I’ve just checked into my room. Opulent curtains are neatly tied back around two huge bay windows that are letting the soft afternoon sun seep into the room. I’m surrounded by magnificent art, both contemporary and classical that’s worth a fortune. I should know. I had to sign a waver agreeing not to ‘borrow’ anything and put my credit card number onto it. Not that my crappy card would even begin to cover this treasure trove if anything accidentally fell into my bag.
I walk over to the window. A huge wall is metres away from the window partly obstructing the view. Normally I would complain and ask for a less carparky view but this is one of the best rooms in the hotel and people travel from all over the world to see it. The wall is covered in graffiti. Beyond, a lush green field that looks so much more inviting than the rubble filled street beneath me. I feel like I’m in a prison rather than a posh hotel. I’m actually in Bethlehem, the alleged birthplace of Jesus, and home to street artist Banksy’s The Walled Off Hotel. I’m here for the night and it’s already one of the most surreal experiences of my life.
I have been in Israel and Palestine for a few weeks getting to know the food. It’s one of the most interesting parts of the world; Tel Aviv, a sexy cool mix of slick restaurants serving zeitgeist dishes and Palestine, with it’s traditional Arabic food, the real deal that has so much history and love running through every bite. I know it’s odd to talk about the two countries together, and the last thing I want to do is offend anyone, but for me, a travelling chef, I’m so lucky that food has no borders and I get to experience incredible cuisine and hospitality everywhere I go.
After two glorious weeks in Israel, I have travelled south through Palestine, starting off in the little village of Sebastia in the north of the country, then passing through the city of Nablus, home of knafeh (one of the greatest desserts in the world) and onto Ramallah. Hello! What a city. Who would have thought that my day would have ended knocking back Taybeh Beer and shots of arak in a speakeasy bar until the early hours of the morning. With a mighty hangover, I left the city and rolled into Bethlehem to stay at the hotel.
The Walled Off Hotel is extraordinary, a politically charged statement made by one of today’s most prolific street artists. Banksy opened the hotel in 2017 to help start a conversation about a part of the world that people don’t like to talk about. Dubbed as having ‘the worst view in the world, it’s right by the brutal wall that surrounds Bethlehem – the politics of this part of the world is, to be frank, a head fuck and despite the fact that I try not to let politics get in my way when I travel, it helps me see a place with fresh eyes, you simply can’t avoid it here. For what it’s worth, to me it feels very odd to slap up a wall around such a magnificent place.
You enter the hotel and walk into a Dickensian bar, with little wooden tables centred round a self-playing grand piano. Banksy has enlisted the likes of Roisin Murphy and Brian Eno to compile the eerie score that plays throughout the day. Baby angels wearing gas masks flutter above a fireplace that glows through a mound of rubble, which looks like it had fallen down the chimney. I was given my key, shaped like a section of the wall, and used it to get into my room though a secret panel in a well stocked library.
As well as being a statement piece, the hotel is there to encourage tourism, bringing people in to get to know the city. There’s a gallery showcasing works by Palestinian artists, a museum detailing the history of the wall, walking tours to explore Bethlehem and a graffiti shop. Plenty to do if you can’t bag a night in one of the ten rooms. I do the museum first. It presents the facts behind the wall in a neutral voice. The point being that you can make up your own mind about where you are. It’s brilliant and incredibly thought provoking.
Next, I go to Wall Mart, the graffiti shop next to the hotel. I chose a stencil, Make Hummus Not War – ok, I know its not exactly leaving a lasting impression, but I am a chef trying to understand the food. As it turns out I’m a dismal vandal. You won’t find me with a fag in my mouth branding JGS onto the side of a train carriage. The more I try and tag the wall, the more the paint simply wafts all over me. I finally finish my rather dismal display. But hey, if you go to Bethlehem and look at the panel right opposite the terrace and squint at the black smudge, you’ll be able to read my powerful message.
I meet the group for my walking tour and we set off down the road. A huge gun turret looms over us at the end of the street, towering high above the surrounding buildings. We pass a vast gate, bolted shut, ominously keeping the outside world well away. We make our way to Aida, a refugee camp that houses 6000 people. Our guide takes us onto the roof of one of the buildings to get an aerial view. It’s mad. A chaotic mass of civilisation tightly packed together, and beyond that, the wall; the people are not free to go in and out as they like. It is a cage, a desolate concrete jungle. This is not living, it is existing. I have never felt so sad in my whole life.
Back at the Walled Off Hotel I take afternoon tea on the terrace. I sit reading the slogans stencilled across the surface of the omnipresent wall and pondering life over a lavish plate of cucumber pitta sandwiches, delicate pastries and decadent cakes. The next day I will be heading to Jerusalem, one of the greatest cities in the world, a place with so much life and energy, something that I fear departed Bethlehem long ago, now a dwindling beauty within a concrete beast. I hope the hotel can bring breathe fresh life into this place that so desperately needs it.