Wednesday, 5 March 2008

A door closes on time

The Old Cataract hotel in Aswan is one of those magical names that conjures up all sorts of romantic images of a gentler, more genteel, bygone era.

Of course such sentiments may no longer be either politically correct or justifiable, but the hotel certainly has a reputation built on its heyday of the first three decades of the last century. 

And that’s still what most visitors are looking for. It’s the sort of place whose behaviour, if it were a person, would probably be best summed up as someone who combines jumping to attention with a nonchalant shrug.

Yes it’s full of contradictions. Its setting is incomparable. As its name suggests the hotel sits on the bank of the Nile where the water once crashed against the natural rapids of the river’s granite bottom.

But far from fast flowing, since the construction of the High Dam, the Nile at this point is now often a tethered beast with the gentlest of currents. Moreover the imposing sunsets and the uninterrupted views towards Elephantine island have been marred somewhat by the tower block construction of the New Cataract hotel built in 1961, with all the prevailing aesthetic values of the time.

The hotel strives to retain some of its past British colonial trappings, which of course are now clich├ęs. Royal tea is served to order at the appointed hour on a terrace reserved for the hotel’s “residents” or guests. Breakfast is “obligatory” – a quaint way of saying that it’s included in the price - and there’s a smart/smart-casual dress code for dinner in the “1902 restaurant”.

Hither and thither throughout the grounds are brass plaques reminding residents that appropriate attire should be worn at all times and a more detailed read of the “rules and regulations” reveals that this means open-toed sandals may only be worn around the pool and jeans are frowned upon in the evenings.

But once again the hotel proves itself to be at odds with its polite and proper intentions. In reality it is neither as staid nor as formal as it purports to be and indeed the atmosphere is more relaxed than at first appears.

In all honesty the old lady is probably in need of something of a facelift. The hotel combines the elegance and architecture of the Victorian age, from which after all it originates, with Moorish-inspired interior decor, whose muted colours are gentle on the eye.

The rooms are high-ceilinged and therefore voluminous and while not exactly luxurious they are far from being spartan. Maybe they’re a little on the old-fashioned side – outdated even - but clean and comfortable and comforting without being pretentious.

The air-conditioning is a touch geriatric and along with the plumbing clanks and clonks a fair bit of the time, but that could also be interpreted as part of the hotel’s charm.

Most disappointing perhaps is the food and the restaurant which needlessly turns people away after they have gone to the trouble of togging themselves up for the evening. Surely the front desk could have advised guests of the necessity to reserve a table. And the service throughout the hotel is also a little haphazard.

But this could all be down to the fact that there’s currently a dip in staff motivation – and that might be putting it mildly.

For here’s the rub. From summer of this year the Old Cataract will be closed for business. It’s due for a complete renovation, which should take about two years and the chances are that the current leaseholder – the hotel is owned by the state – the French chain Sofitel, will not have its tenancy renewed.

So that’s all left the hotel’s future rather up in the air. Perhaps the fact that it’s the Egyptian authorities that will have the last say in what happens, means that the building’s illustrious past will be an equally important element of its future.

After all it’s hard to imagine that the memories of Agatha Christie, a young Winston Churchill, Howard Carter or Aga Khan III to name just a few of the host of names to have graced the carpeted floors of the Old Catararct, will be brushed aside by a Las Vegas style glitz ‘n glamour makeover.

Oh yes and one saving grace for future residents whenever it reopens its doors - the eyesore that is the New Cataract Hotel is due for demolition.

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