Just Me Travel

Just Me Travel

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Month: March 2019

ETHIOPIA’S UNIQUE COFFEE CEREMONY

I love coffee. I have drunk coffee in many, many countries with varying degrees of appreciation. Well now I have found coffee heaven. It’s in Ethiopia and there is a…

I love coffee. I have drunk coffee in many, many countries with varying degrees of appreciation. Well now I have found coffee heaven. It’s in Ethiopia and there is a whole ceremony wrapped around the making and drinking of it.

Ethiopia is the home of coffee. The coffee plant originated in Ethiopia and the beans were first brewed in the 11thcentury. So, they have had a lot of practice doing stuff with coffee. The coffee ceremony is an integral part of Ethiopian culture and hospitality. It is an important social occasion.

Ethiopians have a delightful story around the discovery of the benefits of coffee. A goat herder noticed his goats acting excitedly and ‘dancing’ on the hind legs after eating bright red berries. When he tried the berries himself, he felt energised. He grabbed some berries and rushed home to tell his wife who told him he must share these “heaven sent” berries with the monks in the nearby monastery. The monks did not share the goat herder’s elation, believing the berries to be sinful; to be the work of the Devil. They tossed the coffee berries in the fire. However, the smell of the roasting coffee beans had the monks rethinking their view of this sinful drug and removed the coffee beans from the fire. They crushed the coffee beans to put out the glowing embers and covered them with hot water to preserve them. The aroma of the coffee had all the monks wanting to try it. After which, they vowed to drink coffee every day because they found the uplifting effects of the coffee helped to keep them awake during their holy devotions. And so, history was made.

I loved the ceremony as much as the coffee itself. Unlike Italy where coffee is drunk quickly whilst standing, making and drinking coffee in Ethiopia is not to be rushed as no step is to be missed.

Wherever I travelled in Ethiopia, the coffee ceremony was always the same. There was something reassuring in this familiarity and about the smell of fresh grasses that were invariably laid on the ground.

First, the raw coffee beans are rubbed together in water in a pan to remove the skins on the beans. Then they are roasted over a charcoal brazier. This releases the aromatic oils out of the beans. The hostess – I never saw this ceremony conducted by a man – brings the pan of smoking, roasted beans around for you to waft the smoke towards you; to draw in the aroma of the roasted beans.

Once roasted, the beans are ground with a mortar and pestle. Traditionally, the mortar and pestle are made of wood.

Jebena (coffee pot)

The jebena I bought in a local market in Bahir Dar

While this is happening, water is being boiled in a “jebena” – a traditional Ethiopian clay coffee pot with a bulbous, round bottom; a long narrow neck topped with a wooden or straw stopper; and a handle.

Once the coffee beans are ground, they are added to the boiling water. The combined water and beans are boiled for a couple of minutes and then rested to allow the coffee powder to sink to the bottom of the pot.

By this stage, if you are a coffee lover like me, the smell of fresh brewed coffee will have your mouth watering in anticipation of what is to come.

Finally, the coffee is poured into small, handleless china cups (very much like Turkish coffee cups). The pouring is done from as high as possible above the cups – from about a foot above the cups. The coffee is usually served with popcorn or peanuts.

Ethiopian coffee is drunk sweet and black. In fact, very sweet – 2 to 3 teaspoons of sugar. Mind you, the teaspoons are minuscule. I learnt to enjoy black coffee. However, by the time I left Ethiopia, I was drinking the coffee with a bit less sugar.

When partaking of coffee in Ethiopia, etiquette requires you to have three cups of coffee. The first cup is to welcome you, the second cup is about friendship and the third cup is to say goodbye. Remember, these are very small cups, so having three is less in quantity than a mug of coffee.

Ethiopian coffee is the best I have ever tasted. The two women I was travelling with told me I said, “Oh, that’s good coffee” every time I have a cup of coffee. This must have driven them mad because we had lots (and I mean lots) of cups of coffee. Finally, one of my travel companions told our diver/guide that Ethiopia needs to change its tourism slogan from ’13 months of sunshine’ to ‘Oh, that’s good coffee’. He just laughed.

For more posts on Ethiopia: Lost in Translation – Is that the heating?

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THE SASSI DI MATERA – from national shame to cultural showcase

If you want to see a city reinventing itself, then now is the time to visit Materia – especially the revitalisation of the Sassi di Matera. Matera’s Sassi has a…

If you want to see a city reinventing itself, then now is the time to visit Materia – especially the revitalisation of the Sassi di Matera. Matera’s Sassi has a colourful history that has seen it go from the earliest inhabited city in Italy, to a place of national humiliation, to Italy’s pride. This history, all of which is still visible today, makes the Sassi di Matera a matchless tourist destination. Matera’s Sassi has been reborn and now is the time to witness that rebirth while Matera celebrates its recognition as a city of culture.

A brief history – from shame to gain

Italy’s southern city of Matera (along with Bulgaria’s, Plovdiv) is the 2019 European Capital of Culture. For this honour, Matera receives hundreds of millions of euros to develop infrastructure and present year-long cultural and art activities; activities designed to improve the quality of life in the city and to strengthen a sense of community. It is expected that being a European Capital of Culture will bring fresh life to the city and will enhance Matera’s cultural, social and economic development. It is an opportunity for Matera to showcase itself internationally and to boost tourism. An opportunity Matera needs in order to reclaim its dignity and credibility in the eyes of Italy and the world.

