Mystery Hotel Budapest: The hotel designed for likes

(CNN) — One of the first things you’ll notice on entering the Mystery Hotel Budapest is the Aladdin-style magic carpet “floating” above the reception desk.

This is the first indication there’s much more to this boutique hotel than meets the eye.

Then there’s the countless light boxes on the walls displaying animated pictures that change several times a day and the elevator, which is partially hidden by velvet curtains.

Depending on which room you’re staying in, you could find yourself lying against a headboard with a version of Johannes Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” where the “girl” has an iPhone in her hand, or a “party girl” interpretation of Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” complete with VIP passes to Budapest’s Sziget Festival.

And if you happen to book visit the “secret” Pythagoras meeting room, you’ll have to figure out how to open it yourself (hint — there’s an unassuming box involved).

Located in Budapest’s Terézváros district, the Mystery Hotel is arguably one of the most thrilling hotels in the city thanks to the intrigue that lies inside its walls.

It’s set inside what was once the main headquarters of the Symbolic Grand Lodge of Hungarian Freemasons, providing the inspiration for its enigmatic theme, along with movies such as “The Da Vinci Code.”

Instagram friendly

Courtesy Mystery Hotel Budapest

The Mystery Hotel is set inside the former headquarters of the Symbolic Grand Lodge of Hungarian Freemasons.

Courtesy Mystery Hotel Budapest

While it lacks the dramatic city views and central location of some of Budapest more famous hotels, the property, which opened in May 2019, is fast becoming one of the most Instagram-friendly places to stay in Budapest.

This is certainly no accident. In fact, the hotel’s designer Zoltán Varró admits he had “likes” in mind when conceptualizing the property.

“Instagram has really changed the hotel industry,” Varró tells CNN Travel. “Around 20 years ago, people wanted to go to big names because they felt safe with them.

“Now the most important thing is to stand out. Everyone is looking for something special. Social media is vital.

“When a guest sees something amazing and takes a picture, it can be shared with the rest of the world in seconds.”

Viktória Berényi, director of business development at the Mystery Hotel, says social media has helped to bring in a large number of bookings.

“First impressions are everything,” says Berényi. “There’s a lot of competition in Budapest. We had some difficulties with the engagement of people at first.

“But we’ve had lots of guests who come here because they saw the pictures on Instagram.”

One of the many intriguing areas of the hotel is the Great Hall, which serves as a dining area, a bar, as well as a lobby.

Varró decided to make it the building’s main focus after seeing photographs displaying the significance of the room during the 1890s, when Hungarian Freemasons regularly congregated here.

Freemasonry past

Courtesy Mystery Hotel Budapest

The grand staircase is among the elements preserved from the old building.

Courtesy Mystery Hotel Budapest

One of the most influential and well-known secret societies, Freemasonry was founded in the UK, but quickly spread to Europe and the rest of the world.

The secular movement models itself upon the fraternities of medieval stonemasons, who used secret words and symbols to recognize each others’ legitimacy.

After the former Republic of Councils in Hungary and later the Interior Minister of Hungary, Mihály Dömötör, banned the activities of Freemasons in 1920, the building went on to serve as a military hospital.

It was also used by the Hungarian National Guard Association, before returning to Freemasonry use after World War II. But during the communism era it went on to house the Ministry of the Interior until the fall of the regime in 1989.

Needless to say, the building changed considerably during its many different incarnations and its Freemasonry elements were concealed.

“After communism, the room was destroyed,” says Varró. “The Freemason aspects were completely covered, as no one wanted to talk about this.

“I didn’t want it [the Great Hall] to be hidden away. This is the heart of the building.”

Its vaulted ceiling, which has been completely restored, is decorated with beautiful motifs, while the walls are adorned with bright columns and light boxes.

Although the entire hotel is filled with chandeliers, the largest hangs directly over a marble chess board floor area in the Great Hall.

At the far end of the room, two iron spiral stairs lead up to the gallery, where a private dining area aimed at larger groups can be found.

Lit up by candles, the grand staircase is one of various elements preserved from the original building, which dates back to 1896, along with the main doors.

You can see elements of the facade of the old building and the new building alongside each other from the sixth floor.

Varró has preserved various motifs used in Masonic symbolism around the buildings, along with sculptures of a sphinx, a square and compass.

Even the paintings in the corridors are linked to Freemasonry, some are the work of Freemasons background, while others are by artists from countries with strong links to the secular movement.

However, Berényi stresses the Mystery Hotel represents far more than just Freemasonry, noting the organization, which has been blighted by conspiracy theories, may hold negative connotations for some.

“As much as we are proud of the history, we can’t make everything about the Freemasons, as they represent different things to different people,” she says.

Unique suites

Courtesy Mystery Hotel Budapest

Some of the suites feature headboards with a modernized version of Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa.”

Courtesy Mystery Hotel Budapest

There are three different suite styles, Doric, Ion and Corinthian. The Doric rooms, which overlook the hotel’s courtyard and the Secret Garden Spa, hold English Victorian style features and are decorated in various shades of green.

The Ion rooms are based on the upper floors of the hotel and possess a French mansard style, while the Corinthian rooms hold Baroque style furnishings, such as burgundy velvet curtains.

Located on the sixth floor, the Atelier Suite is the most unique suite in the building. Designed to resemble a painter’s studio, it holds a marble staircase, brick walls, huge paintings and dozens of rugs. Even the TV stand takes the form of an art easel.

“The original plan was to have this room as a storage area, because it only has two small windows,” explains Varró.

“When I decided to make it one of the biggest suites, the owner thought I was crazy. But it’s been very popular.”

The suite is often requested for private gatherings, with the likes of Italian luxury fashion house Dolce&Gabbana hiring it for private events.

Impressive spa

Courtesy Mystery Hotel Budapest

Based in the courtyard, the Secret Garden Day Spa is one of the hotel’s highlights.

Courtesy Mystery Hotel Budapest

While the Great Hall is a tough act to follow, not to mention rooftop bar the Sky Garden, which provides views of the Royal Palace, the hotel spa is another stand out spot.

There are plenty of beautiful thermal baths to choose from in Budapest, which means any hotel spa here has to be pretty impressive in order to entice visitors.

However, the Secret Garden Day Spa definitely doesn’t disappoint.

Situated in the hotel’s enclosed courtyard, it has a Baroque garden feel, with dramatic palm trees and a beautiful fountain.

Guests have the option to relax on day beds, slip into the sauna and steam room, or opt for some of the many cosmetic, body treatments and massages on offer.

The lighting in the spa is also fantastic due to its courtyard position, along with an array of crystal chandeliers.

“This was an empty place,” says Varró. “I wanted to create something different. I think this [the courtyard] is the perfect place for a spa. Budapest is not a very sunny city, but it’s always summer here.”

Its center piece is undoubtedly the magnificent whirlpool, which provides a fantastic view of the facade of the building.

“We don’t have thermal waters here, but we do have this,” says Berényi. “This Jacuzzi is very popular on Instagram.”

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Cell phone calls on airplane flights: Are they inevitable?

(CNN) — Ah, holiday travel. Between huge crowds and weather delays, flying during this time of year is hectic. Now close your eyes and imagine the entire scenario with one additional annoyance: Loud talkers yammering into their cell phones at 35,000 feet.
Don’t worry — this potentially ear-splitting scenario isn’t a reality yet. At least not in the United States. But it could be soon. Some even say it’s just a year or two away.

The technology to support midair cell phone calls exists right now.

Just about every plane that offers WiFi has the bandwidth to support voice over the internet, and several international airlines allow voice calls on certain routes already. Still, at least on domestic US flights, voice calls are forbidden for four distinct reasons: flight attendants, public perception, concerns about safety and US law.

Airline officials won’t even consider in-flight cell-phone calls until or unless they feel there is overwhelming demand from customers to provide the service, according to Henry Harteveldt, president of Atmosphere Research Group, a travel industry analysis firm in San Francisco. Even then, airlines still may not cave in.

“No matter how you look at it, allowing cell phone calls on planes is controversial,” he says. “These are precisely the kinds of issues airlines tend to avoid addressing unless they must.”

