completely lose my heart to Lalibela. I was already impressed with the beauty of the country and the friendliness of its people. But nothing prepared me for the vistas that greeted me in Lalibela.

Flat-topped mountains (like South Africa’s famed Table Mountain) circle the city’s vast, verdant valley-side. Located some 2,600m above sea level, the air up there is crisp and chilly, the skies are clear and bright blue, and the countryside, many gorgeous shades of green. It was like stepping into a scene from a postcard and I didn’t for one moment let go of either my camera or mobile phone.

Fikru Woldegiorgis, my guide for the day, chuckled as he looked at my wide-eyed expression.

“You like Lalibela?” he asked, beaming with pride. Without waiting for a reply, Fikru assured me that he would stop up ahead where the roads were wider and I could get my fill of photos.

As our vehicle made it’s way up and down the undulating roads, we saw villagers, mainly women and children, walking to or from their villages accompanied by load-laden mules.

As we passed, the women looked at us with curiosity while the young ones waved excitedly.

The vistas in Lalibela in Northern Ethiopia are breathtaking.

The vistas in Lalibela in Northern Ethiopia are breathtaking.

As beautiful as the country is, tourism in Ethiopia is only now picking up, helped in no small measure by its recent title of being the world’s top holiday spot in 2015 given by the European Council on Tourism and Trade last July.

Presently, most of the country’s visitors are from Europe while there are some Americans too. From Asia, there are tourists from China (Chinese investments in Ethiopia are growing, and the Chinese are responsible for the new roads that are being built throughout the country).

After lunch, we headed to the famed churches which, according to Fikru, took some 23 years to be carved.

As we approached the church complex, Fikru draped himself loosely with a crisp white cloth, customary wear for worshippers of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church when entering their place of worship.

The network of 11 churches carved from a single rock in Lalibela, Ethiopia.

The network of 11 churches carved from a single rock in Lalibela, Ethiopia.

The 11 churches, explains Fikru, still hold services every morning and sometimes in the evenings too.

According to legend, he says, villagers worked hard on the churches using the barest of tools during the day. At night, however, the angels took over.

Historians, of course, offer some varying explanations about the construction of the churches.

Carved out of volcanic tuff rock, the churches have very distinct styles. Some are chiselled into the face of the rock while others stand in isolation.

The entire complex of underground churches are connected to one another by a network of tunnels and passageways which are used by the 100,000 pilgrims that make their way to Lalibela yearly. The monolithic churches are, after all, believed to have been modelled after Jerusalem by King Lalibela who ruled much of the country back in the 12th century.

The most famous of the churches, because of its arresting design, is the Church of Saint George which is carved into the shape of a cross.

It took about three hours to explore the entire complex and I couldn’t but marvel at the monolithic masterpieces.

While it does require some climbing (nothing you need to train for but proper shoes help) and navigating the tunnels (which are not lit and leave you in complete darkness) takes some guts (particularly if, like me, you are terrified of small, confined spaces), the churches are easily accessible to tourists of all ages and levels of fitness.

Heart of Ethiopia

It’s easy to see why Lalibela is the country’s most famed tourist stop but Ethiopia has far more to offer. My introduction to the country began in Addis Ababa (which means “new flower”), the country’s vibrant and fast-growing capital which is home to more than three million people.

Sam, my guide in Addis (as it is referred to), briefed me on the city’s history. Ethiopia, he emphasised, was never colonised.

Ethiopians, I came to realise in my six days there, are fiercely proud of their country, both historically, politically and geographically.

“You will not see any American restaurants or shops here. Only Ethiopian,” says Sam, proudly.

Addis is dusty and busy, and has the distinct buzz of a fast-developing city: Wide boulevards flanked by construction and a brand new urban metro system – the first of its kind in sub-Saharan Africa – began operations in September. Addis is also the capital of Africa, and Sam proudly pointed out the spanking new African Union headquarters.