Mention The Ghion and smart Ethiopians will immediately suggest you go elsewhere. This 65 year-old hotel has become a African backwater: a once-mighty river now silting up with the debris of its past. Yet the current of life still flows through its marble foyer, its jazz club, its huge gardens bursting with hydrangeas and palms.. The hotel keeps on surviving though the rooms are begging for renovation and the staff can be, well, following a genre of service that is communist inspired.
The hotel is named after the River Ghion, mentioned in the Book of Genesis, which flowed from the Garden of Eden and ‘encompasseth the whole of Ethiopia.’ Once part of a whole chain of nationalised hotels, most of the other establishments have now been sold off but the Ghion remains.
Find it on your own because there’s no website but everyone knows it, even though no-one owns up to going there.
According to this source , a sale went to sealed bids in 2011 but when the bidding box was opened, it was bare and so this backwater of the hotel trade hangs in limbo, still defiantly alive.
Visiting dictators are all holed up at The Sheraton these days. Nevertheless, the soul of old Addis is still here, drinking coffee and murmuring to one another, perhaps holding the secrets of Ethiopia’s turbulent past.
At the end of a hot afternoon, I’m still drawn back for a drink, half-believing that someone interesting might turn up. Jazz legend Mulatu Astake owns the jazz club and I once thought I saw poet Lemn Sissay in the foyer; The Ghion has also hosted Bob Marley as a guest. Who’s to argue with that?
The Ghion seemed once like the height of luxury but I gave up on this idea rooms in 2014, when the receptionist denied all knowledge of the reservation I had made just 2 hours earlier. She did give us a suite at knockdown price.
The “suite” could have been Gaddafi’s bolt-hole in the Horn: brown carpet, brown wood-panelled walls, wood-panelled ceiling, wall-to-wall wooden wardrobes – for storing perhaps ceremonial robes or military uniforms; a brown hostess trolley and a minibar (brown, of course) which was empty.
There was also a golden music system built into the brown bedside table which unfortunately didn’t work.
Hipsters would have paid a fortune to gut the place but it was a forlorn place to stay in that wood-clad palace and with a view only of the laundry– perhaps so that dictators could discretely get on with their thing without having people peering in.
So why bother with this place? Addis still has a certain soul and The Ghion is part of that. Turn off dusty Churchill Road and you are in a tropical garden. Planting is formalised but not too strict: everything grows extravagantly.
Walkways take you through huge ferns, yuccas and scarlet geraniums. Ivy wraps itself around trees and the smell of damp rises up from the watered beds. Look up and you can see the dust obscuring the buildings on the skyline but look down and there is an expanse of grass or a formal pool.
Inside, the tukul bar has waiters in maroon dinner jackets discretely polishing glasses in front of the ancient bottles of Campari. Outside, drinkers sit on the terrace and take cold beer or ouzo while listening to the singing of priests from a nearby church or the sounds of birds in the trees.
Crowds still flows through the doors: innocent-looking Peace Corps; fraught-looking, chain-smoking ferenj; wedding parties with women in traditional dress accessorized with gold handbags; a bunch of musicians for the club.
Image by Andrea Goetzke
One day this place will be sold off and become just like the rest of the ‘international’ hotels.
There’ll be neon signs and card-keys and more storeys; there’ll be no more Campari and the gardens will be concreted over or become a Dubai-style ‘shopping experience’.
Its faults are many but it still holds the soul of the city. Go and have a drink while it lasts.
Read about other unique hotels in Addis here