Saturday, 15 March 2014

A bag of lost jewels discovered on the peak of Mont Blanc

It's a plot line that wouldn't be out of place in a Tintin comic, a French mayor, an Alpine climber, a historian, a wealthy Jewish stone merchant from London, and their tenuous connections to a bag of lost jewels discovered on the peak of Mont Blanc. The trail begins early on 24 January 1966, as Air India Flight 101 starts its descent towards Geneva Airport. The pilot had miscalculated the aircraft's altitude and the Boeing 707 was heading directly for the summit of Mont Blanc, France's highest mountain. All 117 people on board were killed as the plane crashed. "It made a huge crater in the mountain," a mountain guide who was first to reach the scene was quoted as saying. "Everything was completely pulverised. Nothing was identifiable except for a few letters and packets."

Various rescue attempts to recover bodies and debris were called off because of bad weather on the summit. Many remnants from the aircraft, including a bag of diplomatic mail and a wheel hub, have been gathered in the years since the tragedy, but pieces of twisted metal still lie in the peak's nooks and crannies. Diplomatic bag reading 'Diplomatic mail' and 'Ministry of external affairs' belonging to the Indian Government was found at the Bossons Glacier, near the Mont Blanc in the French Alps, on August 21, 2012. Copy of the Hindustan Times Weekly was discovered by French aviation collector Daniel Roche A copy of the Hindustan Times Weekly, dated 1966 in 2008. It took half a century, however, for the crash site to reveal its biggest secret.

Among the burning wreckage that was scattered across a glacier, a small case packed full of 100 precious emeralds, sapphires and rubies was flung through the air and swallowed into the ice. The box, which two families are claiming had their name embossed into the side, sank into the glacier, only reappearing 47 years later clutched in the hands of a local climber as he strolled into the local gendarmerie. The gendarmes heralded the climber's decision not to keep his find, with an estimated value of 246,000 euros (£205,000). "You can see, he is very honest," said chief gendarme Sylvain Merly. "He was a mountaineer… and he didn't want to keep something that belonged to someone who'd died."

Merly took the jewels straight to the mayor of Chamonix, who stored them in a vault below the town hall until the media were told. When the story came to light, journalists began to scramble for more details, at one point printing a photo of a mountain guide, Stephane Dan, with what appeared to be the jewels in front of him. In fact they were stones he snapped from gullies and sold for 20 euros each. "It could have been me who found the real thing," he laments. "I climb all summer, collecting the best pieces of mineral to sell. I found many pieces of the aeroplane. I once found wheels. I found a special bottle used for coffee with Air India written on it. I even found the altimeter used for the plane." Stephane Dan and Alexandre Pittin find a piece of quartz in a cavity in La Dent du Geant, Mont Blanc Stephane Dan and a fellow mountaineer search for quartz on Mont Blanc.

Bizarrely, this was the second Air India crash in the same area. Sixteen years earlier another plane, a Constellation known as the Malabar Princess, had gone down on the mountain, also on its approach to Geneva. So the wreckage of two aircraft is scattered over the area. Dan said the local rumour was that the climber who discovered the bag of jewels was from Bourg-Saint Maurice, a village three hours' drive from Chamonix. "We all heard it was happening, but it was a mystery. Now we know it was a real, but even I don't know who it was." Sylvain Merly said he was no longer allowed to discuss the story with journalists. "It's so French, this story," says Francoise Rey, a local historian and author of Crash au Mont Blanc, a book about the two Air India accidents. "You ask to see the stones and they send you a photo of them in a bag." An acquaintance of the mayor, Rey went to lunch with him and sat discussing a viewing of the treasure. But she, like so many others, drew a blank.

