Beyond Amalfi

Feeling in need of a bit of exercise after all the good Italian food he has been eating, DonQui decides to go off and explore the Valle delle Ferriere behind Amalfi, away from the coast.

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He is advised that it is a moderate hike which involves some climbing but that there are steps up the steeper bits. Being a fairly sure footed beast, DonQui sets out in the morning intending to beat the late rising tourists and fast rising sun.

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The steps from the end of the town lead up steeply and it is a pretty exhausting climb.

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DonQui pauses from time to time to catch his breath and take in the views as the steps go up and up over the lemon groves at the back of the town.

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A few overhanging fig trees give some shade over the 30 minutes it takes DonQui to reach the end of the steps and the start of the woodland train.

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While the views looking back towards Amalfi are quite spectacular.

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Feeling a bit like Tolkien’s Last Homely House, the Fore Porta Organic Farm is the last watering hole before the wilderness beyond. As it is still early the Fore Porta is just setting up, so DonQui resolves to stop off on the way back for a bit of refreshment.

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Then he heads off down the trail, glad that the slope has levelled off. He is equally glad that, despite the tourist crowds down in Amalfi, up here is is utterly alone.

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Passing ruined paper mills abandoned centuries ago and now covered with vines and other vegetation, DonQui feels a little like one of Conan Doyle’s explorers discovering lost cities and lost worlds.

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The trail follows a fast moving stream which cascades through, over and down the rocks.

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It is this stream — the Ferriere — which powered the ancient paper mills when Amalfi was a centre of paper making in the late middle ages.

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It is almost an hour before he encounters the first humans. A small group of them have stopped at a waterfall to splash about a bit. DonQui decides to cool off in the water for a moment or two then heads on to rediscover the peace of being alone again in this wonderful setting.

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The vegetation, the abandoned mills, the fast flowing water and the solitude set his imagination off again.

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He can almost imaging the leaves parting at any moment to reveal a Lost World dinosaur as he crosses a rickety wooden bridge.

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Unsurprisingly he does not encounter any fearsome beasts but the many smaller ones he does come across do help to fuel his imaginings of their larger cousins.

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After another 30 minutes without meeting any humans he does come across a group of indigenous people camped by the river. They seem friendly enough and DonQui reassures himself that they are not likely to slaughter him for food.

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One hour in from the Fore Porta DonQui comes to the end of the trail where a succession of waterfalls provide a magnificent vista.

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These are not huge cascades but rather various trickles and sprays of water which fall down the cliffs, creating a wonderfully primeval atmosphere of water, rock and vegetation.

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The trip back down towards Amalfi is a little faster and as noon approaches more people are to be seen along the trail.

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One most welcome group is a troop of boy scouts offering lemon water and lemon pieces sprinkles with sugar. They provide DonQui with a most needed energy and hydration boost in exchange for a donation to whatever they are collecting for.

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DonQui’s final stop at the Fore Porta is also most welcome. Here he sips on a lemon granita before heading back down to Amalfi.

In Search of the Perfect Pizza

Pizza is a serious matter in Naples — the city in which it was invented and perfected. In DonQui’s humble opinion, pizza in Naples if far better that pizza more or less anywhere else on the planet.

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Standards are maintained by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana (True Neopolitan Pizza Association), or Vera Pizza for short. It aims to promote and protect ‘true Neapolitan pizza’ in Italy and around the world.

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DonQui has a few tricks to ensure that his pizza lives up to expectations. Firstly he looks for a place that uses a traditional wood fired oven. Secondly he only ever orders pizza in Italy at night. Good pizzerias will fire up their ovens in the evening and it will take until close to 9pm before the ovens are properly hot enough to cook the prefect pizza. Thirdly he goes for simple classic ingredients, no bits of pineapple, pulled pork, curried chicken or other Anglo-Saxon atrocities for DonQui.

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The classic Neapolitan pizza is the Margarita which is said to have been invented in Naples in 1889 for Queen Margarita in the early years of Italian unification. In a clever move of political sycophancy, its creator managed to replicate the colours of the new Italian flag: red (tomato), white (mozzarella) and green (basil).

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Anchovies, capers and black olives are other traditional ingredients which DonQui quite likes. Here the local anchovies are not as salty or overpowering as tinned anchovies can be outside Southern Italy.

Finally DonQui looks for a place that is not too fancy-looking while still pulling in a substantial local crowd. The many places lining the Via Partenope close to his hotel look inviting but DonQui worries that they might be overpriced tourist traps. A quick skim through TripAdvisor seems to confirm his fears with comments about dodgy surcharges and surly waiters abounding.