Keeping cabins calm

03 phones on planes flight attendent directs passengers

Flight attendants already mediate many passenger disputes.

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Without question, flight attendants are the biggest barrier to allowing voice calls in the air.

Pretty much across the board, people who work in airplane cabins say the idea of allowing passengers unfettered in-flight phone use would lead to chaos, conflict and downright craziness in flight. As such, they oppose phone use vociferously.

Flight attendants are already tasked with managing overhead bin use, monitoring drink intake among unruly passengers and mediating fights between seat-recliners and passengers who don’t recline.

Taylor Garland, spokesperson for the Association of Flight Attendants, a union representing 50,000 flight attendants at 20 airlines, says her colleagues don’t want to take on any more policing of passengers’ social behaviors.

“We are strongly against voice calls on planes,” she wrote in a recent email. In another, she doubled down with all caps: “NO CELL PHONES.”

Flight attendants’ opposition is significant.

They’ve had major influence on certain decisions regarding domestic passenger travel. In recent years, they’ve been at the forefront of efforts to get airlines to control unruly passengers. In the 1980s, they led the charge against cigarettes in cabins, which ultimately led to full-fledged bans on in-flight smoking by 2000.

On the issue of in-flight cell phone calls, flight attendants say that passengers inevitably would offend some neighbors by being too loud, and arguments would surely follow.

Cassandra Michele Brown, a flight attendant who works for Frontier Airlines, adds that unfettered cell phone use in midair likely would prevent passengers from complying with flight attendant instructions in the event of an emergency.

“At the end of the day, our job is to evacuate an aircraft in 90 seconds or less,” says Brown, who is based out of Las Vegas.

“If you’re a passenger on my flight, no matter how good you might be at multitasking, you’re not going to be able to follow my step-by-step instructions to evacuate if you’re focusing on your phone.”

Passengers advocating for quiet

04 phones on planes talking on plane

Most passengers don’t want to listen to their fellow travelers talk on their cell phones.

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Among the travel experts and the traveling public, feelings about allowing voice calls in the air are mixed.

Much like the flight attendants, a vocal contingent of passengers has emerged as opponents of loud noise, insisting that an open environment for in-flight cell-phone calls will create an “annoying” cacophony of chaos in the skies and undoubtedly trigger disagreements about what volume is appropriate.

Harteveldt, the analyst, is in this camp, and says research recently conducted by his firm estimates that less than 5% of all domestic air passengers want to use their cell phones in midair.

“I don’t want to be forced to overhear someone else’s conversation if it’s avoidable,” he says. “It’s bad enough when you find yourself in that situation at a coffee shop or in a hotel lobby. In an airplane at cruising altitude, in a situation where you can’t do anything or go anywhere to escape, it would be horrendous.”

Other passengers say privacy also would be a concern, since even first-class passengers are packed tightly into airplane seats for the duration of most flights.

Business travelers, however, seem to be more utilitarian in their thinking.

Paul Forgue, a consultant who manages performance improvement for a global private equity portfolio company and travels 40 weeks a year, says he could see situations in which in-flight phone use could come in handy.

“For those work emergencies when you really need to have contact with someone, it would be fantastic to know you could pick up your phone and do that from the plane,” says Forgue, who is based in San Francisco. “In those situations where you need to talk to a colleague about something you can’t articulate via text or email, it’d be perfect — provided people don’t take advantage.”

One strategy Forgue says airlines could implement to allow in-flight cell phone calls: Special areas of the plane for those passengers who wish to use their phones and special areas for those passengers who do not.

This is the plan deployed by Amtrak and various commuter rail systems across the country. For the most part — save for the occasional abusers or overflow problems on crowded trips — it works.

Is the technology safe?

01 phones on planes cell-phone not talking

Newer planes are designed to not be affected by passengers’ technology.

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The story of in-cabin calls from personal electronic devices is a colorful saga that goes back decades.

In the 1980s and 1990s, when cellular technology became mainstream, use on planes went relatively unchecked. If you’re 40 or older, you probably remember the seatback handsets available to anyone with the swipe of a credit card for upwards of $4 or $5 per minute. These essentially were early public cell phones.

Even after the turn of the millennium, cell phone calls were mostly unregulated; victims of the 9/11 terror attacks were able to call their loved ones from the hijacked airplanes before the planes crashed.

The rise of smartphones changed everything.

As phones became more sophisticated, industry insiders worried about the possibility of a phone’s radio transmitter interfering with certain equipment in the cockpit and therefore rendering some of the equipment unreliable.

Many of these concerns were stoked by published papers about the potential effects of electromagnetic interference to flight navigation and communication systems. The gist of those reports: Some devices had the potential to interfere with unshielded cockpit instruments, and that such interference could in worst-case scenarios affecting the regular operation of the plane.

Airline experts subsequently have noted that this was an issue with older devices on older aircraft.

Seth Miller, an industry analyst and the owner of the PaxEx.areo blog, said newer phones operate at much higher frequencies, and newer planes are designed to not be affected by the amount of electronics that passengers bring when they fly.

“There was one documented example of something affecting depth [instruments] in one very specific old (airline) model when under certain circumstances, says Miller. “But nobody was able to determine with certainty if it was a phone leaking radio frequency when it shouldn’t have been — or an instrument screen not being shielded from certain frequencies when it should have been.”

“The reality is that new technology and new equipment have all but eliminated this problem,” says Miller. “There’s no longer any technical reason for people to not use cell phones on planes.”

Internationally, in fact, a handful of airlines have inked deals with third-party vendors to offer and allow satellite-based internet services that support voice calls via cell phones. Some of these include British Airways, Emirates and Etihad.

Viasat, a communication company based in Carlsbad, California, is one of those vendors. Don Buchman, the company’s vice president and general manager of commercial aviation, says his company’s systems could carry voice calls over the internet tomorrow if airline customers wanted to do so.

“Most airlines have the ability to permit devices to make voice calls but choose not to,” he says. “When the industry is ready, it probably will be as simple as flipping a switch.”

Regulatory, practical obstacles

Texting is already permitted on some airlines.

Texting is already permitted on some airlines.

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Though it’s not technically illegal to make voice calls from cell phones on commercial flights, there are two major regulatory restrictions that have that same effect.

First, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the US federal agency that oversees US telecommunications transmissions, prohibits airborne use of the two of the most frequently used cellular bands.

The agency recently considered a proposal that would have allowed air passengers to use their phones for calls at high altitude. This policy was introduced in 2013 by then FCC-Chairman Tom Wheeler, but current FCC Chairman Ajit Pai quashed it in 2017. At the time, Pai said in a statement he did not think the proposal gave travelers what he thought they wanted.

“Taking it off the table permanently will be a victory for Americans who, like me, value a moment of quiet at 30,000 feet,” he said.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has taken a similar stance.

Section 403 of the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 states, “The Secretary of Transportation shall issue regulations to prohibit an individual on an aircraft from engaging in voice communications using a mobile communications device during a flight of that aircraft in scheduled passenger interstate or intrastate air transportation.”

The law allows exceptions for flight crews and law enforcement officers.

Granted, the push for making cell-phone voice calls might subside on its own. Texting already is allowed on many US domestic carriers — and more and more business travelers are embracing group text services as replacements for conference calls. Then, of course, there’s email, which is also available for passengers who pony up the cash for access to standard in-flight WiFi.

Who calls people anyway?

What’s more, millennials and younger generations rarely talk on the phone.

Miller, from the PaxEx.areo blog, predicts that regulatory agencies eventually will remove the limits on in-flight cell phone calls, leaving it up to individual airlines to decide whether this is a service they want to provide.

“When there are safety reasons for something not to happen, the aviation world always will try to err on the side of safety,” he says. “On the flip side, now that we know there’s no risk associated with cell phone use in-flight, the FAA and the FCC might change the rules, and if they do, it’s not a given that airlines will embrace it.”

Despite the relative technical viability of in-flight cell phone calls, it still could be years before travelers may have to grapple with them in real life given all the opposition.

This means you may not be able to join that upcoming work call from 35,000 feet over the Mississippi Delta.

It also means your holiday travel adventures likely won’t include having to listen to your seat neighbor shout to a loved one grandma’s recipe for Christmas struffoli. Consider yourself lucky. For now.

