The Walled Off Hotel in Bethlehem is one of the world's truly great art hotels - but the structure guests see from it has caused heartbreak for a long time.
Pulling up the blinds in our hotel room in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, I find myself looking at a towering concrete wall, topped with barbed wire and spiderwebbed with graffiti. So this is it: what the Walled Off Hotel has dubbed "the worst view in the world," of the controversial wall that has separated the Palestinians from the Israelis since 2002. Whether it's the worst view in the world I can't say, but it is confronting and upsetting being so close to a structure that has caused such heartbreak for so long.
Since opening in March 2017 this dystopian version of the Waldorf Hotel, as much a protest statement as an art hotel created in collaboration with street artist Banksy, has been attracting travellers to the West Bank who might otherwise not have come. Many, like the Polish design student I meet in the hotel's cool, colonial-themed lobby bar, are lured by the Banksy name.
The artist's politically-charged works fill the hotel, and pop up throughout the occupied territories, where he has been creating work since 2004. In the bar, alongside chesterfield sofas and wood panelling, sits one of Banksy's best-known works, Rage, Flower Thrower, where a man throws flowers instead of a bomb. On another wall, eight CCTV cameras are mounted like moose heads, mimicking the cameras along the separation wall.
Each of the 10 guest rooms here are unique. Aside from Banksy, Palestinian artist Sami Musa and Dominique Petrin, from Montreal, have also designed rooms, with more supposedly to come. There's a budget dorm room designed to look like an Israeli military bunker, and a presidential suite including a screening room and jacuzzi. Our third-floor room is a '70s-themed space we feel immediately at home in, complete with pink walls and bamboo furniture.
Aside from being a living art project, the main aim of the Walled Off Hotel is to shed light on the Israeli occupation. We spend our first morning in the hotel's museum ($5 for non-guests), which outlines the tragic history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and their Palestinian art gallery. We also poke our heads into their Wall Mart where visitors can buy stencils – saying ''make hummus not war'' – to spraypaint onto the separation wall. Some have criticised the hotel for trivialising the conflict, but we find their methods engaging and activating.
In the afternoon, we take the tour the hotel runs of the wall and a nearby refugee camp. First, a young Palestinian man walks us along part of the 800-kilometre wall, telling us about both its history and the daily miseries he and other locals suffer because of it. "I remember as a kid waiting right here with my mum for the bus," he says at one point, stopping under one of the watchtowers.
"Within 10 minutes we'd be at Jerusalem's Damascus Gate. Now, my wife and baby daughter live in Jerusalem, and I can only visit them one week every three months because of this wall."
At Aida Refugee Camp, we meet another young man who walks us through the camp he calls home, which has existed for 70 years since the Europeans first arrived in Palestine. Access to water is extremely limited, he says, every move is watched, and many locals are cut off from family and valuable farming land by the wall. As we walk, we pass paintings of Palestinian victims of the conflict covering the walls, alongside messages of hope like "we will return."
After walking the half hour to Bethlehem's less political attractions of Manger Square and the Nativity Church, we return to the hotel to find the bar buzzing. We join the crowd for a dinner of pizza and salad, and a ''remote concert'' played on the pianola by Massive Attack who, along with Trent Reznor and Hans Zimmer, have recorded compositions for the hotel. We spend time chatting to the efficient and lovely Palestinian staff, who help us realise what an economic boost this hotel has given Bethlehem.
At the end of this intense but extremely informative day, we're very glad we decided to come here. The Walled Off Hotel has helped us get our heads around one of the greatest humanitarian catastrophes going on in our world today, without lessening the enjoyment of staying in one of the world's truly great art hotels.
Cathay Pacific flies to Tel Aviv via Hong Kong from every capital city for about $2300 return. From there, hire a driver to take you the two hours to Bethlehem. cathaypacific.com
Walled Off Hotel offers ten rooms from $75 a night, including a lavish breakfast and Wi-Fi. See walledoffhotel.com
Hosh Jasmin is an organic farm and restaurant overlooking Bethlehem, surrounded by olive groves and orchards. facebook.com/HoshJas/
Nina Karnikowski travelled with assistance from the Walled Off Hotel and Cathay Pacific.