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At the very end of Via Partenope, at the corner of Piazza Vittoria, sits an establishment with promise. It is just before 9pm and Sorbillo Lievito Madre al Mare is filling up with locals. Offering pizzas with top organic ingredients cooked in a wood fired oven it is little wonder that it is a popular place. There are even gluten free options, not that DonQui cares about such things.

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DonQui manages to get one of the last available tables as a queue forms behind him. Those arriving later put their names down on the waiting list and look on enviously as DonQui tucks in.

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By 21:30 a fairly large crowd has built up, all waiting patiently for their turn for a table.

The choices are interesting. Although the menu is in Italian only, DonQui is able to decipher enough to understand the basics. He had thought he might order a simple classic margarita but the Cetara catches his eye.

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With fresh tomatoes grown on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius, smoked Provola cheese, capers, olives, oregano and Alici di Cetara, it sounds most intriguing. Alici di Cetara is an oil infused with anchovies. Reminiscent of garum, the infamous fish sauce which the Ancient Romans added to just about everything, DonQui decides he wants to try it.

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To say that it is delicious would be an understatement. The thin, springy crust, slightly charred from the super hot wood-fired oven is an absolute delight. The combination of cheese, tomatoes, basil, olives, capers and anchovies are a perfect taste of Naples. The pizza is large enough for him to share with Duchess and the bill is most reasonable — far less than any of his other previous Neapolitan meals.

DonQui is unaware that Gino Sorbillo is one of the most famous pizza chefs in the world. His coastal establishment is the second of his Naples outlets and he is soon to open one in New York’s Times Square. DonQui feels quite pleased with himself that he managed to discover Sorbillo’s seafront establishment before knowing any of this.

 

A Hot Day in Naples

It is 36º in Naples. Far too hot for DonQui to consider doing much of anything at all.

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Fortunately his hotel — the rather nice Excelsior on the pedestrianised seafront promenade Via Partenope — is nicely air-conditioned. It also has great views over the bay of Naples, with Mt Vesuvius and Capri in the distance, and the Castel dell’Ovo and harbour in the foreground.

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DonQui is quite happy, therefore, to spend the heat of the day simply lazing around the hotel.

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Lunch at the hotel terrace restaurant is pretty good too, if a little on the pricy side.

The Castel dell’Ovo is worth a visit. Not only is it free but the the thick sandstone walls keep the passageways very cool — even in the blistering Naples heat. Although dating back to Roman times, the restored fortification has a distinct 15th century appearance.

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The views from the top are quite magnificent.

Once the worst of the midday heat is passed, DonQui trots out onto the Via Partenope to take a look around his immediate neighbourhood.

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Some of the locals have taken to the water but this is not something DonQui is tempted to do, knowing of the bay’s pretty awful reputation for water quality.

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Naples is not an elegant city. It is chaotic, hectic and ill-disciplined. Although not as dirty and litter-strewn as DonQui remembers it from years ago, the city is still pretty dilapidated in parts.

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Yet it has its own charm – a bit like a naughty child who gets away with mischief due to a cute smile.

Although the city may not be elegant, the Neapolitans, like most Italians, most certainly are.

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Just around the corner from apartments with crumbling facades…

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… are many chic shops and boutiques catering to the well dressed denizens of the city.

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As the sun starts to go down the streets come to life, first for a bit of early evening shopping, then an aperitivo at a favourite bar, followed by a stroll along the promenade and then maybe a little dinner.

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DonQui feels lucky to have found the Officina Bistro, just around the corner from his hotel on Via Santa Lucia for his aperitivo.

 

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Here he sips on an Aperol spritz, nibbles on the various little snacks that are offered and watches the pantomime of Neapolitan street life acted out in front of him.

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By getting here a little early (around 19:00) he and Duchess are able to secure a prime table outside. By 8pm there is a waiting list for tables with many people seated on one of the several benches awaiting their turn.

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The Via Partenope fills with people as the sun sets. Many just taking a stroll, others deciding on which of the many eateries to try out for dinner. There is even a ‘silent party’ with revellers listening and dancing to the music pumped out by 3 DJs over wireless headphones.

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DonQui only spends a day in Naples and as readers can tell he does not really do very much at all. That is probably the best way to spend a hot day in Naples.

A truly memorable meal

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Every once in a while DonQui stumbles across a restaurant which manages to combine great food and perfect atmosphere to create something truly memorable. The Villa Maria restaurant in Ravello is just such a place.