Rey is convinced that the mayor and the climber struck a 50-50 deal long before they told journalists about the jewels' existence. Under French law, there is a window of two years, she says. "If no owner is found by then, one half will go to the Mayor of Chamonix and the other half goes to the climber. I am quite sure they are interested in keeping the stones and that they will do nothing whatsoever to help the families or the owner to prove they are theirs." Fournier downplayed the allure of the jewels, she says, to dampen her interest. "He told me the stones are not so beautiful, and voila. They played the game that they were more embarrassed with them than happy, that's the impression they wanted to give." Fournier, who is currently campaigning for local elections, was not available to answer questions, so Bouquin spoke on his behalf. "The suggestion we struck a deal is completely mad. There is no deal. We don't even know who found the stones. There is a law and a procedure that must be followed, and that is all."

Back in 1990, while Rey was researching her book, she was given access to a criminal dossier compiled by the local court of Bonneville, which contained many of the documents collated after the accident. Looking through her notes, Mrs Rey made an amazing discovery. Annotated within the pages are the details of an insurance document making a claim for lost jewels destined for one man, who lived in London. She had taken down the name of the family: Issacharoff. Unfortunately, though, she failed to write down the claimant's initial. "I saw the letter. I don't have it, but I saw it. I have written in my notes the name of the person who was waiting for the stones in London. I am sure there are many more details in this letter. The main thing to do is to go back to find this letter. But this is proving very difficult."

Since the dossier will not be opened to the public for 75 years, gaining access to the archive means a lengthy application process, one that Rey has only just began. How long it will take, she says, she doesn't know. A quick internet search reveals the Issacharoff family to be one of the largest, oldest stone merchants in the UK. A family business started by the Russian-Jewish family in 1930, the Issacharoffs have become the largest coloured-stone importers in the country. I call them on the telephone. "The parcel is ours," Avi Issacharoff, head of Henig Diamonds, says instantly. "Please come to our offices and I will talk you through the details."

A diminutive, black-suited businessman, Avi is found behind various armoured doors, in the depths of the diamond district of London's Hatton Garden. He says he can recall his father talking about the accident, and the family's collective relief that no relatives were on the plane when it hit the mountain. Normally when the family made a purchase of this size, one of them would go to pick it up in person, he says. Grandson of Ruben and son of David, Avi is third in a line of directors of the business. His father, while still alive, suffers from dementia and can no longer recall the exact details. "We consulted our lawyers, but they told us we had no chance. We don't have records dating back 50 years. The only way we can prove the parcel was ours is that we know our name would have been written on the package."

The London-based Issacharoff family are not the only claimants to the jewels. Another set of Issacharoffs from Spain, no relation, but apparently also stone merchants, are reportedly approaching the French authorities in an attempt to gain access to the letter that Francoise Rey speaks about. Bouquin, of the Mayor's office, says he has seen the packaging in which the stones were found, but it is not necessarily possible to make out a name from it. "Maybe we might be able to identify the name on the parcel, but it is very hard to see. It has been 50 years beneath the ice."

Friday, 14 March 2014

Best of zakir naik

World's most beautiful swimming pools

The world’s first public swimming pool to-date, the needle of the global compass points at Mohenjo-Daro, a remarkably advanced city built around 2,600BC in the Indus Valley in Pakistan. Abandoned just 700 years later, it lay buried until its rediscovery in 1922. The pool may have been a public bath, yet for thousands of years, public baths and swimming pools have often been one and the same thing. A touch ironically, the city and its pool, located in what is Pakistan today, appear to have vanished in a great flood.

The most impressive public swimming pool built in recent years is surely the Aquatics Centre, designed by Zaha Hadid for the London 2012 Olympics. This beautiful, wave-like concrete, glass and timber-ceilinged building open to the public and to the evident delight of thousands of schoolchildren from the east of the city who have had very few places to swim locally until now. A fear of water, and even a fear of personal hygiene, held back the development of public baths and swimming pools in many countries until very recently. In fact, the modern craving for pools really only began with the re-invention of the Olympic Games, held in Athens, in 1896. From then on, towns and cities of advanced nations appeared to vie with one another to see which could build the best and most opulent pools.

