Twenty years ago, a group of VSO volunteers introduced me to the Taitu Hotel. The volunteers were mass-booked in for a conference in Addis. Being on a local Ethiopian wage, their organisation spared every expense on their well being and put them in the cheap block of the hotel next to the main, more prestigious building.
I looked at the mustard coloured bristling blankets and the stained sink with cracks like fault lines in the earth and thanked my lucky stars that I could afford the extra 10 birr to stay at the Wutma round the corner.
No-one, however, let the rooms get in the way of having a good time.
Everyone would pile onto the balcony at sunset to drink beer before meeting Ethiopian friends on the terrace as we watched the hills glow purple in the twilight. The Ethiopians looked on politely at us, wondering what the heck we were doing in the Taitu as the group perhaps enjoyed themselves a little beyond what was necessary.
Later we would tumble out into the night, past the shoeshiners, chewing gum hawkers and the ‘hello baby’ brigade that hung outside the gates, before falling into the boisterous bars that populate the backstreets of the Piassa area. Finally we would irritate the hotel staff by wanting to be let back in late.
The staff would wreak revenge in the morning by producing a large bar bill from the night before. This resulted in disagreement at best; at worst, an altercation. Everyone in the group put up with this and the state of the rooms because they were either too drunk or too sick or or else too busy falling in or out of love with other volunteers or Ethiopians.
In any case, the main part of the hotel had and still has a certain atmosphere which definitely helped gloss over all the flaws.
At least four weddings came out of these shindigs and one lifelong relationship. Finally, the arguments got to everyone. VSO moved the volunteers to the distinctly more upmarket Yonas in Hayahulet By this time I had got myself a VSO boyfriend too and so I moved along with them, embracing the hot showers and free room I was now getting (incidentally we were one of the ones that got married).
I still go back to the Taitu every time I’m in Addis. I like to hear the creek of the dark, polished wooden floor in the dining room under my feet while the pianist tinkles away at lunchtime. The lighting is low, the ceilings high, the walls dusky pink and ochre. Ethiopian artwork hangs on the wall. An older, middle class crowd take the famous vegan buffet lunch in the dining room.
The terrace view of the mountains is now concealed by a pergola and vine. Here, backpackers loll around smoking, tour groups yell out their drinks orders, young urbanites sit behind sunglasses, guides talk on several mobiles at once, cats prowl for food scraps and a few dubious-looking foreigners make deals, all clamouring for attention from the over-taxed waiters who are in no hurry and simply potter back and forth with silver trays.
The rooms have not improved, if you believe the Tripadvisor reviews but the place remains busy. At lunch, you may not get a table.
Taitu is not famous for being luxurious but for its past. Founded by Empress Taitu, the hotel was built by an Armenian architect in 1907. After Taitu and her husband, Emperor Menelik II defeated the Italians at Adwa, he and the Empress wished to consolidate their international position by inviting foreign dignitaries. And so, Addis Ababa’s first hotel opened in order that visitors could rest, dine and be entertained.
In 2022, kitchen fire in 2011 easily ripped through the wooden structure. Crowds poured out onto the street in grief at seeing their heritage burning before their eyes. The international press picked up on the incident, seemingly more piqued by the fact that the English author Evelyn Waugh once stayed at the Taitu and used it as one of the settings in his classic novel, Scoop (named the Hotel Liberty in the book).
Run by the fictitious Mrs Earl Jackson Russell who “padded in stockinged feet over the bare boards of the lounge looking for a sizeable cigar end,” the Hotel Liberty was stuffed full of white journalists ill at ease with each other in case one scooped news over the other. Meanwhile, inside the bedrooms “it was sunless, draughty and damp” and “every bedroom had a leak somewhere in its iron ceiling.”
Although an entertaining book, Waugh is not at all the real reason as to why the Taitu is such an institution in Addis. Waugh is not all that popular in Ethiopia at all due to some of his rather negative, colonialist flavour references to the people in both Scoop and his travelogue Waugh in Abyssinia.
I suspect to most Ethiopians, Waugh is completely irrelevant in comparison to the Empress Taitu. There’s no mention of him at the hotel, only the paintings of Taitu and Menelik although even these are not given any note of prominence to alert those unaware of the importance of the place.
Happily, the building has already been mostly restored to its original state although its famous jazz club appears to remain closed at present. No upgrade to the outer block rooms, as far as I can tell. But you can’t expect everything. This is still Ethiopia, after all.
My son is now old enough to complain it is boring because there isn’t a pool. It isn’t a pool kind of hotel. It doesn’t even have a website. It’s a place for wobbly service, Ethiopian idiosyncracies, receiving the wrong order and not worrying about it and contemplating history and a good bit of people watching. A good place for romantics and those with imagination but for a meal and drinks only.
Please let me know if you have stayed and would recommend the rooms.
See other posts about hotels:
Abbaba’s Villa: set in the home of former Ethiopian nobility
The Sheraton (of course)