Enter a world of Latin simpatico in this unique place with staff who exhibit an authentic bonhomie you can't find in a more up-market or glitzy hotel.
Church Street Hotel, London
Walking beneath the stained-glass scene of hovering angels above this hotel's front door is to enter a world of Latin simpatico. One of the brothers who owns the hotel greeted me warmly, answered my many questions about the neighbourhood and offered me the assistance of his staff.
Visitors considering a stay at the Church Street Hotel in Camberwell in south east London will either be turned off by the area's somewhat dodgy reputation, or intrigued by this arty, Mexican-themed casita. The neighbourhood largely consists of well-preserved Georgian buildings decorated with elaborate cornices, alongside some rather bleak post-war tower blocks. The population is a mix of working-class residents, whose local roots go back generations; more recently arrived Caribbean, African and Eastern European immigrants, and Bohemian types who have come to the area for its cheapish rents and edgy vibe. Camberwell is a jumble of overlapping enclaves that provides some interesting instances of contrast. A hair salon that offers to exchange Nigerian currency is just down the street from a trendy coffee shop with an art gallery, for example. A nearby car repair centre - in which a customer was ranting in a thick London accent when I walked past - shares the same roof as a Rasta shop bleating out dub.
The staff exhibit an authentic bonhomie that I can't imagine finding in a more up-market or glitzy hotel. And they all seemed to come from interesting backgrounds: the daytime desk clerk, for example, had just graduated with a fine art degree. More importantly, they were helpful and met my requests for an iron and other minutiae that one would expect from a quality establishment with casual but prompt attention. Like the hotel itself, the staff wore an air of eccentricity without being aloof.
The hotel is a four-floor vertical maze of stuccowork hallways with pictures of the Virgin Mary, painted wooden crosses, scenes of Aztec gods, images from the covers of Mexican novellas and a poster for that masterpiece of Jamaican cinema, The Harder They Come, hanging on the walls. Behind its 30 doors are carefully decorated rooms that try to recreate the look of a noir flick set in 1940s Mexico City. Splashed with lime green, peacock blue or fiery red paint, they are far from dreary. Some contain alcoves housing statuettes of the Sacred Heart or brightly coloured clay mujeres. On my bedside table, I found books such as a biography of the Spanish poet and dramatist, Federico García Lorca. There was a Bolivar cigar box, newly filled with chocolates and a tiny jar of complimentary hot sauce made from a family recipe on the writer's desk. The beds are spread with woollen Mexican blankets, while the heating comes from an old-style radiator and the bathrooms are finished with painted terracotta tiles. Everything, it should be noted, is spotlessly clean.
About 10 minutes down the road is the South London Gallery, which when I visited was showing a film short by Superflex, the Danish art collective. When I got back to the hotel, I found that one of the film's directors had stayed there the previous week. Expect to meet other such interesting people in the lounge where breakfast is served. This communal area is presided over by a Oaxacan Día de los Muertos statue of a female skeleton in her Sunday best that stands on top of the mantlepiece. There's also an "honesty bar" that is open all night from which guests can take whatever drinks they please, and then tally the items in a log. There are also hundreds of DVDs to choose from including cinema blockbusters and art-house classics.
Only a continental breakfast is served, although the owners have built a soon-to-be-opened tapas bar in the same building called Angels and Gypsies. Just outside, however, Camberwell Church Street offers plenty of dining options, including traditional pubs, hip cafés, a Cypriot taverna, a late-night Vietnamese takeaway or - right across from the hotel - a Caribbean pastry shop selling flaky pies with steaming vegetables or spicy meat filling for just US$1.68 (Dh6). On Saturdays from 10am to3pm, outside St Mark's Kennington church near the Oval Tube station, there is a farmers' market where the smell of frying sausages warms the air and small tents sell baked goods, fresh game meats and toasted sandwiches.
Feeling I had found a place that is unique. My experience as a guest was far more intimate than if I had opted for a hotel that strives for stars instead of trying to stand out from the crowd.
That every time I told a Londoner I was going to Camberwell, they would ask, "What for?"
The location is not particularly close to the city's major attractions and requires either a combination of an Underground and bus journey, or an expensive taxi ride from Heathrow airport. Prospective guests will be disappointed by the surrounding area if they are expecting another posh Knightsbridge, but for those wanting a one-off and an almost unvisited side of London, it will not disappoint.
A double room with en suite bathroom costs from US$168 (Dh619) per night, including breakfast (www.propcomm.co.uk/churchstreet; 00 44 20 7703 5984).