Timing is everything and this time the calendar gods smiled on me! A week before I left for my trip to Israel last month, a British friend asked if I had heard about the new Walled Off Hotel that was about to open in Bethlehem in the West Bank. The creative and extremely appropriately named hotel is the creation of the famously anonymous street artist, Banksy. I had NOT heard of this hotel, but I quickly went to the source of all knowledge, Google, to find out more. I also looked suspiciously at my friend who I had met only a few days before and who was coincidentally from Bristol, Banksy’s hometown. Perhaps Banksy was truly a woman and was sitting there right next to me? Hmmmm?!? But that’s a mystery for later.
My research revealed that this new, functioning hotel was planned as a temporary pop-up exhibition and proclaimed to have the worst view in the world: nothing but the wall that has been built around many parts of the Palestinian West Bank. Tall slabs of grey concrete block any potential view from the main lobby and the 10 hotel rooms on the premises. The only color in view comes from the politically themed graffiti painted around the base of the wall.
Being a hotel enthusiast, I knew I had to check this place out. Even if I didn’t get to book a room, a visit to the hotel and its grounds would be well worth the effort. As the hotel had opened less than two weeks before my arrival and because it is located in a destination where most travers do not just casually drop in, I was lucky to visit without the crowds I expect would normally surround this type of opening.
So the day-trip started out, as most good trips do, over a few beers the night before. I was with a group of bloggers in Jerusalem for a traveler blogger’s conference, and we agreed that we did not want to leave the region without a visit to Bethlehem and the Walled Off Hotel. Given our packed schedules, that meant we were going to have to ditch part of the conference to make the excursion happen. So the next morning four of us met at the bus station near the Damascus Gate of the Old City and boarded a bus for Bethlehem.
Details were a little hazy on boarder crossings into Palestine and where we should get off the bus to visit the hotel, but we trusted our luck and Google Maps and hopped off at a dusty, nondescript street corner, the only indication that we had actually entered Palestine being that there were a lot more signs written in Arabic instead of Hebrew. After walking up and down quiet streets for about 15 minutes and then finally jumping in a taxi, we made our way to our intended destination.
Our taxi driver, who seemed unaware of this famous new hotel that had just popped up in his neighborhood, dropped us off along the side of the road a few minutes away from the hotel but directly next to the wall. A wall that I was aware of but had heard so few firsthand accounts of. Imposing, bleak and heavy were words that first came to mind as I stood in the rocky, dusty street just an arms length away from the wall. From here we started to walk in the direction of Banksy’s latest installation. As we got closer to the hotel, we began to see the artwork that depicted both hope and struggle painted by local artists on the base of the wall. Images of Palestinian fighters and political messages communicating the hardships local residents faced.
Then suddenly we were at the hotel entrance, greeted by a doorman who was welcoming but seemed a bit overwhelmed by his newfound fame in Bansky-land. And the doorman’s sidekick? I lifelike statue of a clumsy monkey bellboy who managed to spill open the contents of a hatbox belonging to some make-believe guest who has supposedly entered the hotel just ahead of us.
As none of us had an actual reservation to stay the night, we spent the next couple of hours exploring the public spaces…and secretly side-eyeing anyone who we thought might be the artist. That guy sitting alone at the bar? Could that be Banksy nonchalantly observing how the guests reacted to his creation?
Even without a room, there are plenty of things to keep you busy at the Walled Off Hotel. The lobby is small and cozy and set up like a bizarre British-manor living room with contemplative artwork by Banksy, a player piano and tables where you can order tea service or a light meal. I particularly liked the broken security cameras mounted on plaques like big game animals. And yes, they do occasionally swivel around and make you feel watched. Make yourself comfortable, grab a seat on the leather sofa and look out over the small patio and the sweeping vista of…well…the wall.
Stand in the lobby long enough and you’ll see hotel guests approach a book case which then magically opens onto a hidden passageway which leads to the rooms. The hotel has rooms for all price points. The artist inspired rooms are priced similarly to a boutique hotel in other parts of the world in the mid $200’s. Then for the budget crowd, there’s the option to score a $30 bunk bed. But this is no fancy upscale hostel bunkbed…these bunks are actual army issue beds and the best word to describe the accommodations is “sparse”. Feeling like a baller and want to book the Presidential Suite? That will set you back $1000 a night.
Upstairs from the lobby is a two roomed art gallery featuring work from Palestinian artists. Browse through paintings, sculptures and installations by talented local artists with something to say.
But for me, the most memorable part of the hotel was the small, but hard hitting museum dedicated to the wall and the Israeli – Palestinian conflict in the region. Images of life in the West Bank and the day to day struggle of the residents are captured in displays, a very sarcastic, tongue-in-cheek presentation of the history of the occupation of the West Bank and excerpts from the documentary “Five Broken Cameras” – a moving documentary about a man’s struggle with non-violent resistance against West Bank settlements.
The museum purposely avoids choosing sides in the conflict, but one cannot help but find sympathy with the individuals who have to live a life of restriction, conflict and suspicion on a daily basis. It is tragic and I think its safe to say we each had a moment of reflection and choking back a few tears at the life we saw depicted in the museum.
As with any good art installation (even those dressed up as a hotel) there’s a gift shop that you can visit before you head on your way. This is not to be confused with the hotel’s small bookshop that stocks every book ever published about the wall. Just off the outdoor patio, you’ll find the gift shop which offers both local kitschy products, as well as your typical shirts, magnets, post cards and posters with Banksy artwork. Definitely worth stopping in if for no other reason than to send yourself a postcard from Palestine…because how often can you do that?
At the time of opening, the hotel is scheduled to take reservations for just one year before it is dismantled, but they do say if interests continues, they may stay for longer. Selfishly I do hope it stays open longer so I can return and book myself into a room. But more importantly, I hope this hotel remains to continue the conversation and the exposure of how the wall affects people on both sides. And I only pray that Banksy will not need to open a similar pop up hotel on the US-Mexico boarder. I do believe we have more than enough walls in this world all ready.