Naturally, the burghers and architects of such towns and cities turned to Ancient Rome for precedence and guidance, for the greatest bathing and swimming complexes were built under the direction of extravagant Roman emperors. The Baths of Caracalla, dating from the early 3rd Century and those of Diocletian, from around a century later, must have been stunning places to visit. Featuring hot and cold pools, spas, gyms, restaurants, libraries and fecund walled gardens and designed in the very grandest of architectural styles, these vast buildings were open to everyone. They were at the heart of the imperial Roman policy of ‘bread and circuses’: keeping the people docile by lavishing them with free food and popular entertainment.

Today, lucky bathers taking a dip in the exquisite underground pool of the distinctly private RAC Club in London’s Pall Mall, do so in surroundings that, although built and decorated shortly before World War I, recall those hedonistic days of Roman bathing. British cities up and down the country invested in ambitious public baths at much the same time as the palatial Royal Automobile Club was on the drawing boards of Mewes and Davies, among England’s finest Edwardian architects, and best known perhaps for London’s Ritz Hotel. They went on to design Pompeian style swimming pools for ocean liners during the heyday of these imperious floating palaces.

Grand, architect-designed baths can be found around the world, ranging from the magnificently austere to the decoratively decadent and overwhelmingly kitsch. One of the most gloriously grand baths can be found in the Art Nouveau-style Gellert Hotel in Budapest, rising from the site of an ancient thermal spring. The baths, completed in 1918, stayed open throughout the turmoil of World War II and, though the hotel itself was rather run down during the Cold War years, the baths remained as opulent as they had ever been, a steamy, watery realm in which hotel guests and the public alike could forget, for a few hours at a time, that they lived under the yoke of Russia.

One of the most remarkable public pools of all time, the world’s largest, could once be found in the very heart of the Russia. This was the deeply curious open pool lapping in the foundations of what was to have been the Palace of the Soviets in central Moscow, a monumental congress hall, taller than the Empire State Building, that was to have been topped by a 100m statue of Lenin. The site of the proposed building, designed by Boris Iofan, was that of the 19th Century Orthodox Cathedral of Christ the Saviour: on Stalin’s orders, this was blown up in December 1931. The palace was never built, while the pool remained open until work began on an identical replacement for the desecrated cathedral in 1995. So here was a ghostly architectural pool, where swimmers could imagine the immense bulk of either the Palace of Soviets or the Orthodox cathedral above their heads as they gazed at the Moscow skyline, heads in the snow, bodies in warm water.

Also in the focus is the elemental beauty of the Thermal Baths at Vals in Switzerland. Designed by Peter Zumthor, and opened in 1996, this dream-like spa is built into the landscape like some strange, yet enchanting geological outcrop. Its dark, locally quarried stone walls gleaming with quartz, form a series of gently lit underground caverns. You negotiate these ethereal spaces before swimming up into an open pool with a view of snow-capped mountains. It is a truly sensational experience conjuring a feeling of near profound delight as opposed to the splashes, spills and thrills of many modern public and hotel pools decked out with all the latest, luridly coloured family fun flumes and scream-a-minute rides. 

The Thermae Baths Spa offers a very different view than that of the Swiss Alps, from its rooftop pool. Designed by Nicholas Grimshaw and opened in 2006, the ultra-modern and supremely sleek New Royal Bath is set within an architectural frame of restored 18th Century spa buildings. This ensemble works well, especially for swimmers popping up to find themselves outdoors on the roof of the new building and surrounded by the buildings of one of Europe’s finest historic city centres.

More discreet and easily overlooked by visitors to Helsinki is the city’s Yrjönkatu baths, its modest entrance tucked into a corner of a street in the looming shadow of the famous Torni Hotel where Cold War spies once swapped secrets, or so it’s fun to believe, as regulars dived into the waters of the city’s first public pool. Opened in 1928, the Yrjönkatu baths were designed by the architect Vaino Vahakallio in a confident 1920s neo-classical style, as simple as the Gellert Baths are ornate. Vahakallio was also the architect of the astonishing state-owned Alko distillery and brew house on the waterfront in Helsinki. Resembling a power station this, significantly or not, was Finland’s biggest building to date, offering citizens of a country squeezed with its back to the Baltic by the brute power of Stalin’s neighbouring Soviet Union, welcome solace in 1920, just as the Yrjönkatu baths had done in the 1920s, when prohibition kept Finland ‘dry’.

