Friday, February 11, 2011

Off the Beaten Track with Savoir Faire

While not looking much from the outside and probably to a lot of people not looking much from the inside either, the Baron Hotel in Aleppo is one of those hostelries that is stepped in history and savoir faire. A stop on the famed Taurus Express that connected to the Orient Express in Istanbul it was a rest post for the many ex-patriots living in Baghdad and archaeologists who made the yearly pilgrimage to the Middle East. An endless parade of army officers and their wives, governess’ and the like crossed the threshold. The thing is in over 80 something years little has changed.

Aleppo Syria’s largest city was in the late 19 century a veritable crossroads of the world for the traveller of the era. Sometime around 1870, an Armenian by the name of Mazloumian was on his way to Jerusalem for a pilgrimage. While passing through Aleppo which was,even at that time, a cosmopolitan centre of commerce, he noticed how uncomfortable Europeans felt when staying at the traditional caravanserais. Eventually, he decided to build something modern in Aleppo and the result was the Ararat hotel, the first hotel in the region, at the end of the 19th century.

In 1909 the along with his brothers he enlarged his business by setting up the new Baron's Hotel amongst the gardens on the outskirts of old Aleppo. They built the first floor of the current building; the second floor followed in 1911, and the third in 1940.

Up until World War II the hotel was inundated with guests who were British agents posing as archaeologists spying on German generals, who arranged opulent banquets for their Ottoman allies while German engineers built the rail line from Berlin to Baghdad.

The hotel’s ledger reads like a Who’s Who of culture and politics. Lawrence of Arabia slept in room 202; King Faisal declared Syria's independence from the balcony in room 215; Agatha Christie wrote the first part of "Murder on the Orient Express" in room 203. The Presidential Suite was occupied in turn by Charles de Gaulle, King Gustaf VI Adolf of Sweden, Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser, , Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan (the founder of the United Arab Emirates), and the American billionaire David Rockefeller. Other notable guests included Julie Christie, Mr. and Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt, Lady Louise Mountbatten (Future Queen of Sweden), Charles Lindberg and Yuri Gagarin.

*Agatha Christie's room and desk

The décor is wondrously faded, with antique maps and travel advertisements plastering the walls. There is even a framed bar tab of Mr. Lawrence’s on the wall of the bar displayed with pride.

Plumbing is erratic, paint is peeling and the rugs threadbare, however for the romance of a bygone era and charisma this cannot be beat. There are not many "golden age of travel" hotels that haven't suffered a makeover at the hands of a big chain, but you can rest assured that the Baron Hotel remains unchanged. The furniture looks as if it belonged to a boarding school common room circa 1930 and it seems that some of the staff have been on site for almost as long. You almost expect to see Mrs. Christie in the corridor!

Of course one could stay at far more luxurious and modern establishments when visiting Aleppo, but if you are anything like me, I would rather the somewhat genteel shabbiness of a bygone era!
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