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.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Suggested Topics
News
Emma Watson has become the latest target of the 4Chan nude hacking scandal
peopleThreats follows actress' speech on feminism and equality at the UN
News
Alan Bennett criticised the lack of fairness in British society encapsulated by the private school system
peopleBut he does like Stewart Lee
Sport
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
football
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
tech
Life and Style
Alan Turing, who was convicted of gross indecency in 1952, was granted a royal pardon last year
life
Life and Style
life
Arts and Entertainment
Tennis player Andy Murray's mum Judy has been paired with Anton du Beke for Strictly Come Dancing. 'I'm absolutely delighted,' she said.
tvJudy Murray 'struggling' to let Anton Du Beke take control on Strictly
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
Sport
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
rugby
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
Worldwide ticket sales for The Lion King musical surpassed $6.2bn ($3.8bn) this summer
tvMusical is biggest grossing show or film in history
Voices
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
Arts and Entertainment
Salmond told a Scottish television chat show in 2001that he would also sit in front of a mirror and say things like,
tvCelebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
News
i100
Life and Style
food + drink
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Affiliate Marketing Manager / Affiliate Manager

    £50 - 60k (DOE): Guru Careers: An Affiliate Marketing Manager / Affiliate Mana...

    IT Administrator - Graduate

    £18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITY FO...

    USA/Florida Travel Consultants £30-50k OTE Essex

    Basic of £18,000 + commission, realistic OTE of £30-£50k : Ocean Holidays: Le...

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Day In a Page

    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits