#34: Grandhotel Cosmopolis

Boutiques serve coffee and fine art, grafitti scratches the medieval walls and students sit cross-legged on the cobbled squares, drinking Radler and slurping ice creams. After another thunderstorm, we see a young man in a wet suit surfing the engorged canals.

Augsburg is exactly the sort of place you’d expect to find the Grandhotel Cosmopolis, where guests arrive with or without asylum.
The hostel we sleep in occupies one floor, three floors are reserved for refugees seeking asylum, and the top floor is a hotel. Everyone, guests of all status, mingle in the pay-what-you-feel cafe-bar or, between rainstorms, in the garden.

The idea, when you hear it, is obvious: both refugees and tourists need temporary convivial accommodation – why not share? But when we ask what inspired the Grandhotel, people just tap their heads: ‘Crazy minds.’ Well, those crazy minds have concocted an open space that not only delivers but delights.

The Grandhotel Cosmopolis could not be more different to the temporary ‘plastic’ accommodation we visited in Weissach. It’s warm and welcoming, there’s art on the walls and music in the air. Sitting in the cafe or sharing a meal at lunchtime, you can’t at a glance tell who is a refugee and who is not. That is as it should be, of course. As one poster declares: ‘Before I was a refugee, I was a human being.’

The hotel used to be a home for the elderly, and the rooms still have the emergency call buttons built into the light switches. ‘You can press them, but no one will come,’ we’re told as we’re shown around.

Our room is the Biotop: four bunk beds built from untreated wood, as if they grew from the stone-coated floor. Sensors dim the lights from sky blue in the day to pin-prick stars in the night-time. French doors open out to a beetle’s paradise garden planted into the balcony. We eat our breakfast on a wooden bench with our feet on mossy turf.

The sixteen hostel and hotel rooms startle with their creativity, each designed by a different artist, along a unique theme: Peace, Women, Persia. The rooms for those with asylum status are less exciting, but more practical. As much as I love the forest ambience, I do keep banging my head on the ‘tree branches’ and tripping over the uneven floor.

The rest of the building houses artist studios, a seminar room for events and a large kitchen where a team of volunteers prepare a daily meal at lunchtime for everyone who works and lives at the Grandhotel.

On our two days here, we pitch in with the cooking. It’s a good excuse to chat to the people who volunteer, and an even better excuse to eat ourselves silly with Bavarian spaetzle buttons (‘Our Mac ‘n’ Cheese’), dumplings and lentil soup. The head chef is an Augsburger dame in her seventies; among the assistants are three boistrous young men doing community service for miscellaneous offences.

Over lunch we chat with Germans, Syrians, Ethipians, and a man who has travelled 10,000km from Namibia. I have no idea who is a refugee and who is not. As the spaetzle ‘sets like concrete’ (not my words, but those of a proud Swaebisher) and as the Namibian pours scorn on our slow progress, I can’t help but feel like the Grandhotel is a very good idea indeed.

So I’m particularly pleased to hear that the Grandhotel has spawned at least one child, in Munich. The name alone makes me smile: Bellevue di Monaco.

The Grandhotel Cosmopolis is a deep dream of peace: May their tribe increase!

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David Charles is co-writer of BBC radio sitcom Foiled. He also writes for The Bike Project, Thighs of Steel, and the Elevate Festival. He blogs at davidcharles.info.

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