From the best Italian restaurant in the world, in Addis Ababa, to the castles of Fasilides in Gondar, CNN’s Oliver Robinson counts 10 things which make Ethiopia extraordinary.

By Oliver Robinson (CNN) |

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 Mars-like landscapes, into lost kingdoms of yore — we found 10 crucial things that define the country.

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

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. Tel: +251 1 563 580, +251 1 571 757

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 cafés, 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-built 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 on those in Ethiopia.

The quality tarmac comes courtesy of huge Chinese investment — in the ten years to 2016, it was estimated that China had poured $21.52 billion into Ethiopia’s infrastructure.

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

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

MORE: Lalibela, Ethiopia’s New Jerusalem

4. Tanks … lots of them

Swords into ploughshares … or tanks into unusual climbing frames for kids, in the case of Ethiopia.

Don’t worry: unless you get horribly lost and venture into Somalia, the tanks you’ll see along the roadside are burned-out remnants of the Eritrean-Ethiopian War (1998-2000).

Seen throughout the country, these defunct war machines stand as forbidding reminders of Ethiopia’s troubled past — and double as fun climbing frames for local children.

Continue reading this story at CNN
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