John Ha­gan tours the tra­di­tional cafes of the Aus­trian cap­i­tal

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence -

IT was the bags of strange green beans that started it all. Left be­hind by the Turks fol­low­ing an un­suc­cess­ful siege of the city in 1683, the cit­i­zens of Vi­enna ini­tially thought they con­tained camel fod­der. How­ever, when roasted and soaked in hot wa­ter, the beans pro­duced a mag­nif­i­cent aroma and a sur­pris­ingly stun­ning taste.

Since then the lo­cals have been hooked on java, with the brew now cen­tral to Vi­en­nese cul­ture. To­day, more than 300 cof­fee houses are con­ge­nial so­cial cen­tres for lo­cals as well as the many mil­lions of tourists who visit the city an­nu­ally.

The first step to en­joy­ing the Vi­en­nese cof­fee house is un­der­stand­ing the menu, cou­pled with a pass­ing ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the long-es­tab­lished tra­di­tions.

Most cof­fee houses of­fer a choice of up to three dozen va­ri­eties of the brew. Melange (cof­fee with steamed milk; a good sub­sti­tute for latte) and einspan­ner (mocha served in a glass with whipped cream) are the most pop­u­lar.

Brauner is the ba­sic drink (cof­fee with a lit­tle milk), while the more ex­otic choices in­clude turkische, a strong black cof­fee brewed in a cop­per pot, Turk­ish­style; fi­aker (mocha with rum or brandy) served in a glass; and wiener eiskaffe, a con­coc­tion of vanilla ice cream with cold mocha and whipped cream.

Best not to up­set Herr Ober (or head waiter, as ev­ery waiter in Aus­tria ap­pears to be called) by sim­ply ask­ing for a cup of cof­fee.

What­ever the se­lec­tion, the cof­fee ar­rives on a small oval tray, ac­com­pa­nied by a glass of wa­ter, with a spoon bal­anced del­i­cately on top. The wa­ter sym­bol­ises the es­tab­lish­ment’s de­sire to let the pa­tron know they are wel­come to stay in­def­i­nitely.

Some cof­fee houses of­fer chess, cards and even bil­liards, and pro­vide lo­cal and in­ter­na­tional news­pa­pers and jour­nals. Just the place to re­lax, read, and ob­serve the Vi­en­nese at large: busi­ness­men con­sum­mat­ing deals, stu­dents swot­ting, lovers tete-a-tet­ing, shop­pers re­viv­ing, ma­trons gos­sip­ing, politi­cians lob­by­ing and re­tirees brows­ing.

The sur­round­ings may be sump­tu­ous or sim­ple, hum­ming or hushed, il­lus­tri­ous or in­sipid, but ev­ery cafe worth its java cul­ti­vates its in­di­vid­ual rep­u­ta­tion and char­ac­ter.

The vis­i­tor will know when they have found their cof­fee house: the chem­istry will be just right.

Close to the Im­pe­rial Palace (Hof­burg) is Demel (Kohlmarkt 14), one of Vi­enna’s most cel­e­brated es­tab­lish­ments. Its baroque decor, or­nate mu­rals of frol­ick­ing wa­ter nymphs, co­terie of op­u­lent chan­de­liers and sugar-plum fairy el­e­gance can all seem a bit over­done and un­set­tling.

Fa­mous for its torte, Demel dis­penses de­li­cious, deca­dent and ex­pen­sive pas­tries. It is a shrine to the sweet-toothed, with nuss­cafe­torte (nut and cof­fee cream cake) and gerollte man­del­torte (rolled lay­ers of meringue, al­mond, ganache and but­ter­cream) nestling in glass cab­i­nets groan­ing with kilo­joules.

