10 things that make Ethiopia extraordinary : CNN

Fairy tale castles, superb coffee and the Ark of the Covenant (OK, possibly) are just some of the unexpected attractions of this African country

1. The best Italian restaurant in the world (according to Bob Geldof, anyway)

What sets Ethiopia apart from its African neighbors?

The excellent coffee?

The fact that it was never colonized?

Or that Rastafarians regard it as their spiritual home?

Or could it be the smooth, well-maintained roads, so rare on the continent, that make exploring the country by car such a joy?

After a 1,430-kilometer drive through Ethiopia’s Northern Circuit — up mountains, through Martian-like landscapes, into lost kingdoms of yore — we found 10 crucial things that define the country.

The buzzing bedlam of Mahatma Gandhi Street in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, is the setting for Castelli’s — arguably the best Italian restaurant this side of Bologna.

An Italian soldier, Francesco Castelli, founded the modest-looking eatery at the end of WWII. Since then it’s gained a global profile thanks to endorsement from celebrity diners such as Bob Geldof, Bono and Brad and Angelina.

But, high-profile praise aside, it’s the food that makes Castelli’s worth a visit before setting off from Addis into the Ethiopian wilds.

Ristorante Castelli, Mahatma Gandhi Street, Addis Ababa; +251 1 563 580, +251 1 571 757

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10 things that make Ethiopia extraordinary

2. Italian-style coffee

Like great Italian food, coffee is one of the legacies of the Italian occupation of Ethiopia during WWII.

While Mussolini’s men proved inept colonists (the Allies defeated them in 1943), their tenure in the country did at least ensure that an Italian-style espresso machine was installed in most cafes, restaurants and — weary travelers will be pleased to know — even dilapidated roadside shacks.

Ethiopians love their coffee and take pride in the fact that the plant’s invigorating effects were first discovered in the Oromia region of the country (see the 2006 documentary Black Gold).

3. Chinese roads

Made in China. Actually made by China. The country is investing hundreds of millions of dollars in Ethiopia’s infrastructure.
Aside from coffee and pasta, Ethiopia excels in roads.

Other African nations have roads — it’s just that few are a patch with those in Ethiopia.

The quality tarmac comes courtesy of huge Chinese investment — in 2009, it was estimated that China had poured $900 million into Ethiopia’s infrastructure, a figure that’s since increased exponentially.

Anyone who’s driven into Ethiopia from Kenya, via the perilous Marsabit route (fraught with bumps, brigands and bandits) will attest what a difference a nice road makes.

Ethiopia’s incredible mountain-top highway vistas don’t hurt, either.

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