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Luxury bars in Budapest: The finest places to go

(CNN) — Budapest’s craft cocktail movement has seen new bars and clubs spread across town like wildfire in recent years, making it that much harder to choose the best of the bunch.

While the Hungarian capital’s ruin bars offer a unique experience, the luxury bar scene here is second to none.

Whether you’re looking to sample handcrafted cocktails or the finest Tokaji wines, there are a multitude of glamorous bars to choose from, complete with sharply dressed staff and/or top-notch mixologists.

From the High Note Skybar to Blue Fox The Bar at Kempinski, here’s a run down of the finest luxury bars in Budapest.

KOLLÁZS — Brasserie & Bar

KOLLÁZS -- Brasserie & Bar, Four Seasons Budapest

Kollázs Brasserie & Bar is located on the ground floor of the Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace Budapest.

Courtesy Kempinski Hotel Corvinus Budapest

Set at the Four Seasons Gresham Palace, KOLLÁZS — Brasserie & Bar offers what’s arguably the grandest setting in the entire city.

Serving everything from Tokaji wines to bespoke cocktails, its stand out drinks include the Smokey Forest and the Invisible Hungarian, a crystal clear Negroni White crafted with Hungarian Gin and a touch of bergamot, for citrusy complexity.

There’s also a delicious à la carte menu prepared by chef Árpád Győrffy, one of the finalists at the prestigious Bocuse d’Or Hungary competition.

Black Swan

Black Swan Budapest

Black Swan is one of the most stylish bars in the city.

Courtesy Black Swan Budapest

Positioned in the heart of the Jewish Quarter, this art deco style bar has gone from strength to strength since it opened in 2017.

Creative manager András Ódor’s menu reflects true Hungarian culture and gastronomy, serving up a whole host of bespoke cocktails and bar foods.

The Echo cocktail– a delicious mix of Rosolio di Bergamotto, Tio Pepe sherry, coconut water, lime juice and a cucumber salt solution, is one of its highlights.

Black Swan, Budapest, Klauzál utca 32, 1072; +36 30 663 5270

Boutiq’Bar

Boutiq'Bar, Budapest

Boutiq’Bar was previously voted one of the top 50 cocktail bars in the world.

Courtesy Boutiq’Bar

Boutiq’Bar is one of the best spots to sip on bespoke cocktails in a plush, old school setting.

It was co-founded by former Soho House supremo Zoltán Nagy and a strong London vibe is evident throughout.

All the classics are available, as well as an array of specially mixed drinks and expensive bottles of cognac.

We recommend the Space Zombie — a powerful mix of Bulleit Bourbon whiskey, spice and grapefruit juice.

Boutiq’ Bar, Budapest, Paulay Ede u. 5, 1061; +36 30 554 2323

Blue Fox The Bar at Kempinski

Blue Fox The Bar at Kempinski

Blue Fox The Bar lies at the Kempinski in downtown Budapest.

Courtesy Kempinski Hotels

Located smack bang in the middle of the popular fifth district, the Kempinski Hotel’s Blue Fox The Bar has some of the city’s more unique cocktails.

The Elysium bar menu lists some real treats, from the delicious Oblivion and Liquid Soul, to the bizarre and bold Taste of Electricity.

A night lounge complete with a music sommelier and live bands takes center stage on Fridays and Saturdays.

You can also order a bite to eat from the hotel’s very own branch of Nobu and have it brought to your table.

St. Andrea Wine & Skybar

St. Andrea Wine & Skybar

St. Andrea Wine & Skybar serves up cocktails as well as Irish coffees.

Courtesy St. Andrea Wine & Skybar

St. Andrea Wine & Skybar delivers an all round view of the spectacular Budapest skyline.

Positioned atop Vörösmarty Square, it has outdoor terraces for the summer months and an indoor bar for colder nights.

The bar’s highly-trained staff whip an array of signature cocktails, including the Black Sheep — a citrusy mix of whiskey and amaro liqueur.

Visitors also have the option to tuck into some great gourmet bar snacks, which can be rustled up in no time at all.

Easy Wine Budapest

Easy Wine Budapest

This trendy bar serves around 100 wines by the glass.

Courtesy Easy Wine Budapest

Just a stone’s throw from the Hungarian Parliament Building, Easy Wine offers a unique wine tasting experience in a plush and lively bar atmosphere.

The bar has special self-service machines that allow guests to sample the wines before selecting a glass.

You can even take home a bottle of your favorite tipple at the end of the evening — the Cruxx Gemina Sour Cherry Wine is well worth a sample.

Easy Wine also has one of the city’s finest chefs on hand to serve up a decadent à la carte menu complete with delicious desserts.

Easy Wine, Budapest, Hold utca 23, 1054; +36 70 336 7717

High Note Skybar

High Note Skybar, Aria Hotel Budapest

The High Note Skybar offers fantastic views of Budapest.

Courtesy Aria Hotel Budapest

Based at the five-star Aria Hotel, overlooking St. Stephen’s Basilica, the High Note Skybar holds a unique bespoke cocktail menu with accompanying décor.

Switching theme twice a year, complete with signature drinks relating to all things mystical — try the Philosopher’s Stone, or the Fountain of Youth mocktail, with wonderleaf non-alcoholic spirit, water kefir and seasonal fruit.

Kupola Bar at the Ritz-Carlton

Kupola Bar at the Ritz-Carlton

The Kupola Bar at the Ritz-Carlton has a menu of local wines and inventive cocktails.

Courtesy Ritz-Carlton

Decked out with grand columns and huge windows, the Kupola Bar at the Ritz-Carlton provides a whole of host of bespoke cocktails and bar treats.

The glamorous venue is located in the heart of the fifth district, so it’s ideally situated for those eager to grab a drink while shopping on nearby Fashion Street.

Its cocktails available range from Moscow Mules to the finest champagne Kir Royale, and if you can’t find what you’re looking for, the barman will make it for you.

360 Bar

360 Bar, Budapest

360 Bar’s impressive roof terrace is filled with igloos.

Courtesy 360 Bar

As its name suggests, 360 Bar offers an impressive 360-degree view of Budapest, with a roof terrace made up of heated igloos.

Accessible via a concealed door on Andrassy Avenue, this popular spot is busy throughout the year, especially in the summer months.

The menu here is filled with handcrafted cocktails, along with tasty bar snacks.

The Tokyo Iced Teas are highly recommended, as are the yummy beef burgers.

360 Bar, Budapest, Andrássy út 39, 1061; +36 30 356 3047

Párisi Passage Café & Brasserie

Párisi Passage Café & Brasserie

This beautifully-designed spot is both a fine dining restaurant and a stylish bar.

Párisi Passage Café & Brasserie

The beautifully-designed Párisi Passage Café & Brasserie stands in the Parisian courtyard at the Párisi Udvar Hotel, located in a revived Art Nouveau shopping arcade.

Guests can indulge in international cuisine as well as bespoke cocktails, such as the Midnight in Budapest.

A delicious mix of Martell VSOP Cognac and five-year-old Márton és Lányai apple brandy — the Martell representing France and the brandy embodying Hungary — it’s the perfect cocktail.

Minute Lounge & Bar

Budapest luxury bars - Minute Lounge & Bar

Minute Lounge & Bar’s impressive Art Deco-style décor is one of its many highlights.

Courtesy Minute Lounge & Bar

Located on Andrassy Avenue, Minute Lounge & Bar offers a refined menu of bespoke cocktails in an Art Deco-style setting.

From the tasty Quintessential, which consists of bourbon, pumpkin spice, cream, egg white, citrus, orange blossom and soda, to the bold Pho’Eva, made with tequila, Fino sherry, pho, lime and chili, some unique alcoholic combinations are on display here.

The luxury bar’s attentive, well-informed staff and its delightful food menu — the hummus and duck liver tarte flambée is a particular highlight — only add to its allure.

Twentysix Budapest

Luxury Budapest bars - Twentysix Budapest

Surrounded by around 34 types of plants, Twentysix Budapest is described as an urban jungle.

