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Of Dakar's odd hotels and statues

Andrew Harding | 12:38 UK time, Friday, 30 July 2010

What's your favourite hotel in Africa? Mine has always been the rambling, eccentric, idyllic Orchid, on the edge of Lake Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Although La Maison in Timbuktu offers equal views and superior bragging-rights.

The line-up for least favourite changes a little more regularly, but there's a particularly venomous hotel/brothel in Lira, northern Uganda, that sticks in my mind.

As for the oddest, well, I've just spent a couple of unplanned days in Dakar, Senegal, failing to catch a connecting flight due to heavy seasonal rains further down the coast, and the airline decided to put us up in the Ngor Diarama. ngor595.jpg

From its shabbily austere façade, I guessed that it was a cheap Chinese knock-off, built as part of some obscure new trade deal. But then I noticed its location - on a graceful, expensive promontory edging out into the Atlantic. The lady behind the desk in the dark, empty, echoing reception hall put me straight. The hotel wasn't a new eyesore but an ageing icon.

"It was built," she said proudly, "in 1953, by Le Corbusier."

Whether it was really designed, or simply inspired by the pioneering Swiss-French architect, I have not yet managed to pin down. But it clearly was the five-star jewel in France's West African colonial crown.

These days and many owners later, "maybe we have three stars," said the receptionist with a hopeful grin.

That might be stretching it. Upstairs, long corridors meander off into endless tiny stairways - a dizzying mezzanine effect that is repeated inside the dusty, soulless, split-level rooms. If you want to wash your hands after going to the toilet, you'll need to open three doors and climb down a flight of stairs, swatting away clouds of mosquitoes en route.

I would say that the Ngor is thoroughly out of keeping with what I saw of the rest of Dakar - a relaxed, sophisticated blend of old and modern - but that would be to overlook the city's most famous new construction.

I saw it from the plane as we landed. From a distance it looked like Mother Russia had brought her family from Volgograd for a scantily-clad beach holiday. But it gets worse up close.

statueafp.jpg

What was clearly meant as a rousing symbol of Africa's bright future seemed to me to be a gaudy, faux-Soviet monument
to personal hubris, built by North Koreans and either hated or merely ridiculed by every local person I met.

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