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Set on a beautiful leafy terrace overlooking the hills above Amalfi and the sea beyond, the location is truly spectacular.

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After sunset the Moon and Venus, being close together in the night sky, create a stunning effect.

The staff are super friendly and very helpful. When DonQui is not entirely sure on which dishes to order the recommendations are spot-on. The waiter gives DonQui a run-down on the ingredients and how the dish is prepared, steering him in the right direction every time.

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The wine recommendation is equally helpful, guiding DonQui through the pluses and minuses of the various local vintages. Although the waiter can no doubt discern that DonQui Oaty is a donkey of distinction, he does not linger too long on the first page of the wine list which includes some prime Bordeaux at over €4,000 a bottle!

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There are so many tantalising dishes on the menu it is hard to decide which to go for. Most of the are locally sourced with fruit, vegetables and herbs coming from the Villa’s own organic garden.

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In the end DonQui opts to start with ‘crunchy ravioli’ filled with local cheese and served on a bed of fresh herby tomatoes. The ‘ravioli’ is more like a super light pastry than pasta — hence the ‘crunch’.

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Duchess chooses zucchini (courgette) flowers also filled with cheese, deep fried in a sesame and ginger batter and served with a tomato coulis.  Both were superb, although Duchess was a little disappointed not to taste any ginger — something she is rather fond of.

DonQui decides to order Italian style — savouring each course before deciding on the next one.

Wishing something quite light after her appetiser, Duchess decides on ‘Organic garden vegetables with parmesan broth’ for her second course while DonQui tries the waiter recommended ‘Slow cooked amberjack with kumquat, sea asparagus and champagne sauce.’ Not having encountered amberjack before DonQui enquires what sort of fish it is? He learns that it is a large predatory fish with white flesh.

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“It is not as delicate as sea bass”, the waiter informs DonQui, assuring him that his local Ravello light red wine will go very well with it despite the accompanying champagne sauce.

The waiter is quite correct. The flesh has an almost bouncy constituency with deep flavour. DonQui finds it absolutely delicious, the taste perfectly set off by the accompanying quartered kumquats and champagne sauce. Sea asparagus turns out to be what DonQui knows as samphire.

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The deserts are as stunning as the previous courses. DonQui is rather tempted to try out ‘The mango and the coconuts become Italian classic like the fried egg’, if for no better reason than its enigmatic (presumably mis-translated) name. The chocolate eggplant trunk also sounds intriguing.

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On the waiter’s recommendation, however, DonQui orders the the cannolo with Aperol sgroppino (sorbet made from Aperol and prosecco), and the tiramisu. The waiter explains with pride that the tiramisu is ‘not classic’. It has been deconstructed and reinvented, retaining the coffee/marscapone/chocolate flavours served up in a very different way.

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Both deserts are incredibly good.

Dinner at the Villa Maria is without a doubt one of the best meals DonQui has experienced. At the end, the bill seems quite reasonable considering the quality and style. Without a doubt he will return one day — perhaps to stay a few nights at the villa as well as once again sampling their delicious food.

Amalfi

Back from his African travels, DonQui Oaty now finds himself on the coast of Southern Italy. He is hoping to do a bit of work while at the same time taking in the ambiance and soaking up the sun.

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He is staying just outside Amalfi, sitting on a shady terrace, tapping away on his computer as he looks out over the Mediterranean.

He likes it here.

Why?

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It is not just the stunning scenery, although it is truly stunning.

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It is not just the winding medieval covered alleyways, although they are most atmospheric…

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… as is the fabulous Romanesque cathedral.

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It is not just the fabulous food — the superb fresh fish, the locally made mozzarella, or the perfectly ripe fruit and vegetables which seem to burst with flavour — although the food is indeed fabulous…

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… with the taste and scent the huge sweet local lemons permeating everything from risotto to limoncello.  .

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It is not even the superb wines although DonQui really enjoys them, especially the whites and rosés…

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… such as the Lacryma Cristi (tears of Christ) wines from the slopes of Mt Vesuvius not too far away.

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It is certainly not the hair-raising coastal road which is choked with noisy traffic and which the local bus drivers navigate with a frightening insouciance, flirting with the local girls rather than watching the road ahead. This despite the fact that there are only a few centimetres to spare between the edge of the road and certain death.

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DonQui Oaty especially likes Amalfi because here donkeys are properly respected. The donkey (ciuccio) is the mascot of Amalfi and his hard work, dedication and long-suffering heroism is celebrated in art.