Courtesy Twentysix Budapest

Situated in the heart of the capital’s party district, Twentysix Budapest provides a unique garden bar experience housed within a glass-domed courtyard.

Split into four areas — house, garden, studio and shop — this urban jungle is ideal for those looking to escape the hustle and bustle of the city.

In the garden, a vast selection of foods and drinks, complete with a wine, cocktail and pálinka bar filled with the finest Hungarian blends, are served up.

The mixology menu lists an extensive cocktail selection, including all the classics with a special twist.

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STARLUX, Taiwan’s newest airline, lands with a Shakespearean origin story

(CNN) — Debuting its first flights in January 2020, Taiwanese start-up STARLUX Airlines could be the first new player in 30 years to upend the island’s duopoly aviation market.

And even before the carrier, dubbed Taiwan’s first luxury boutique airline, set its first aircraft into the air, it’s been creating a stir.

Eleven minutes after opening ticket sales online on December 16, the Taipei-based carrier sold out all seats on its first three flights — Taipei-Macau, Taipei-Penang and Taipei-Danang.

But both aviation watchers and the general public are abuzz for another reason: A succession drama involving STARLUX founder Chang Kuo-wei that’s so juicy he’s being referred to as the aviation industry’s “Prince Hamlet” by local media.

Chang Kuo wei

Chang Kuo-wei founded STARLUX Airlines after being ousted from his family business, EVA Airways.

courtesy Starlux Airlines

This Shakepearean tale took root in 2016, when Chang Yung-fa, founder of Taiwan’s Evergreen Group and airline EVA Airways, passed away at the age of 88, sparking a battle over who would take over one of the island’s biggest family-run conglomerates.

Chang, 49, who had been the chairman of EVA since 2013, revealed that his late father had named him the successor of parent company Evergreen in his will.

A well-loved figure in the aviation industry, known for his outspokenness and expertise, the son had experience working for EVA Airways as both an aircraft technician and a pilot.

But being the youngest son and the only child of Chang Yung-fa’s second wife, Chang Kuo-wei’s promotion ignited a family feud. He was soon ousted from EVA as chairman at a board meeting called by fellow family members.

A few months later, he announced that he was going to launch his own airline — STARLUX Airlines.

“He doesn’t think that he’s ‘Hamlet'”

Local media have called it a Hamlet-like retaliation plan.

The anticipation of the new airline’s launch has grown as both EVA Airways and China Airlines, Taiwan’s two main airlines, have been plagued by strikes and internal conflicts.

But according to the team at STARLUX, Chang isn’t out for retribution.

“He doesn’t think that he is ‘Hamlet’,” K.W. Nieh, STARLUX’s chief communication officer, tells CNN Travel. “This has nothing to do with revenge.”

“Because of his passion for aviation, Chang merely wants to build an ideal airline that reflects his style after breaking from the shackles of Evergreen Group. He is building STARLUX to fulfill the expectations of his late father.”

CNN Travel has reached out to EVA Air for comment.

Homegrown luxury airline

Starlux Airlines

Local designer Sean Yin is behind STARLUX’s crew uniforms.

courtesy Starlux Airlines

Whether or not Taipei-based STARLUX can outdo the other major players on the island remains to be seen, but it’s certainly upped Taiwan’s aviation game.

The airline is introducing a new generation of passenger aircraft, including the A321neo and A350-1000, “both debuting for the first time in Taiwan,” says Nieh.

Indeed, STARLUX is the first Taiwanese airline to be equipped with A321neos — all 10 of them will be delivered by the end of 2021. STARLUX signed Taiwan’s largest single Airbus purchase agreement, purchasing 17 A350XWB aircraft in March 2019.

Chang himself piloted STARLUX’s first A321neo to Taipei from Hamburg last month.

“The fleet will grow to 27 aircraft by the end of 2024 and 50 by the end of 2030,” adds Nieh.

The interior of the narrow body cabin, designed by BMW’s Designworks studio, is fitted with sleek seats, leather headrests and inflight entertainment systems across all classes.

Economy class seats will feature a 10.1-inch 720p screen while business class seats — equipped with narrow-body seats that can recline into an 82-inch fully flat bed — will offer a 15.6-inch 1080p inflight entertainment system.

Free Wi-Fi with basic access (texting only for economy passengers) will be offered for both classes on all STARLUX flights — also a first in Taiwan.

Local touches abound as well. A unique cabin scent — with notes of woods, leather and florals — has been created by Taiwan-grown fragrance brand P.Seven. The airline’s crew uniform, which bears themes of retro-futuristic travel in the 40s and 50s, is the product of local designer Sean Yin.

No fare war: STARLUX will charge more than competitors

Starlux Airlines

Positioning as a boutique airline, STARLUX aims to capture the higher-end market.

courtesy Starlux Airlines

Aspiring to be the Emirates of Asia, STARLUX vows to provide premium service, too.

At a recent press event, Chang said STARLUX Airlines will not start a fare war. Instead, its tickets will be reasonable but more expensive than its competitors.

“We consider flying as an enjoyable part of the journey,” adds Nieh. “We offer top-notch and exquisite services. It differentiates STARLUX from other companies in the market.

“We position ourselves as a boutique airline, targeting the higher-end market. We have introduced the most advanced aircraft models with the latest aviation technology and seats. We offer exquisite service items so the fare will be slightly higher than the other airlines.”

According to aviation expert CK Law, senior adviser of the Department of Aviation Policy at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, this unique positioning is a clever move for STARLUX.

“Many new airlines have been tapping into the low-cost sector in the market, particularly in this part of the world,” says Law.

“That’s definitely the major trend. There should be reasonable demand for the high-end passenger segment of the market.”

But he expects the new airline will still have an impact on airfares in the long run.

“From the passengers’ point of view, there will be new and substantial benefits for them to have new choices and possible new fare reductions in the longer term. There’ll be competition for better services on the plane,” says Law.

Potential cut-throat competition

Both EVA Airways and China Airlines, the two major airlines of Taiwan, have been affected by strikes in 2019.

Both EVA Airways and China Airlines, the two major airlines of Taiwan, have been affected by strikes in 2019.

PATRICK LIN/AFP/Getty Images

Taiwan has been enjoying healthy passenger growth numbers as well as flights in recent years.

Boeing has estimated that Taiwan’s aviation demand will be stronger than the Northeast Asia region’s annual average — 2% over the next two decades — as a whole.

But is there enough space to accommodate another major airline?

“A new full-service airline would definitely introduce a lot of new competition to a traditional aviation market like Taiwan,” says Law.

“Whether the new airline or even the existing airlines can survive because of this will mainly depend on how fast the market will grow and whether the new demand could absorb or balance with the new supply capacity.

“Otherwise, that could be a cut-throat competition and there could be casualties.”

One of the biggest questions is: Can a newcomer carve a spot for itself in the long-haul and transit markets, the two markets STARLUX plans to explore?

“I would expect a good, high load factor being achieved for the short haul tourism markets but the long haul destinations, which have [major competition in Taiwan,] would definitely be more challenging,” says Law.

“It won’t be easy for new airlines to join a reputable alliance, to start with. Without being a member of an alliance, it won’t be easy at all to get transit passengers. But it can be a long-term goal,” says Law.

Nieh, on the other hand, is confident.

“The development of STARLUX doesn’t solely rely on the Taiwan market. Taipei has a superior geographical location — you can reach major Asian cities within five hours” he says.

“Located in a central position connecting North America, North Asia and Southeast Asia, Taiwan has the best foundation to develop as an aviation hub. By introducing and building its hardware and software, the aviation industry of Taiwan will hopefully become the transportation hub of Asia, strengthen its transit services and bring a large number of international passengers to Taiwan.”

Nieh points to a recent study by the Taiwan government’s National Audit Office, which claims only 10% of the island’s inbound travelers are transit passengers.

“Comparing to Hong Kong, Incheon, Shanghai and Tokyo, there is room for market development,” says Nieh. “We’re very certain about this part.”

The initial rush for ticket sales has been good news for STARLUX.

“Tickets to Macau sold out in six minutes; tickets to Danang sold out in nine and tickets to Penang sold out in 11 minutes,” Liwen Liu, director of STARLUX’s corporate communications division tells CNN.

“All 188 seats on each of the three flights.

“We’re very happy about it. We had our expectations but the response has been better than what we expected,” says Liu.

‘An arduous journey’

Chang Kuo wei

Chang (second from left) piloted STARLUX’s first plane from Hamburg to Taipei.

courtesy Starlux Airlines

Grabbing a slice of the market isn’t STARLUX’s only worry.

Construction delays at the third terminal of Taoyuan Airport have forced the airline to build its check-in counters, airport office, maintenance hangar and apron spaces with very limited resources, says Nieh.

“The aviation industry is a huge investment and a labor-intensive industry,” he adds. “It’s hard to make a profit. Founding an airline, thus, is a very arduous journey. STARLUX has first-class talents who understand the unique nature of the industry. It helps avoid unnecessary investment, ensuring a steady and healthy growth for STARLUX.

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Copenhagan Metro’s new M3 Cityring line is a game-changer

Copenhagen (CNN) — In Copenhagen, traffic is usually caused by the two-wheel variety of transportation: the bicycle.

Ever since bicycles were imported into Denmark from France in 1869, they have become the main form of transportation in the Scandinavian city. In the 1920s, it wasn’t unusual to see both the working class as well as high society pedaling through the streets. But with the opening of the Metro’s new M3 Cityring line, commuters have a new way of getting around.

While Copenhagen’s Metro has always been rather efficient, many neighborhoods lacked stations, and thus, accessibility.

In addition, a growing population of about 10,000 new residents per year is taxing the buses and trains already in circulation. In a city of 650,000 people, about 200,000 commute on the Metro daily, sometimes in conjunction with a bike during their journey.

Greater accessibility

The circular line has 17 new stops, nearly doubling the number of existing stations.

The circular line has 17 new stops, nearly doubling the number of existing stations.

DA MARIE ODGAARD/AFP via Getty Images

Cityring, a 15.5-kilometer (approximately 9.63 miles) circular line with 17 new stops — which nearly doubles the number of existing stations — now connects outlying neighborhoods that radiate far from the city center. Residents won’t need to rely on their bikes to get around, a boon especially during Copenhagen’s hygge-inducing winters.

The impetus for the project was twofold, according to Henrik Ploughmann Olsen, CEO of Copenhagen Metro. “First of all, it was a question of improving public transport, making it more efficient and of better quality,” he said. “But it was also about city development in other areas outside of the city center.”

Courtesy The Copenhagen Metro

Public squares were constructed, with 150 benches and 800 trees, were installed around the 17 new stations. The plazas not only allow access to the Metro, but will hopefully encourage more commerce and housing.

“We see that it attracts shops but also offices and service-oriented businesses,” said Olsen.

Building the line was not without its challenges.

Olsen acknowledged that the eight years of construction impeded traffic and generally disrupted people’s daily lives. “We had the machinery right outside people’s windows for quite a substantial number of years,” he said.

Glass and light are key design elements, and stations were designed to integrate with their surroundings.

Glass and light are key design elements, and stations were designed to integrate with their surroundings.

Reginaldo Sales/Metro Company

Technical issues also challenged tunnel designers. They had to build around older structures with shaky foundations, such as the historic Frederik’s Church, a.k.a. Marble Church, at the Marmorkirken station.

Controlling groundwater was also imperative during construction.

“A lot of the houses in the inner part of the old city center are actually founded on wooden piles from the 17th century or 18th century,” explained Olsen, “If you remove the groundwater from those piles, they’ll rot.”

In addition, builders had to deftly maneuver around existing Metro tunnels–but Olsen proudly notes the extension was completed without causing any shutdowns to the current system.

Shiny, new rails

The new M3 line allows Copenhagen to compete on an international level.

The new M3 line allows Copenhagen to compete on an international level.

Reginaldo Sales/Metro Company

The line itself is a thing of beauty; sleek and gleaming like a seal shimmying through water, this shiny new rail line is runs automatically without any conductors.

The system operates 24 hours a day, 365 days a year — a rare service offered by only a small handful of cities worldwide, including New York City, Chicago, and Melbourne — and a full rotation around the line takes 24 minutes. Average speed is about 40 kilometers per hour (approximately 25 miles per hour) but when a train hits top speed, it can cruise at 90 kilometer an hour (55 miles per hour).

Unlike older stations, all the new stops are outfitted with two elevators instead of one and the incline of stairs was reduced to make going up and down flights less taxing. For today’s iTouch culture, screens by ticket machines supply riders with route information and maps.

Not just easy on the ride, Cityring’s stations are easy on the eyes.

Glass and light are key design elements and stations were designed to integrate with their surroundings. At the Frederiksberg Allé station, for example, the green interior color scheme is a segue to the outdoor park that greets riders when they reach street level.

Cleanliness and efficiency are two tenets of the Metro system. Revenue generated from ticket sales is reinvested into maintenance, and quarterly surveys of passengers give Metro operators direction on what’s working, what’s not and where they need to direct funds.

Bike-friendly

The Cityring doesn’t want to compete with bikes, but instead integrate itself into existing transportation infrastructure. “Metro actually supports the thoughts of the having bikes being either last mile or first mile mode of transportation, so you could use it in combination,” said Olsen.

Bikes are allowed on the Metro during non-rush hours, and cellars at every station provide storage for the two-wheeled vehicles when not in use. Screens at exit points announce nearby bus and train departures for easy connections.

This shiny new rail line is conductor-less and runs automatically.

This shiny new rail line is conductor-less and runs automatically.

Reginaldo Sales/Metro Company

While these features have residents excited about the new system, Olsen believes “the most important thing is that you don’t have to look up time table,” he said. “You can just go through the station and there’ll be a train right after.” To him, freedom from the shackles of a schedule exemplifies the ease of using the Metro.

The new M3 line — and the expansion of the Metro in general — not only services the city internally, but allows Copenhagen to compete on an international level. Citing Hamburg, Germany, and Stockholm, Sweden as nearby rivals, Olsen hopes to attract both businesses and tourists to Copenhagen via opportunities presented by the Metro.

With the opening of the M3 Cityring, ridership is expected to rise from 65 million to 122 million by 2020, and two extensions to the existing M4 line are due to open over the next five year.

While projections are ambitious, Olsen’s definition of success is more modest.

“The less people have to think about us, the better,” he said. “So if you can just rely on us and don’t have to think much about using the Metro, because it’s easy to use and you don’t have to plan your journey, then I guess we’re a success.”

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Azerbaijan’s secret to long life? Mountain air in the village of Lerik

(CNN) — There are a number of destinations around the world famed for the longevity of their residents.
In Japan, Okinawa’s sprightly centenarians have earned it the nickname “Land of the Immortals.” Campodimele, Italy’s “Village of Eternity,” is testament to the Mediterranean diet. In the sunny Californian town of Loma Linda, a community of Seventh-Day Adventists reaping rewards of clean living.
There’s one long-lived corner of the globe you won’t have heard talked about as much, and it’s home to the world’s only Museum of Longevity. That’s Lerik in southern Azerbaijan.

The South Caucasus country is home to several regions known for producing residents who live to triple-figure ages, including Lankaran and Nagorno-Karabakh. But another, Lerik, is reputed to have the highest concentration of centenarians.

In this emerald land high above the clouds in the Talysh Mountains, reached by loop after loop of a serpentine road, people seem to have discovered a secret to a long and healthy life.

The Museum of Longevity

The two-room Museum of Longevity, built in 1991 and renovated in 2010, holds more than 2,000 exhibits documenting the lives and memories of the region’s oldest inhabitants.

It charts individual lifespans with the household items that they’ve outlived, such as three generations of clothing irons. There are chests filled with headscarves and shirts, silver pitchers and bowls, beautifully knitted socks, and hand-dyed rugs that are still brightly colored despite their age.

And then there are the letters, written in both Azerbaijani and Russian — personal artifacts so old that the ink is starting is fade.

Perhaps the most captivating features are the portraits of centenarians that cover the museum’s walls. These images, dating from the 1930s, were donated by French photographer Frederic Lachop.

The museum, and official Azerbaijan statistics, define “centenarian” more loosely than you’d expect: Here, it means anyone over 90 years old.

