“This used to be the poorest neighborhood in Jerusalem. Twenty-five years ago it was filled with slums. Then the rebuilding began. Today it is one of the most attractive areas in Israel, the place every tourist and every Israeli must visit.”
We are sitting in the soaring, spacious lobby bar of Jerusalem’s Hotel Mamilla,where the general manager is filling us in on the story of this extraordinary place. “This neighborhood was built in the 19th century outside the walls of the Old City and adjacent to the Jaffa Gate,” he tells us. “Today the neighborhood is home to Alrov Mamilla Avenue --Jerusalem’s new shopping and entertainment district.”
In the days to follow, we will see for ourselves the stretch of beautiful architecture with its high-end shops, cafes and restaurants as the Mamilla Hotel is uniquely situated at the junction between new and old Jerusalem, overlooking the Old City walls, the Tower of David and Jaffa Gate. Within walking distance of many major historic sites, one can just cross over the bridge and be at the Jaffa Gate.
It occurs to us that we are witnessing the culmination of a story that began in 1967 after the unification of Jerusalem. That was when Mayor Teddy Kollek decided to turn the neighborhood, long a symbol of a divided Jerusalem, into a bridge to a shared life among Jews and Arabs in this most historic of cities.
Now, standing at the start of the boulevard-like pedestrian walkway that ends at the Jaffa Gate, we take in the scene. High-design shops, boutiques and bistros give way every so often to an open square, a historic site. The walls of the Old City in the ubiquitous Jerusalem stone spread out before us. Vistas open before our eyes,
Mamilla, we learn, is a very old name in both Arabic and Spanish. It means the source of water, and water is the source of life. In Spanish it also it means the nipple of the bottle – the place the baby takes the milk from, the place from which life begins. That is the meaning behind the name of the neighborhood and also the name of the hotel.
“We created something that didn’t exist in Jerusalem before – a very young hotel, modern, sexy, a lifestyle hotel with so many facilities,” the general manager tells us. “It was founded by Alfred Akirov, the first general manager of the hotel. He invested a great deal of money in the project. Everyone told him he was crazy. But he was a very sharp and clever businessman and had the vision to make this place what it has become.”
Akirov’s vision was to open a high class hotel that would last for the long term, not a property that would exit after one year. Even if the hotel was completely empty in the first month, even if it would take two, three years, he and his staff would be there.
“At first, the guests didn’t know what the Mamilla was,” the general manager told us. “It took at least a year and a half to educate them. Some would say, ‘I’ll go back to the David Citadel’ (the hotel next door). And some did. There are always those who go; there are always those who stay.”
For those who decided to stay, there is the Mamilla Spa. Named one of the best 25 spas in the world, it offers a range of luxurious treatments enhanced by aromas and music and is geared to the needs of the individual guest.
There are also inviting dining outlets. Chief among them, we think is the rooftop restaurant which offers, in addition to memorable culinary creations created by the celebrity Chef Cobi Bahar, stunning perspectives of the Old City. Then there is the Mamilla Cafe which serves dairy dishes, and the ever popular wine bar in the hotel lobby, a setting with a distinctively Italian ambience which has live music most nights and attracts a largely secular Israeli and European crowd.
Fridays are special times at the Mamilla where a jazz band performs in the lobby from noon through the afternoon. Once evening falls, a four-member group of a cappella singers take up the baton one floor down from the lobby area where the acoustics, we’re told, are terrific.
In large measure, Jerusalem is known for its cultural and historic aspects, Friday night a cappella performances being excellent examples. Musical instruments are not allowed at the Mamilla during the hours of Shabbat but a cappella singing is not only permissible, it is also pleasurable. When this group sings, everybody stops to listen.
The Mamilla does not necessarily attract a largely Jewish crowd. “We don’t want huge groups,” the G.M. tells us. “There are people who didn’t come to Jerusalem for years and now say this place makes it doable for them to rediscover Jerusalem, the Old City. We’ve created a different kind of take on Jerusalem.
“Everyone who comes to this area comes to Mamilla,” he adds. “We are fully booked at night, but we don’t get any religious patrons. There is no Jewish presence. That’s what you can find at the David Citadel, the Waldorf Astoria. But that’s not what you find here. It’s not a place for big families. It’s a place that makes you feel like you are in a very romantic hotel. It’s something unique, something special, something you can’t find in any other place in Israel.”
Photos Courtesy Mamilla Hotel