Sunday Times Magazine

Cairo's first boutique hotel
22 March 2009

There is, though, only one Belle Epoque. The 13-room hotel, which opened yesterday,is in the leafy suburb of Maadi — which is a lot like Hampstead in that it’s home to wealthy expats and Cairo’s society folk, who enjoy its peace, safety and location — 15 minutes from the colour and chaos of town by metro, half an hour’s drive from the airport, and 25 minutes around the ring road to Giza.

There are boutiques, bookshops and jewellers nearby, as well as restaurants and coffee shops, and you can amble, unmolested by hawkers, to the banks of the Nile in 20 minutes.

Tarek El Gendy and his Dutch wife, Beryl, bought a pair of 1920s villas in this area more than a year ago (they already run a travel agency, and two large, 100-people-plus cruise boats that they built from scratch to tour the temples on the shores of Lake Nasser, and six small, six-cabin dahabiyyas for more intimate trips down the Nile). 

What followed was a frantic 12 months spent reinforcing ceilings, turning lounges into bedrooms and a garage into a kitchen, as well as taking numerous trips to Alexandria to furnish the place with Egyptian antiques and Arabian knick-knacks. There are covetable pieces everywhere — an engraved dresser in one room, some fabulous mother-of-pearl-inlayed trunks in another, and chandeliers and table lamps that have you wondering what you might be able to squirrel away with a bit more time and a larger suitcase.

Each room has a balcony or conservatory and is individually designed inside; the tiles have been made to order, aping the originals from the old villas; the food is fantastic, the menu having Egyptian options for every course, as well as French, Italian and English influences; the staff are deferential but jovial. So far, so “boutique”. But is that enough?

Not according to Tarek. If you don’t find anything on the menu you fancy, he says, then Yasser will fix you something different. If you don’t want dinner in the dining room or on the veranda, then go to the Nile — they own an acre of land on its banks and are in the process of turning that into an extension of the Belle Epoque, offering afternoon tea and a sail on the river to guests.

The hotel gardens grow 10 different types of fruit, as well as herbs and vegetables. The best part of the day, according to Yasser, is strolling the grounds in the morning with a pair of scissors and picking what he fancies. 

If you spend any time in Cairo’s larger hotels, you’ll witness the kind of corporate platitudes that could make a nun kick a hole in the wall — a badge worn by a porter at the Hyatt boasts “Yes is the answer, what is the question?”, while a sign outside the Marriott proudly proclaims “You like 2 party, we love 2 serve!”.

However, when Tarek says that “stiffness is out of the question — we’ll call you by your name”, or when Yasser bounds over like a lost relative to see whether you could taste the coconut in the aubergine dip, you do feel like this is something new for Cairo, something small, calm and delicate in one of the largest, busiest, most brilliantly hectic cities in Africa.

Of course, you might not want quiet and calm. You might not like being called by your name. You might want to be in the thick of the action or to have a Nile view. You might want 12 restaurants (Marriott) or to be above a nightclub called Latex (Nile Hotel).

I suspect, though, that there will be enough of you who rather like the idea of asking the chef for more mint in the soup, and watching him go out with his scissors to get it, to fill the Belle Epoque from time to time. Just watch out for the birds. And the chef’s one-liners.