However, back in 1991, there were more than 200 people in Lerik registered as being more than 100 years old, out of a population of 63,000.

Numbers have been less impressive since then, which locals blame variously on radiation from communication towers and environmental decline, but could just as easily be down to more rigorous record-keeping.

Today, there are 11 people more than 100 years old, out of a local population of 83,800.

The tale of the 168-year-old man

For story about Azerbaijan's Museum of Longevity

Is this the world’s oldest man ever? Perhaps not.

Kamilla Rzayeva

Lerik’s current oldest citizen is Raji Ibrahimova, at 105 years. That’s a fine vintage, but it pales in comparison to the age reputedly reached by area’s most celebrated centenarian, Shirali Muslumov, a shepherd who supposedly lived to be 168.

The yellow pages of his passport claim that he was born in 1805 and his gravestone states that he died in 1973. If true, it would make the the oldest person to have ever lived.

Unfortunately, back in the early 19th century, birth registrations rarely took place in such remote villages as his birthplace of Barzavu, so there is no certifable record of when he was born.

Countless letters sent from all over the world on his various birthdays leave no doubt that he was indeed of a very respectable age, but it’s perhaps best to factor in a minimum 20-year margin of error.

Among those corresponding with Muslumov were Vietnamese communist leader Ho Chi Minh, who sent a postcard greeting him with the endearment, “Dear Grandpa.”

This longevity gene seems to run in the family. His 95-year-old daughter, Halima Qambarova, tells CNN Travel that — while she might not live to 168, like her father — she at least hopes to live to the age of 150, like her grandfather, or 130, like her aunt.

‘Stillness of the mind’

When the weather turns cold, most centenarians relocate to the kinder coastal climes of Lankaran, but Qambarova was still in the Lerik village of Barzavu when CNN Travel dropped by her father’s modest two-story home, surrounded by massive apple and pear trees (probably contemporaries of her famous father).

Sitting by the window, wrapped in a shawl, she speaks with a slight accent, switching often to her native language of Talysh, a dialect spoken by just 200,000 people and classified as “vulnerable” by UNESCO.

She shows off her passport, which doesn’t list a month or date of birth, only the year: 1924. She may be 95, but she is fully present, interacting with her great-grandchildren, and demonstrating her lively sense of humor. When asked her age, she cheerfully replies, “15.”

“Stillness of the mind is part of their secret,” the museum guide says. “They stay away from stress, thinking about life quite philosophically, living one day at a time, without much planning or worry for the future.”

Good nutrition and natural remedies

For story about Azerbaijan's Museum of Longevity

Halima Qanbarova is a young thing of 95. Her grandfather is said to have lived to 150, her father to 168, and her aunt to 130.

Kamilla Rzayeva

Qambarova’s day starts at dawn; she doesn’t let herself sleep in. “I get up as soon as my eyes open,” she says.

She spends the whole day working in the garden or around the house. Her room is small, with a thick soft carpet and pillows on the floor. Many people here prefer sleeping on the ground, with just a thin blanket instead of a mattress, as it’s believed to be the healthiest way to rest the back.

Contrary to popular belief, the centenarians of Lerik do eat meat, but they inherited a preference for fresh dairy products such as shor (cottage cheese), butter, milk and the yoghurt drink ayran from earlier centenarians, for whom the abstinence from meat was more due to economic circumstance.

Qambarova’s daughter-in-law brings in a big plate with pears and apples from their garden and some aromatic tea.

It’s herbal, floral and refreshing. Back at the museum, the guide shows a table with the various herbs native to Lerik.

“The secret of long life is good nutrition, the minerals in the spring water and the herbs that we add to tea to prevent illnesses, so people don’t have to take any medicine, only using the natural remedies,” says the guide. Indeed, Qambarova insists she’s never taken any medication.

Generations living side by side

Beyond her windows, it may seem that the village is quiet and still. But the physical work that villagers put in every day is immense. From sunrise until sunset they work in gardens and fields as well as around the house. They sew and knit and take care of big families.

Such was the lifestyle of Mammadkhan Abbasov, a 103-year-old from Jangamiran village. Sitting on the carpet, across from the window, the centenarian has almost completely lost his sight and can barely hear his son telling him that guests have arrived, but when he finally catches it, he starts singing, offering prayers and good wishes.

At Abbasov’s side is his great grandson — a century gap between them.

Just like Qambarova, Abbasov has been a busy villager his whole life, working in the fields until about seven years ago, when his vision deteriorated.

‘Whatever God gives’

For story about Azerbaijan's Museum of Longevity

Lerik is testament to the benefits of fresh mountain air.

Kamilla Rzayeva

“He has always been a good man and lived his life properly,” his son says.

In terms of food, he eats “whatever God gives” with just one restriction — he never drinks alcohol.

Abbasov attributes his long life to daily physical activity, not to the point of exhaustion, but enough to challenge the body.

Along with the good nutrition from the farm products, he also used to drink liters of ice-cold spring water, which is rich with minerals said to contribute to longevity.

The headache-inducing altitudes of mountains may also be a factor.

The ages of some of these celebrated centenarians may still be disputed, but here in Lerik their legacy lives on through the people that still abide by the simple secret of Lerik’s longevity: physical activity, good nutrition, lots of water and an attitude to life that says: We only live once, but if we do it right, once is enough.

Museum of Longevity, 22 A.Asadullayev street, Lerik, Azerbaijan; (025) 274-47-11

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Fine dining in Budapest: How the city has become a culinary force

(CNN) — While Budapest may be primarily known for its architecture, geothermal springs and communist heritage, the city’s gastronomy scene has been gaining considerable travel attention in recent years.

New and exciting fine dining spots are constantly opening up in the Hungarian capital, many headed up by prolific chefs keen to inject imagination and prestige into the Budapest dining experience.

Two restaurants in the Hungarian capital were awarded new Michelin stars in the past 12 months alone, bringing the total of Michelin-awarded establishments in Budapest to six.

Hungary only received its first Michelin star nine years ago, so this is a pretty remarkable turnaround.

There’s little doubt a culinary revolution is underway in the “Pearl of the Danube,” but what’s brought about this burgeoning movement?

Record numbers of tourists and a booming economy have definitely played a part.

With Hungary’s difficult past well documented, it’s fair to say that fine dining hasn’t necessarily been a high priority for locals haunted by Communist austerity.

“Hungary was always a pretty poor country,” explains Hungarian food critic Andras Jokuti. “So the main goal of Hungarian cuisine was to stay alive. It was very important to have lots of proteins and carbs — it was based around potato and meat.”

Culinary movement

Miguel Vieira at Budapest restaurant Costes tells CNN Travel what makes great, creative cuisine.

Shifting this perception has been a lengthy process, which continues today. However, the tide is definitely turning.

Portuguese chef Miguel Rocha Vieira believes this is partly due to good quality produce becoming more readily available in the country during the past decade.

“We’d have to buy butter from abroad [before] because there was no good quality butter here,” he tells CNN.

“Everything is completely different now.”

Vieira heads up Costes, based in Raday Street, and was at the restaurant’s helm when it became the first in the country to earn a Michelin star back in 2010.

He produces modern takes on classic Hungarian dishes, serving up four to seven-course set menus with various wine pairings.

Jokuti feels that Vieira injected life into the dining scene by merging both Hungarian and Portuguese influences into his dishes early on.

“When Miguel arrived in Budapest, it was like the very beginning of the fine dining story in Hungary,” he says.

Vieira admits he knew little about Hungarian cuisine when he came to the country all those years ago and was often “hammered by critics.”

“My cooking has changed a lot,” he adds. “Now I can tell you proudly that my stamp is in the food.”

“One of the biggest compliments we can have here is if somebody says, ‘I felt this dinner had personality.”

While Vieira tries to incorporate Hungarian traditions in his dishes, this isn’t the “ultimate goal” and he certainly doesn’t have Michelin stars in mind while in the kitchen.

“I always say to the boys, ‘We should cook for ourselves. We should do what we believe.’ It’s not about cooking for awards,” he adds. “It’s not looking for stars or for recognition.