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The Donkey Head Fountain is dedicated to this noblest of animals.

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… while shops and art galleries are stocked with donkey inspired ceramics and souvenirs.

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All this is right and proper thinks DonQui. After all the precipitous cliff paths around Amalfi are far more suited to donkeys than humans.

Food and Drink in Addis Ababa

Ethiopia has a distinctive cuisine which DonQui would like to know better. The staple is injera – a very large soft flatbread made from fermented teff flour. It tends to be served rolled up and the diner unrolls it to place a spicy thick stew (wat) on top.

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Injera has a slightly sour taste and it takes DonQui some time to get accustomed to it. Dishes without meat are usually identified as ‘fasting’ since the Ethiopian Orthodox Church has a number of fasting days when meat is not supposed to be eaten.

With only a few days in Addis Ababa, DonQui is only able to try out a few places and sample a limited number of dishes. He would have liked to try kifto which is a sort of Ethiopian tartare of high quality spiced meat served barely cooked or raw. Unfortunately he does not get around to it on this trip.

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A ‘Traditional Ethiopian feast with Cultural Show’ sounds frighteningly touristy to DonQui but dinner at Yod Abyssinia comes highly recommended so he decides to give it a go. The show is actually rather good and he does not feel like he has entered a tourist trap.

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The vast majority of customers are well-heeled looking locals and before long many of them are up on their feet and dancing along with the music.

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The food is excellent with an extensive buffet giving DonQui the chance to sample a wide variety of Ethiopian dishes he might not otherwise have come across. This is a good place to come with a group to share the vast array of food on offer.

DonQui is surprised at the large portions which seem to be offered up in the restaurants he goes to. At the Jupiter Hotel restaurant he tries out tibs fir-fir with injera. Tibs are roasted meats — in this case lamb. The fir-fir is a spicy tomato sauce with also has slices of rolled injera mixed in. The dish is is served with two additional injera, not than DonQui needs more.

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It is excellent but the amount is overwhelming and DonQui can barely manage half of it. He reckons that his portion could easily feed a small family. A Kenyan expat tells him that such large portions are increasingly common in Addis Ababa.

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Ethiopian beer is good. DonQui previously mentioned Habesha Cool Gold which is one of his favourite local bottled beers. Better still are the German style blonde and dark beers brewed on the premises of the Beer Garden.

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Catering to a mix of locals and expats this brew pub quickly becomes DonQui’s favourite watering hole. He particularly likes their dark beer but does not go as far as to try out one of the five litre towers. The Germanic influenced food is excellent — especially the chips and the Beer Garden’s signature grilled chicken.

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DonQui does not get around to sampling tej — Ethiopia’s honey wine. He does, however, drink plenty of the country’s most famous beverage which is coffee. The Ethiopians claim to have discovered coffee and they take great pride in it. Served in a similar way to Turkish coffee it has a smooth, slightly chocolaty taste which DonQui likes very much. At the end of a meal it is often somewhat bizarrely served with popcorn.

DonQui does Addis

DonQui cannot quite make his mind up about Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s sprawling capital city.

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At first sight it appears dusty, somewhat ramshackle and plagued by choking traffic and the devil-may-care drivers which are the curse so many modern African cities. On the latter point DonQui feels bound to say that the traffic congestion is not nearly as bad as in other major East African cities, such as Nairobi or Dar Es Salaam.

It would be surprising if the capital of one of Africa’s oldest civilisations did not have some things of interest. Scratching beneath the surface, DonQui finds some of it.

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Visiting the National Museum he meets Lucy — one of humankind’s earliest ancestors. It is not the best laid out museum in the world and DonQui does not linger but he feels it is well worth the trip. He also enjoys a short visit to the Ethnological museum which tells the story of the Ethiopian people.

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Most interesting of all is Holy Trinity Cathedral which is the last resting place of the Emperor Haile Selassie.

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It is also the last resting place of Sylvia Pankhurst — suffragette, turned communist, turned anti-facist who became a great supporter of Ethiopian resistance to the Italians in the 1930s.

DonQui had hoped to make it out into the countryside but the UN issued a warning of political violence in the surrounding districts. Their advice to DonQui was to stay in the city and so he does..

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All the locals he meets are friendly, outgoing and full of life — not least the wedding party he comes across.

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Their joie de vive is infectious.

Would DonQui recommend a trip to Addis Ababa? No, not really. The city is worth a day or two on a stop over to somewhere else but probably not a trip in itself. He hopes that if he visits again he will have the chance to get out of the city and see a bit of the country.