The best coffee in Europe is Vienna coffee, compared to which other coffee is fluid poverty.Mark Twain
It’s said that retreating Ottoman soldiers left a few sacks of beans behind in the late 1600s, leaving an accidental ‘gift’ of coffee. The very first Viennese kaffeehaus was opened in 1685, and since then, these became rich cultural institutions. The coffee house has served coffee and become the backbone of Viennese life. The Viennese coffee shop is a place where you’re almost encouraged to linger. For the price of one cup of coffee (or one of the spectacular cakes and tarts that are such a mainstay in Vienna), locals browse newspapers and let the day unfold. Coffee is enjoyed, in a relaxed manner. I think that I must agree with Mark Twain’s sentiments, certainly based on our experiences across the continent. The Viennese are masters , which is counter intuitive as you expect the Italians to hold the mantle with the universally accepted espresso, cappuccino, affogato and macchiato. These are not seen in the kaffeehaus. A Wiener could begin his day at the coffeehouse, or swing by after lunch for a kleiner schwarzer (single mocha, no cream) and a smoke.
We tried many of the traditional old Viennese coffee houses, including Cafe Hawelka, Cafe Sacher, Cafe Central and of course, Café Landtmann, Sigmund Freud’s favourite haunt. Pair the strong cup of Viennese coffee with an apple strudel and your day is fulfilled before it even begins! Much the world over, cafes are not just to drink coffee but for gathering, romancing or arguing over politics or sport. A discussion in a café seems to have more substance about it. For centuries, people have gathered and nattered in a café.
If the social event of Vienna is the ball and waltz, then maybe the social space for a Viennese resident is the kaffeehaus. They can be worn out or refurbished to reflect their elegance during their golden era. But they are just as charming. Each coffee house has just a mild air of sophistication and are equally accommodating of the spontaneous visitor and the clockwork regular. In short, the coffee house encapsulates the essence of the capital. And the city would not be what it is without them. It is here that locals sit and rummage through newspapers, hanging in the coffee house corner, tutting at the news of the day. Others, with pen in hand, complete the crossword…or maybe are penning their next editorial input.
A Viennese coffee house is all about sitting, discussing and reading the latest news, magazines or literature, playing chess or cards, or just whiling away the time and watching the people parade past. It holds an important place in the social fabric of the city. Whereas an Italian café is all about rattling cups, gurgling and hissing espresso machines, the Viennese coffee house has a more refined and modest aura – more urbane. Whereas Italians meet to wave their arms and argue about whatever is on their mind, Viennese gather to debate and philosophise, in much the same way that Sigmund Freud and his compatriots would have deep discussion and write their musings.
Today, however, looking and acting like classics is what keeps the old coffeehouses in business. The owners seem fine with that. Gunther Hawelka, who inherited Café Hawelka from his parents several decades ago and has since passed it down to his sons, takes to the kitchen every morning to bake apfelstrudel.
He is a character, walking the floor, proud in his Hawaiian shirt, in sharp contrast to the vested waiters. It hasn’t been renovated or modernised over the years. The chairs are slightly rickety and the floorboards creak. The coffee house is eclectic in its furnishings, filled with pictures and ornaments from a bygone era, rich in its history. This is a good thing, keeping the tradition alive and maintaining the authenticity of Café Hawelka for future generations to experience. Chapeau Gunther!
We enjoy watching the locals engage and interact, some with purpose, others more casually. Whilst the coffee house may no longer be the meeting place of the great philosopher or master of the rebellion, the issues are no less important today as they were in the halcyon days of enlightenment. Some of the lamentation taking place may indeed be the next Freudian wunderkind.