“That’s the cherry on top of the cake. But that’s not why we work 14, 15 or 16 hours a day.”

Modern interpretations

Chef Tamas Szell from Budapest restaurant Stand on his modern interpretations of traditional Hungarian dishes.

Hungarian chef Tamas Szell has been credited with putting Hungarian food on the map back in 2016, when his modern interpretations of the country’s traditional dishes won him the gold medal at the prestigious ‘Bocuse D’or Europe’ competition.

Szell and co-chef Szabina Szulló head up the kitchen at Stand, which was awarded its first Michelin star this March, has a similar approach to cooking to Vieira.

“Food is the best communication between a chef and the guests,” Szell tells CNN.

“Hopefully our dishes contain the sweet memories from childhood. When I cook a dish, it should be acceptable to both our grandmothers and a Michelin inspector. This is the most difficult [part] I think.”

Stand opened in Budapest in 2018 following the success of market hall bistro Stand25, which Szell and Szulló also ran together.

“My inspirations definitely come from my childhood,” he adds. “My mother had a saying, ‘we are poor but we are living well’.”

Szell says his fisherman’s soup, which contains carp, paprika, water and tiny ravioli type pasta known as deraya in Hungary, is the second most popular soup after goulash.

“When I was a child, my mother often made it this way,” he explains.

Szell’s dishes appear to be having the desired impact. Stand, based on Székely Mihály street, has been a big hit since it launched.

In fact, Jokuti describes it as the “the perfect Hungarian restaurant,” praising the inventive way Szell manages to tone down the richness of traditional Hungarian cuisine.

“This, I think, is his biggest achievement. To somehow recreate the traditions into something modern,” says Jokuti.

Szell sources his dairy products from a tiny farm just outside Budapest, which supplies to a handful of fine dining restaurants in the city.

Within 48 hours of the milk leaving the cow’s udder, it’s being served up back at Stand in the form of cottage cheese,

“I think the ingredients are the most important thing,” adds Szell. “The good ingredients always try to find the chef and the chef always tries to find the best ingredients.”

Find out why Budapest restaurant Babel is a unique feature of the city’s culinary scene.

Situated in Budapest’s downtown, Babel is one of the most recent restaurants in the city to be awarded a Michelin star.

It’s relatively small, with around a dozen tables, exposed brick walls and dim lighting, offering an intimate dining experience.

Inspired by Hungarian traditions and the Romanian region of Transylvania, chef Istvan Veres presents five to 10 course tasting menus containing simple ingredients such as nettle or lichen.

Veres says cooking is an “obsession” rather than a passion for him, describing how he’ll often dream about a dish and then attempt to bring it to life the very next day.

“In fine dining, you have to do something special, something unique,” he says.”You put your soul on the plate.”

“I’m never scared about new things.”

According to Jokuti, it’s this fearlessness that makes Veres such a trailblazing chef.

“Istvan’s taste is not that easy to follow,” says Jokuti. “I love to go to Babel because I’m always surprised.”

Basic ingredients

Budapest restaurant Salt

Salt is tipped to become the next Budapest restaurant to receive a Michelin star.

Courtesy Salt Budapest

Hoping to repeat the success of Stand, Babel and Costes, is new dining establishment Salt, which has only been open since October.

It’s run by chef Szilard Toth and manager Mate Boldizsar, who often serve up the dishes to diners themselves.

Toth regularly goes foraging for produce in the Hungarian countryside, coming back with all types of edible delights.

“We find so many basic ingredients that an average chef does not really see very often,” Toth tells CNN.

“This means we can introduce a world of flavors for our food — amazing flavor pairings that can’t be found anywhere else.”

The chef’s table is positioned in the middle of the restaurant, so diners can wander over to ask questions about the dishes, or just watch Toth and his team in action.

Dishes are presented simply — some don’t even require cutlery — and customers can opt for a Hungarian wine pairing menu to complement their meal.

The team at Salt pride themselves on transforming basic produce into fine dining and the restaurant is filled with jars containing fermented or pickled items found in the forest.

“We have a course called greasy bread,” says Boldizsar. ” In its original form, it’s a very, very simple dish.

“Just a piece of bread with some fat. We put some bacon on it, some caviar and some lambskin.”

Only time will tell whether Salt will gain a coveted Michelin star, but the restaurant does seem to be winning over may diners in the short time it’s been around for.

“I think he [Toth] shows that it’s possible to create a very hedonistic, but still very modern meal from sometimes humble, but very Hungarian ingredients,” says Jokuti.

A restaurant like Salt would have seemed inconceivable in the Hungarian capital a few years ago.

Its emergence is a clear indication of the adventurous direction the city’s culinary scene is currently moving in.

“It’s really fascinating to witness these times in Hungarian cuisine,” says Jokuti.

“I’m traveling a lot, visiting the world’s best restaurants. It’s amazing to see that I can come home and eat at these fine restaurants.

“It’s not like, ‘Okay, it’s not so good, but it’s at least it’s Hungarian.’

“It can be a pleasure, it can be an excitement. We have achieved a very fantastic level.”

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Fairmont Baku in Baku’s Flame Towers: One of the world’s tallest hotels

Editor’s Note — CNN Travel’s series often carry sponsorship originating from the countries and regions we profile. However, CNN retains full editorial control over all of its reports. Read the policy.
(CNN) — From traditional souks, mosques and UNESCO World Heritage sites, to futuristic skyscrapers, Baku, capital of Azerbaijan, offers an eclectic mix of old and new.

Among the most startling additions to the modern skyline are the Flame Towers, a trio of sky-high structures that resemble tongues of fire reaching high over the Caspian Sea.

Designed by US architecture firm HOK, and with Tower 1 standing at 182 meters, they’re the tallest buildings in Azerbaijan.

And visitors can stay in them — one building’s residential, one is for office use, while the third, the 165-meter-tall Fairmont Baku, is a contemporary five-star hotel.

Enter the flame

The towers can be seen from almost anywhere in the city, but night is when they truly come alive. Orange, red and pink LED lights dance across the towers like burning flames.

For some in Baku, they’re now a symbol of home.

“You can see Flame Towers as you fly into the airport, lit up with multicolored lights and shining the way,” fashion designer and media professional Nina Zandnia tells CNN Travel. “They’re the sign that lets everybody know they’ve reached Azerbaijan.”

So what’s it like to stay in one of the country’s most familiar landmarks? It’s certainly no ordinary hotel.

The bold, sometimes bombastic statements begin with the dramatic exterior and keep going all the way inside.

The venue’s seven-story lobby is dominated by an extravagant chandelier, using five kilometers of strands, decorated with 840 lights and more than 600,000 crystal beads, and weighing a whopping two metric tons.

Taking pride of place below is a limited edition black and red Fazioli, one of the most expensive pianos in the world. The M Liminal, designed by NYT Line and Philippe Gendre, was purportedly accompanied Nigar Jamal and Eldar Gasimov in the performance that took Azerbaijan to victory in the 2011 edition of the annual Eurovision song contest.

Guests shouldn’t expect to hear it used in any casual jam sessions, it’s now only played by top pianists on special occasions.

Come evening, the Flame Towers put on a light show enjoyed across the city.

Come evening, the Flame Towers put on a light show enjoyed across the city.

Courtesy Fairmont Baku

Sea views

The tower is home to more than 300 rooms, suites and serviced apartments, that range in price from $170 to upwards of $5,000 a night.

Even the most basic offer ceiling-to-floor windows and sumptuously large double beds. The décor is a contemporary luxury mix, with plush carpets and modern furniture. Spacious and comfortable, each room in the hotel either looks out over the city or across the bay into the sea.

Crisp and glamorous as it is, it does have an edge of corporate blandness that falls short of the regal vibes felt, for example, in the nearby Four Seasons.

A typical one-bedroom suite on the 17th floor offers views of the Caspian Sea and, if eligible, access to the Fairmont Gold lounge on the 19th floor, which comes with a private check-in area and concierge service.

The super-fast elevator to the 17th opens onto a spectacular landing with views across the bay. Once inside the suite, there’s a lobby area, are more jaw-dropping views, an office-slash-dining room, with wooden desk and a four-seater dining table.

