By Rory Winston
A new world was about to begin as a millennium came to a close. A dare-to-dream generation of young cosmopolitans anticipated great change. Having been born into relatively multicultural societies – ones wherein paradigm shifts in both science and lifestyle were occurring on a near daily basis – many hankered for sociopolitical reform. It was assumed that an all out artistic renaissance awaited society; while enormous cultural changes were just around the corner. Of course, ‘the corner’ being alluded to in this case was not the year 2000 but 1898; likewise, the Millennials in question are not Generation Y but the former residents of the great city of Budapest who eagerly anticipated the 1000th anniversary of the Hungarian nation.
As a recent member of the formidable Austro-Hungarian Empire, Hungary’s capital was set to host the most massive expo ever seen – one slated to include the first electrified underground metro on the entire European Continent, dazzling technological wonders, hitherto unseen illuminated fountains, a newly constructed bridge, two major museums – one for applied arts, the other a majestic Hall for fine Art – as well as the first large scaled luxury hotel on the most impressive avenue of the inner city. Located on the ever-burgeoning Grand Boulevard, the Grand Hotel Royal boasted its very own post office, bank, hairdresser, ticket office, two highly distinct gourmet restaurants, a café, confectionary and private dining rooms. As over 5,800,000 people flocked to Budapest to attend the millennial celebrations, the posh hotel that today goes under the moniker of Corinthia Hotel Budapest became an instant hit with both the international cognoscenti as well as the local gentry and royals.
By 1903, guests of the hotel were given direct access to one of Budapest’s most opulent spas. Christened nearly a full decade before the hotel was established, this hidden gem of lattice-like inlays embellished in gold evoked the monarchy in both tone and exclusivity.
With a majestic blue swimming pool coursing through the hidden chamber like an artery, and Jacuzzis, steam baths, saunas and treatment rooms punctuating each corner, the Spa is a brilliant addition to the cornucopia of comfort that is Corinthia.
The renowned 5 star luxury hotel – recipient of the World Travel Award, Condé Nast award, the Traveler’s choice award for Top Hotel and Romance category – is far more than a sentimental paean to a lost era. Beyond her French Renaissance façade, the Belle Époque masterpiece elicits a singular sensibility – one born of an unapologetic time where shameless ambition, flamboyance and sheer hopefulness reigned. It was a generation that stared through the future’s window and saw a 1900 unfettered by illness, oppression and want. Theirs was a zeitgeist that could never have imagined the destruction that two world wars would soon engender.
Although the more recent multimillion-dollar restoration revives the past with recherché furnishings, fine tapestries, rich décor, and ornate asides, it is the hotel’s approach to lifestyle and ambience that resuscitates the grandeur of the prewar era. Sipping an ever expanding range of Hungarian sparkling wines, I was amazed by just how finely developed regional vineyards there were when compared to even the finest in authentic Champagnes. More than that, there was a level of generosity I felt surpassed all luxury counterparts world over. It was almost as if success hinged upon patrons being able to lose themselves in hedonistic rapture. Such lack of consideration to time and expense was especially rare in a venue where there were no incurred costs beyond the stay.
At Corinthia’s executive lounge not only did the wine flow freely at all hours of the day but the insouciance was contagious. Light lunches, gourmet tidbits, canapés, and tapas-like specialties… all freely available whenever the fancy should strike. With wines, beers, aged whiskeys, cognacs, liquors and even cocktails all on the house, the Corinthia feels less like a hotel than a stay at your very own palace.
Reinterpreting Art Nouveau within a contemporary context, the suites and rooms eschew faux historicity in favor of emotional accuracy. After all, those who first stayed at the hotel in the early 1900’s were not embarking upon a nostalgic trip down ‘national memory lane’, but taking the most lavish and contemporary vacation of their lives. With state-of-the-art amenities, newly implanted timber floors and mirrored walls, 24-inch LCD, personalized temperature control, heated bathroom floors, massage level showers and baths, a Nespresso coffee maker in each room as well as custom designed trappings with expansive beds and emotive lighting, each spacious suite is a portal into a parallel universe.
As a timeless centerpiece to the bustling city that surrounds her, Corinthia has played host to generations of geniuses. From Béla Bartók to Josephine Baker to Ella Fitzgerald, Jehudi Menuhin and Andrew Lloyd Weber… many greats have traversed her palatial courtyard. While more recent guests included Sean Connery, Isabella Rossellini, Catherine Deneuve, and Jose Carreras, it is not hard to imagine just how much this property influenced those like Wes Anderson whose film Grand Budapest Hotel overtly mimicked Corinthia’s chocolate box aesthetics. The hotel’s historical ties with film dated back to the very inception of cinema. Shortly after presenting their invention in Paris, it was here that the Lumière brothers screened their work to a foreign audience for the first time. Years later, the hotel would convert an area of the ballroom into the Apollo theater (in later Soviet times, Red Star Theater) – one of the most important film houses in a country whose commitment to cinema furnished Hollywood with everything from studio executives to academy awarded directors, cinematographers and actors.
By way of illustrating Corinthia’s regal past, imagine a hotel whose history includes a Poet in Residence. That the nationally celebrated Endre Ady lived in Corinthia for months on end, free of charge, is a testament to the values of this institution. In an attempt to keep such tradition in tact, the Corinthia has Royal Residencies for long-term guests who desire fully equipped kitchens and homelike conveniences. Walking through the Grand Ballroom with its Italian limestone, Spanish marble, South African carpets and Slovakian furniture, one is quickly reminded that Hungary had once been an expansive kingdom whose bounty flowed into its capital.
Sitting under the transparent soaring ceilings of the Atrium, I indulge in a final champagne breakfast. With fine cheeses, fruits, smoked fishes and warm dishes around me, I realize the poet Ady was right after all: “We are never on time with success, our dreams, our heaven, our embrace. We are the men who are always late”. Perhaps the twentieth century – the one imagined by those living in 1896 – would only now be arriving. Late…? Certainly; but, at least, it would arrive with all its grandeur and glory in tact… It would arrive as we had initially dreamt it: warm, ambitious, and – like Corinthia – with its head forever in the clouds. Corinthia was the true Millennial – the one born hundreds of years too soon.
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