The earthy scent of wet earth after an early morning cloudburst still lingers in the air. The olfactory treat reminds me that Bahir Dar’s pristine environs are a universe away from my earlier destination — pollution-infested Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital. Also known as the ‘Ethiopian Riviera’, Bahir Dar’s reputation is fueled by the glassy Lake Tana (the largest water body in Ethiopia and the source of the Blue Nile), expansive greens and wide, palm-tree anointed streets. “The origins of Bahir Dar — which in Amharic means “by the side of the sea” — date back to the 17thcentury,” our guide Assfer informs us as we cruise on Lake Tana, a UNESCO biosphere reserve. “Its pleasant climate made it the emperor’s choice for his summer residence.”
The lake’s shores, peppered with 37 islands, are set amid eucalyptus and palm trees that shelter centuries-old churches and monasteries. The shrines brim with frescoes, murals and paintings. We take an early-morning jetty ride to one of these islands, the lake’s copper-colored waters stirring to life as a cluster of papyrus-reed canoes pass us by carrying spices produced on the islands.
After 45 minutes, we disembark and trek to the Ura Kidane Mehret church famous for its old manuscripts, crosses, icons and brilliantly-colored paintings. Built round, an architectural style typical of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Ura Kidane Mehret has mud-plastered round walls with conical thatched roofs and alluring frescoes that have turned Bahir Dar into a pilgrimage spot.
In the mid-19th century, the Emperor Tewodros II, who ruled Ethiopia from 1855 to 1868, used Bahir Dar as a camp for his army. However, the city’s modernization began with the Italian occupation of Ethiopia in the 1930s, when the latter set up military bases. They also reconstructed portions of the city by pulling down old houses, and upgrading its drainage system. A motorized transportation system was also launched on Lake Tana and a bridge built along the exit of Blue Nile.