Then there’s a generous, richly carpeted lounge with an oversized sofa and jazzy signature chair. The separate bedroom has a huge king-sized bed. There’s an enormous walk-in closet stacked with hangers, drawers and laundry essentials that leads into a large bathroom complete with bath and shower room.

In both of the suite’s two bathrooms, there are bespoke toiletries — yes, your name is printed on the shampoo, moisturizer and conditioner bottle. It’s a souvenir just asking to be taken home.

Fairmont Baku, Flame Towers, Baku, Azerbaijan. Five-star hotel

Fairmont Gold: There are panoramic views from the 19th floor.

Courtesy Fairmont Baku

The royal suite

Nice touches, but does the hotel have celeb appeal? Yes, says, Zumrud Ismayilova, the hotel’s PR and marketing manager. Names are not named, but the list apparently includes leaders, royals and celebrities.

“We have had many VIP guests stay at the hotel, but we would never disclose who they are,” she tells CNN Travel. “When our guests come to stay with us, they expect privacy and confidentiality and that is exactly what we give them.”

Positioned at the very tip of the flame, the Royal Suite offers panoramic views of both city and sea. There are two bedrooms, both with en suite bathrooms, a lounge, private dining room, study, a guest bathroom, a kitchen and a grand hallway with chandelier — 375 square meters (4,036 square feet) of living space in total.

“The VIP or family will stay in the suite, but the rest of their party tends to take over the entire floor. We have additional rooms for security and staff, and a suite for extra family members,” explains Ismayilova.

There’s an open-plan living area, private study, a dining room fit for for 12 or more guests and a fully equipped kitchen (for the servants, of course). But the main attraction is the grand en suite bathroom with a vast oyster-shaped bath complete with window view over the bay.

Wellness

The hotels amenities are a mixed bag. There’s an elegant spa spread over two floors of the hotel with indoor pool, sauna, hot tub, hammam and spaces to unwind. There’s also a fully equipped gym.

The beautifully designed Sky Garden allows guests the luxury of relaxing on the sundeck or taking advantage of the poolside sauna while looking out at the sea. There’s an S-shaped rooftop pool and outdoor bar, which look better from a distance than close up.

It’s best visited come evening. When the sun’s up, the towers reflect the sun and magnify its heat, making this area a frying pan.

Food and entertainment

As you’d hope from a fancy hotel inside one of the country’s biggest landmarks, the main Le Bistro restaurant offers an array of local Azerbaijani wines and delicacies. The Balcon café offers specialty teas and cakes, as well as sushi in the afternoons.

There’s also the Nur lounge which is a funky setting serving cocktails and snacks, and is a good pre-drinks site to soak in the atmosphere before moving onto the hotel’s Jazz Club, a local institution.

“We always recommend people to check out the Jazz Club after 9 p.m., because that’s when it really gets going. It’s very popular with both the hotel guests and the locals, and we always offer something new to keep people entertained,” Ismayilova says.

There are two things that most hotels are unable to provide — a shopping mall and cinema. Fairmont Flame Towers offers both.

Park Cinema provides guests (and members of the public) with six screens, including IMAX, showing the latest Arabic, English and Russian language films.

Next door is the Flame Towers Shopping Mall, due for completion in early 2020. Luxury brands, high street names, cafes and restaurants are all set to take up residency.

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The ‘Land of Fire’ has been burning for 4,000 years

Editor’s Note — Editor’s Note — CNN Travel’s series often carry sponsorship originating from the countries and regions we profile. However, CNN retains full editorial control over all of its reports. Read the policy.

(CNN) — “This fire has burned 4,000 years and never stopped,” says Aliyeva Rahila. “Even the rain coming here, snow, wind — it never stops burning.”

Ahead, tall flames dance restlessly across a 10-meter stretch of hillside, making a hot day even hotter.

This is Yanar Dag — meaning “burning mountainside” — on Azerbaijan‘s Absheron Peninsula, where Rahila works as a tour guide.

A side effect of the country’s plentiful natural gas reserves, which sometimes leak to the surface, Yanar Dag is one of several spontaneously occurring fires to have fascinated and frightened travelers to Azerbaijan over the millennia.

Venetian explorer Marco Polo wrote of the mysterious phenomena when he passed through the country in the 13th century. Other Silk Road merchants brought news of the flames as they would travel to other lands.

It’s why the country earned the moniker the “land of fire.”

Ancient religion

Such fires were once plentiful in Azerbaijan, but because they led to a reduction of gas pressure underground, interfering with commercial gas extraction, most have been snuffed out.

Yanar Dag is one of the few remaining examples, and perhaps the most impressive.

At one time they played a key role in the ancient Zoroastrian religion, which was founded in Iran and flourished in Azerbaijan in the first millennium BCE.

For Zoroastrians, fire is a link between humans and the supernatural world, and a medium through which spiritual insight and wisdom can be gained. It’s purifying, life-sustaining and a vital part of worship.

Today, most visitors who arrive at the no-frills Yanar Dag visitors’ center come for the spectacle rather than religious fulfillment.

The experience is most impressive at night, or in winter. When snow falls, the flakes dissolve in the air without ever touching the ground, says Rahila.

Despite the claimed antiquity of the Yanar Dag flames — some argue that this particular fire may only have been ignited in the 1950s — it’s a long 30-minute drive north from the center of Baku just to see it. The center offers only a small cafe and there’s not much else in the area.

Ateshgah Fire Temple

For a deeper insight into Azerbaijan’s history of fire worship, visitors should head east of Baku to Ateshgah Fire Temple.

“Since ancient times, they think that [their] god is here,” says our guide, as we enter the pentagonal complex which was built in the 17th and 18th century by Indian settlers in Baku.

Fire rituals at this site date back to the 10th century or earlier. The name Ateshgah comes from the Persian for “home of fire” and the centerpiece of the complex is a cupola-topped altar shrine, built upon a natural gas vent.

A natural, eternal flame burned here on the central altar until 1969, but these days the fire is fed from Baku’s main gas supply and is only lit for visitors.

The temple is associated with Zoroastrianism but it’s as a Hindu place of worship that its history is better documented.

Merchants and ascetics

Built like a caravanserai-style travelers’ inn, the complex has a walled courtyard surrounded by 24 cells and rooms.

These were variously used by pilgrims, passing merchants (whose donations were a vital source of income) and resident ascetics, some of whom submitted themselves to ordeals such as lying on caustic quicklime, wearing heavy chains, or keeping an arm in one position for years on end.

The temple fell out of use as a place of worship in the late 19th century, at a time when the development of the surrounding oil fields meant that veneration of Mammon was gaining a stronger hold.

The complex became a museum in 1975, was nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998, and today welcomes around 15,000 visitors a year.

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Daunte Wright’s mother, Katie Bryant, says she’s thankful for the guilty verdicts against ex-officer Kim Potter

“Justice would be Daunte being home. Justice would be no more names being yelled in our streets. And (when) that happens and we don’t have to fight anymore, that’s when true justice will be,” Wright’s mother, Katie Bryant, told CNN’s Erica Hill on “New Day” Friday.

“But right now, we’re going to accept accountability, and we’re thankful for that.”

Potter, 49, had pleaded not guilty to the charges in connection with the April 11 shooting in Brooklyn Center, near Minneapolis.

Bryant was asked Friday what she wanted people to know about Wright, who was a father to a toddler.

“Daunte was my son. He had a smile that would light up the room. He was a father. He was — he had his whole life ahead of him. And he was taken too soon, and we weren’t able to see what he was going to become,” Bryant said.

“And we were left with memories, but they were amazing memories.”

She was also asked what she would tell her grandson about his dad.

“That his dad is a part of history. And his name won’t be forgotten, and that he loved him,” Bryant said.

She said she is hopeful that Potter’s sentence will be fair.

The maximum penalty for first-degree manslaughter predicated on reckless use/handling of a firearm is 15 years in prison. Since Potter, 49, has no criminal history, Minnesota sentencing guidelines recommend a sentence roughly between 6 and 8.5 years in prison.

“No amount of time is going to be justice for us,” Bryant said. “But I am … optimistic that they’re going to do the right thing and give her a fair sentence.”

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