Inside Travel: When a hotel becomes a potent symbol

Some have become places of refuge, says Dan Cruickshank, while others have been transformed into national institutions

Hotels can be more than just places to sleep and eat. The best can be worlds in themselves – indeed for many travellers hotels are their world while lodged in a distant, strange and perhaps dangerous land, and so become of huge importance.

They are at once home and refuge, places of meeting and of escapist fantasy. And if their architecture and ambience is particularly characterful and distinguished, some hotels even take on the role of symbol of the city in which they stand: historic and cultural landmarks that in various and almost mysterious ways represent national aspirations, ambitions or beliefs. These are the most fascinating hotels, always rewarding as objects of study and contemplation.

But because hotels can be symbols they can also be sinister places if the regime they represent is dark and threatening. One of the most memorable, if menacing, hotels I have stayed in was the al-Mansour in Baghdad just before the fall of Saddam Hussein. A large ugly slab of a 1970s Modernist building, it was the state-controlled hotel where most foreign journalists were obliged to stay. Predictably the lobby was usually filled with what were obviously secret police masquerading as guests, staff or taxi drivers, and the service was always eccentric. At one end of the lobby was the Cocktail Bar – but it sold no cocktails, only soft drinks and vintage pastries, all to be consumed under the lugubrious but all-consuming eyes of the bartender and various leather-coated Baghdadi customers.

After suffering serious damage during the fighting in April 2003 the al-Mansour is now back in operation as a four-star hotel. I long to experience it in its new manifestation.

The al-Mansour was a symbol of Saddam's regime and used by him as a meeting place, and so was bombed and then occupied by invading forces. The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai is also a symbol, not just of the city but also of India. For this reason, in November 2008 it also was attacked by terrorists. But, unlike the al-Mansour in Saddam's time, the Taj was also a superlative hotel. It's one of my favourite in the world and I've stayed in it, from time to time, since the early 1980s.

Its history is, in many respects, the history of modern India. It was built in 1900 by a rich Parsee businessman as a hotel for all races and religions and as a reaction against the racist codes that excluded many Indians from the grander European hotels. It has included many of fame and power among its guests, and it hosted key meetings in India's run-up to independence in 1947.

In its architecture, the Taj was conceived as a splendid fusion of European and Indian Moghul masterpieces, with its mighty domed profile being an invocation of both St Paul's Cathedral in London and, of course, the 16th century Taj Mahal mausoleum at Agra.

The well-ordered world of the Taj was shattered by terrorist attack on 26 November 2008 when gunmen stormed inside, took and murdered hostages and then set part of the hotel ablaze. Along with most of the world I was horrified by the bloody events that unfolded in Mumbai and then inspired by the decision – taken before the last fires were extinguished – that the Taj would rise again.

Almost miraculously part of the Taj was open for business before the end of the year and restoration continues. I suppose it will soon look much the same; thankfully its mighty dome and beautiful staircase were undamaged by the fire and fighting that raged inside. But quite what the reborn Taj will feel like I cannot imagine. Can it recapture its carefree atmosphere of grace and luxury? Will it want to? Perhaps its role as a symbol of defiance and resurgence will be too overwhelming.

Another hotel that's more a national institution than a mere hostelry is the American Colony in East Jerusalem. It was founded in the late 1890s, and is housed in a splendid collection of traditional stone-built structures – once the residence of a pasha and his four wives. The hotel has been owned by American, Swedish and English families and, over the decades, has formed a "neutral" oasis in the heart of one of the world's most beautiful, inspiring and yet most troubled and turbulent cities. The hotel's experience in dealing with fall-out of international conflict has allowed it – so far – to weather many a storm with aplomb and irrepressible style.

The quest for hotels that are declarations of national aspirations can be become an obsession. I found another candidate recently in Paro, Bhutan. The Zhiwa Ling is newly constructed and a perfect expression of the nation's determination to build a modern society that incorporates Bhutan's distinct cultural identity. The hotel is comfortable and entirely up-to-date but of traditional design. It consists of a series of stone and timber-built pavilions, all ornately carved and delicately painted, set around a beautiful garden and within a dramatic mountainous landscape.

Although the architecture of the hotel is a serious attempt to demonstrate that the best of the old and the new can be creatively combined, it is not without moments of wit. The Bhutanese are a jovial people and so the hotel contains the Mad Monk Bar that commemorates a 15th-century Buddhist sage who loved nothing better than to battle demonesses, often apparently extending his penis to a monstrous size and wrapping it around his foes as if it were a giant python. To this day, and partly no doubt due to the Mad Monk's achievements, the penis retains particularly auspicious associations in Bhutan, being a symbol of protection and of plenty. It's often to be seen painted next to front doors, with timber phalli sold as tokens of good luck. A drink in this bar can be a very educational experience.

Read the full feature in 'Lonely Planet Magazine' November issue, out now. www.lonely planet.com/magazine

More than just hotels?

* al-Mansour Melia, Al Salhiya Street, Baghdad, Iraq (00 964 1 537 0041). Doubles start at US$60 (£40), room only.

* Taj Mahal Palace and Tower, Apollo Bunder, Mumbai, India (00 91 22 6665 3366; tajhotels.com). Doubles start at R16,115 (£208), including breakfast.

* American Colony, Nablus Road, Jerusalem, Israel (00 972 2 627 9777; americancolony.com). Doubles start at US$440 (£293), including breakfast.

* Zhiwa Ling Hotel, Paro, Kingdom of Bhutan (00 975 8 271 277; zhiwaling.com). Doubles start at US$198 (£132), including breakfast.

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