Friends often ask me "so what is a popular place to go right now". Most expect answers like Mexico or Costa Rica. Few are prepared for the answer: Ethiopia and Albania... Inevitably they'll ask: "what in the world is there to see in places like that??"
Albania is such a fantastic destination you may wonder why it took 20 years since the fall of communism for the word to get out. A country of ancient traditions, splendid historical sites and timeless villages, Albania is a destination unique in Eastern Europe. The capital Tirana is one thriving city, the beaches easily rival any of those in the Mediterranean and the mountain scenery is simply stunning.
Take for example Lake Koman, where you can take a 3-hour boat ride through incredible scenery, past little-visited hamlets where life has not changed in centuries. Or visit Berat, the City of a Thousand Windows, set among beautiful orchard-clad mountains.
Down in the deep south are ruins from the time when Greek colonists made their home here, while nearby Gjirokastra sports a spectacular fortress and Ottoman-era mansions.
Finally, after you have explored the pine-clad scenery of Llogaraja National Park, relax on the stunning beaches of the Ionian Coast. Walk through the streets of Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa, where goats rub shoulders with luxury cars and you know you have stepped into a different world. That feeling gets stronger as you travel through a country of expansive markets, formidable mountains, ancient tombs and obelisks, 17 century castles and burnt-out Russian tanks. From the incense of medieval churches to the tribal villages of the Omo Valley, Ethiopia is also right up there with the cultural power houses of our planet.
Harar is arguably Ethiopia's most intriguing city - crooked alleyways give way to bustling markets and traditional homes, all packed away within ancient city walls.
The rock-carved churches of Lalibela may at first remind you of places like Petra in Jordan - until you realize the churches are still being used. The rich scent of incense hangs in the darkness, augmented by the chanting of priests, while an age-old vellum bible takes centre-stage. Similar churches abound in Tigray province, where they sit on remote cliffsides reached by steep climbs.
The Simien mountains lie in the heart of the country. Steep escarpments reach seemingly into the skies, cut through by deep canyons off which waterfalls plunge into the depths below. Gelada baboons pay you scant attention as you trek through these otherworldly mountains.
Nearby, the city of Gonder is a treasure trove of history, what with its medieval castles and churches. The city is the place to be for the Timkat festival, celebrating the baptism of Christ in mid-January.
For something completely different, venture in to the Danakil Depression, the hottest place on earth. A permanent lava lake and colourful sulphuric rocks are features of the baked landscape here, where remarkably, the Afar herders manage to eek out a living.
In the far north, Aksum was once one of the four major civilizations on earth and huge stelae dating back as long as 5000 years are witness to this long forgotten culture.
No matter where you go in Ethiopia, this is one country that will wow you and change you forever. To quote a well-known travel guide: "You venture here to be moved. And moved you shall be."
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Lalibela - photo by Marc Veraart