All great, architect-designed or architecture-related pools have offered something of these special sensory and tactile delights. From spick-and-span and slightly chilly 1930s English Lidos and ambitious structures designed for Olympic Games, to the loucheness and sensuality of Ancient Roman and Art Nouveau baths, public pools have been some of the most diverting of buildings, with Zaha Hadid’s alluring Aquatics Centre, emerging from a tangled, rough-and-ready patch of east London, only the latest in a long line stretching back through the Baths of Caracalla to that of Mohenjo-Daro, as dry as parchment today, 5,000 years late.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Mercedes-Benz C-Class

Despite a bracing jolt of available twin-turbo power, smoothness remains the dominant sensation of the all-new 2015 C-Class. With the petite, youth-baiting $30,825 CLA assuming the C-Class’ former place as the most painless entry to Benz ownership, the C has been freed to explore its real nature, adopting the style, features and technology once reserved for Mercedes’ priciest models. The C-Class’ stylistic explosion leaves the old version for dead. This may be the most striking, deluxe sedan at the entry-lux end of the market. It’s a beckoning mélange of arches, scallops, extrusions and creases, a guided tour of design cues from the flagship S-Class, the rakish CLA and every model in between.

The C-Class’ newfound swagger made France’s tony Côte d’Azur a logical test spot, with cliff-hung roads overlooking Mediterranean harbours peppered with bobbing yachts. The C-Class’ windswept cabin seems to sit a mile back from a classic, formidable hood. The more demure Luxury model is distinguished by a traditional star ornament atop the hood, with the Sport specification flaunting a fat, glittering star on its chesty grille. A third body style, Sport AMG, adopts a pair of dramatic, gulping front air inlets, tilted up like the wings of a bow tie. Available signature LED headlamp eyebrows glow in hot, Tron-like blue when doors are locked or unlocked, then switch to white when the car is in motion.

The cabin also comes on strong, drawing clear cues from the S-Class. Stretched 3.7 inches from the outgoing model and built on a three-inch longer wheelbase, the C-Class carves out welcome room in back and slims its front roof pillars for airier views. Overall weight drops by up to 220lbs, with aluminium forming 50% of the chassis, up from less than 10%. A robust, elliptical steering wheel (flat-bottomed when AMG trim is specified) fronts a pair of binocular-like bezels that house deep-set analogue gauges. A slim display screen stands like a billboard atop an uncluttered centre stack, with aircraft-style metal vents and rich finishes such as open-pore ash wood. (Skip the piano black, a fingerprint-catching design cliché). Sculpted seats are ribbed and muscular, available in striking maroon leather, with a powered thigh extender for another high-end touch.

The tablet-like centre screen and its myriad functions are managed by a new controller that resembles a Star Trek phaser cantilevered over Benz’ Comand rotary-control knob. The phaser portion is a console handrest with built-in touchpad that manages to improve on Audi’s standard-setting version, allowing not only letter, number or character entry with fingertip strokes, but access to screen menu functions as well. Digital realm notwithstanding, the C-Class essentially tries to steal anything from the S-Class that isn’t nailed down, including the Air Balancing system that wafts driver-selectable fragrances in the cabin. An optional Burmester audio system pumps rich sound through artful, laser-perforated speaker grilles.

