Abbaba’s Villa is no ordinary hotel in Addis. Sometimes a place can be summed up in as much as what it isn’t as what there is. There’s no “check-in”, no marble foyer, no minibar in the room or any of the other modern accoutrements that the new ‘international’ hotels provide. Bookings are all done personally via the proprietor, Eyerusalem Gedlu, a member of the Diaspora whom, aged 17, fled from the Derg to Washington DC and has now reclaimed this huge villa as her ancestral home.
The place is difficult to find, out of the centre in the kebele of Ferensay. No taxi driver seems to have heard of it. There’s what’s described as a ‘house taxi’ but on my first visit, he couldn’t be found; and on the second, this appeared to be a fluid arrangement among Eyerusalem’s friends.
There’s no restaurant at Ababa’s Villa. Guests are respectfully requested to order lunch or dinner several hours in advance. On one occasion when Eyerusalem was absent, none of the house staff spoke English. The houseboy at the time, Tesfayune, and cook, Worku, both struggled with my Amharic and we were reduced to smiles and that curious affliction of the English abroad: if I shout louder, I’ll somehow get the message across.
There’s a fridge with an honesty system of sorts – a novel concept for Ethiopia – although Worku – fastidiously clean in her white cap and with a row of inky dots tattooed along her jaw – covertly maintains control by way of hiding the bottle opener away.
So, what’s the draw? Ababa’s Villas hasn’t tried to label itself although it could easily call itself Ethiopia’s best – or only – boutique hotel. There’s no sense of trying too hard. Things just kind of happen on account of Eyerusalem’s goodwill. There’s a certain energy about the place. Guest can relax in the lounge on the many sofas or choose between two terraces: one with carved wooden chairs from Jimma in the south; the other a long table surrounded by pots of succulents and trailing vines where Worku serves large plates of eggs and fruit from breakfast along with the occasional dish made from teff.
Evening meals are also communal, taken at a long table beneath a shelf holding a row of polished drinking horns used as the drinking cups for guests when this was the house of Ethiopian nobility – Eyerusalem’s grandparents in fact. But in spite of its royal history, the atmosphere remains somehow effortlessly stylish, easy going: at one moment peaceful with its garden of eucalyptus and junipers, beneath which a giant tortoise ambles around; in another moment, there’s a party on the go.
On my first visit, the hotel remained empty, perhaps because Eyerusalem herself was absent; on subsequent visit the house attracted artists, Diaspora, NGO workers and Eyo’s crowd of friends. In the corner of the salon, a glass case holds the black and gold robes that the nobles (Eyerusalem’s grandparents) wore to visit the Imperial Palace of His Majesty Haile Selassie. The salon itself is full of treasures, either from today or from the past. Everytime Eyerusalem sees something old or unusual, she buys it and adds it to the house.
An urn is filled with wooden, silver-topped staffs; there are tribal fabrics and animal hide rugs; Lalibela crosses and coffee table books; empty wine bottles with shoulders of candle wax; carvings, photographs and art works, all to tempt the guest to linger and ponder over the symbolism or provenance of an item.
There’s nothing stale or uniform or even predictable about the place because you never know when someone interesting might turn up or if there might be a new, intriguing object in the living room with a story or if Eyerusalem will reveal another snippet of history about the house.
At night, I fall asleep in the old wooden beds, beneath thick white counterpanes, listening to the sounds of chanting priests and the hooting owl that lives outside the porch. And in the glass case outside my room, the fabric of the black and gold robes hang still and upright, as if the ghosts of the wearers themselves are within, watching quietly over the place.