This is a chance for Matera to leave behind its reputation as the “Shame of Italy”. The object of this shame is the Sassi di Matera (literal translation from Italian, “Stones of Matera”). The Sassi are a prehistoric troglodyte settlement and people have lived in these cave dwellings since 7000 BC.

In his book, Christ Stopped at Eboli (published 1945), Carlo Levi put the Sassi di Matera on the world map when he highlighted the poor living conditions. He painted a picture of abject poverty. Malaria, cholera and typhoid were rampant in the Sassi. Families and their animals were living together under the same roof in dwellings with no natural light or ventilation, no electricity, water or sewers and there was a high infant mortality rate.

The Sassi became an embarrassment for the Italian Government. So much so that in 1950 the Prime Minister declared a state of emergency, and plans were put in place to move the Sassi’s inhabitants out. By 1952 the Sassi was empty; abandoned through forced removal.

After sitting dormant for a couple of decades, the Sassi started to go through a transformation; starting in the 1970s with artists and hippies rediscovering Matera’s Sassi. This urban renewal, and a younger generation expressing their desire to have the caves brought back to life, led the Italian Government to pass a law in 1986 to repopulate the Sassi; connecting water and electricity and subsidising restoration work in order to encourage the Sassi’s revival.

And the people did come – restoring caves as homes, hotels, restaurants and bars. But many are still uninhabitable.

The Sassi di Matera’s revival was further cemented in 1993 when listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site for being “the most outstanding, intact example of a troglodyte settlement in the Mediterranean region”.

A new image of the Sassi is forming and the tourists are coming. The Sassi di Matera have been transformed and Matera is the 2019 European Capital of Culture.

My visit to the Sassi di Matera

The Sassi are carved into the limestone cliffs of a ravine gauged out by the Gravina River. My first sighting of the Sassi di Matera was from across the ravine. What I saw from this vantage point was a mass of caves clinging to the steep slope. On top of these caves is the new city of Matera – a unique juxtaposition.

My hotel room

My hotel room – a restored cave in Le Grotte della Civita

My second introduction to the Sassi was my hotel, Le Grotte della Civita. Sitting on the edge of the ravine in the most ancient Sassi area, Le Grotte della Civita consists of 18 rooms. All the rooms are individual caves that have been beautifully restored whilst retaining their original features. The furnishings are simple but tasteful, with much of the lighting provided by candles. Breakfast, served in a reclaimed cave that was a church, was typical of Southern Italy – breads, cakes, pastries, James, meats and cheeses. This was truly a memorable place to stay.

Church of Purgatory's facade

Carving on the facade of the Church of Purgatory

Church of Purgatory's door

Skulls decorate the Church of Purgatory doors

Matera has 180 churches; 40 of which are in the Sassi, including the Cathedral and the rock-cut Church of Santa Maria di Idris. My favourite was the Church of Purgatory. Completed in 1747, its recurring and only theme is that of death. The baroque façade of the church and its doors are covered with carvings of skulls, skeletons and crossbones. While a church focusing on death might seem a bit Grim Reaper-ish, it was actually fashionable at the time of construction, as death was not seen as the end but as the beginning of a new life.

Caves look like houses

The house-like facades are a deception as they ‘front’ caves

While the Sassi look like a mass of houses, the house-like facades are only that, as the ‘houses’ are dug well into the rock, thereby forming the caves Matera is famous for.

"Stacks on the mill"

Sassi caves on caves and roads on cave roofs

Houses in the Sassi are often built on top of other houses and many of the streets are built on the roofs of houses.

 

 

 

 

 

 

One would be forgiven for thinking the Sassi are a place of shadow and crampedness. But not so. The squares in the Sassi are sun-drenched open spaces flanked by cafes, shops, churches and restaurants. And great for people watching.

I took a walking tour with a local guide in the morning to get acquainted with the Sassi. This included learning the history of the Sassi di Matera, visiting a cave dwelling for a glimpse into past life and viewing one of the ancient Rupestrian Churches that date back to the Middle Ages. However, what I enjoyed most of all was just walking around on my own – exploring narrow ‘streets’, talking to the locals, checking out their cafes, and having all the time I wanted to take photos. You will need comfortable shoes to walk around the Sassi. And don’t forget, the Sassi are built on the side of a ravine. So, there are lots of steep steps.

Timeline:

2019: Matera is one of the European Capitals of Culture for 2019

2014: Tourism starts to take off. Most likely due to Matera being announced as one of the European Capitals of Culture for 2019. Matera has 4 years to prepare …

1993: The Sassi of Matera is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site

1986: Change in Italian law and people are encouraged to return to the Sassi

1952: Abandonment of the Sassi through the Italian Government’s forced removal of its inhabitants

Prehistory: (approximately 9,000 years ago) People first inhabited the Sassi

A bit of trivia for you: Mel Gibson’s controversial movie, “The Passion of the Christ”(2004) was filmed in the Sassi di Matera as too was Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “The Gospel According to St Matthew”. It would seem Matera’s Sassi makes for a great ancient Jerusalem.

  • Are you going to Galway (Ireland) or Rijeka (Croatia) in 2020? They are the European Capitals of Culture for 2020.

 

Want to take a self-guided walking tour around Venice?…

A Venetian Walkabout

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