Benz is proudly pushing its optional Intelligent Drive suite, priced at the same $2,800 as in the S- and E-Class. It harnesses sensors, laser, radar and stereoscopic cameras to offer semi-autonomous driving. Set the Distronic adaptive cruise control, and the Benz will actually steer itself along gentle curves, while controlling its own speed and brakes. The safety suite adds 360-degree camera views, lane-keeping and blind-spot functions, as well as Attention Assist’s drowsy-driver monitor and even fully automated braking at up to 124mph to avoid pedestrians. An active self-parking system is an option, along with a crystalline head-up display in the driver’s sight line. At a Michelin test facility in Salon de Provence, drivers were urged to try and smack both a “pedestrian” (actually a mannequin smartly outfitted in Mercedes gear) and a slow-rolling trailer capped with an inflatable, make-believe A-Class hatchback. Even with foot on gas and heart in throat (thumbing a text message would have completed the careless-driver scenario) the C-Class performed partial and then full-on braking, coming to a halt just short of danger. Those brakes, strong and sensitive in equal measure, are a performance high point.

Consumers with a greater stake in driver involvement will find the C-Class a high roller at heart: fast, professional but less athletically inclined than, a Cadillac ATS or BMW 3 Series. Our French expedition featured an international cast of C-Classes, but North America will initially see two versions by September. The all-wheel-drive C300 4Matic’s 2-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine will put out 241 horsepower and 273 pound-feet of torque. The C400 4Matic, meanwhile, plays a surprising twin-turbo trump card: an all-new 3-litre V6 engine with 329 horsepower and 354lb-ft of torque, both figures best-in-class. An 81-horse boost over the departing C300 4Matic and its 3.5-litre power plant. With its seven-speed, paddle-shifted automatic transmission, the C400 rushes from zero to 60mph in a manufacturer-estimated 5.4 seconds. Figure a mid-6 run to 60mph for the C300. Both models initially arrive with 4Matic all-wheel-drive only, but a rear-drive C300, whose superior handling balance should make it the enthusiasts’ choice.

Still, don’t dismiss the heady power of the twin-turbo C400. Several rips through the gears underscored the eager torque of its V6, and even shifting to fifth found it pulling with undiminished gusto. Free-spending hooligans should also mark calendars for spring 2015, when the C63 AMG is set to arrive. The speediest C-Class will drop its bellowing 6.2-litre V8 for a more fuel-efficient 4-litre bi-turbo unit, built from a conjoined pair of Mercedes’ 2-litre four-cylinders, that aims for well over 450hp. A C350 plug-in hybrid goes on sale in autumn 2015, but diesel fans in North America must wait until 2016 for a C250 Bluetec. The C-Class’ road-cushioning Airmatic air suspension represents another laudable leap. Not unlike the slippery CLA, the C-Class’s aerodynamics help create an impeccably quiet cabin, with the steering and ride aloof and isolated in big-Benz style. With the Agility Select switch, drivers can toggle through Eco, Comfort, Sport and Sport Plus settings for engine, transmission and steering, plus suspension, if you opt for Airmatic, represented by slick animated displays on the central screen.

But the car’s personality doesn’t change dramatically as a driver moves through settings. Many owners will likely set and forget the system, calling its usefulness and complexity into question. In all but Sport Plus mode, the Benz may feel too marshmallow-y for meatier tastes, with some unwanted body roll in turns and over rippling pavement. For all its gains, the C-Class remains a luxury car first and a sport sedan second. This upsized exercise in pampering will exact a slightly higher price over its predecessor, with the starting sticker for the C300 likely coming in near $38,000 and the C400 around $44,000. Luxury customers are discovering that a modestly sized sedan, SUV or even hatchback can address their needs and still boost their egos. For buyers who want S-Class styling, features and safety in a smaller Mercedes at half the price, the C-Class’ math definitely adds up

Important Factors

2015 Mercedes-Benz C-Class

 Base price: TBA

 Price as tested: TBA

 EPA fuel economy: TBA

 Powertrain: turbocharged 2-litre four-cylinder engine or twin-turbo 3-litre V6, seven-speed automatic transmission, 4Matic all-wheel drive

Standard equipment: 7in multimedia display, Comand multimedia system, automatic child-seat recognition

Major options: 8.4in multimedia display, Intelligent Drive package, Airmatic suspension, mbrace2 connectivity, Burmester audio system

Jumma hadees