Ad­ja­cent to the Vi­enna Opera House — and ar­guably Demel’s most bit­ter ri­val for deca­dent pas­tries — is Ho­tel Sacher (Phi­lar­moniker­strasse 4). A favourite among tourists, Sacher Con­fis­erie dis­plays a sump­tu­ous ar­ray of con­fec­tions in­clud­ing its most fa­mous, Sacher­torte. To the purist, Demel and Sacher’s cafe are not con­sid­ered cof­fee houses but are known as kon­di­tor­eien or pas­try shops that also hap­pen to sell cof­fee, and where the pas­try is served to com­ple­ment the cof­fee rather than vice versa. Nev­er­the­less, be­cause of their pop­u­lar­ity pa­trons of­ten have to wait for a ta­ble.

Cafe Landt­mann (Dr Karl Lueger Ring 4) is prob­a­bly the city’s favourite cof­fee house. Next door to Vi­enna’s renowned Burgth­e­atre (Im­pe­rial Theatre), it is easy to reach. Trans­formed in 1873 from a choco­late shop, it com­bines the old and the new to per­fec­tion, while re­flect­ing un­der­stated el­e­gance. Here, many re­ceive a cof­fee house knight­hood: they are not only known by Herr Ober but also ad­dressed by name.

Landt­mann has an in­ter­est­ing a la carte menu, but book ahead to dine be­tween noon and 2pm. A house spe­cialty is the leg­endary mar­morgugel­hupf, mar­ble cof­fee cake.

Fa­mous clients have in­cluded Lau­rence Olivier, Mar­lene Di­et­rich, Gary Cooper and Sig­mund Freud, who prac­tised nearby be­fore flee­ing to Lon­don. Landt­mann’s lo­ca­tion makes it a mag­net for many the­atri­cal, po­lit­i­cal and so­ci­ety fig­ures.

Ac­cord­ing to the Vi­en­nese, Cafe Cen­tral (Her­ren­gasse 14) has changed lit­tle since the early 1900s. Lo­cated near his­toric St Stephens Cathe­dral, it is an in­sti­tu­tion that, at the turn of the 20th cen­tury, counted chess-play­ing Lev Davi­dovich Bron­stein and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin among its pa­trons.

A few years later Bron­stein (aka Leon Trot­sky) and Lenin en­meshed con­ti­nen­tal Europe in tur­moil.

When he heard of the Rus­sian revo­lu­tion, the Aus­trian for­eign min­is­ter is re­ported to have asked in amaze­ment: You are not go­ing to tell me it was that chess-play­ing Bron­stein from the Cafe Cen­tral who started it!

Dur­ing the Lenin-Trot­sky era, about 250 news­pa­pers and jour­nals were avail­able at Cafe Cen­tral. Al­though this ar­ray of read­ing mat­ter has some­what di­min­ished, pa­trons still have ac­cess to a wide choice of for­eign and lo­cal publi­ca­tions. Ren­o­vated dur­ing the early 1980s, the cafe’s Byzan­tine-in­spired vaulted ceil­ings, Corinthian col­umns, mar­ble­topped ta­bles, grand pi­ano and sim­ple wooden chairs cap­ture an air of re­fined grandeur. A non-smok­ing area is re­served to the left of the Peter Alt­mann statue.

In a nar­row al­ley­way also in the vicin­ity of St Stephens Cathe­dral (Dorothee­grasse 6), is Cafe Hawelka, which has prob­a­bly not changed much since it re­opened af­ter World War II. The sign out­side, Kun­stler und Leben­skun­stler (artists and artists of life), has en­cour­aged the pa­tron­age of many fa­mous painters such as Frieden­sre­ich Hun­dert­wasser who, like many of the other artists, paid his bills with paint­ings that still adorn the walls.

Owned and op­er­ated by Leopold Hawelka and his fam­ily, it is the clas­sic Vi­enna kaf­fee­haus. In­ti­mate, aus­tere, smoky, noisy, dark, with wooden floor and mar­ble-topped ta­bles. Hawelka is a bo­hemian haunt pop­u­lar with stu­dents, in­tel­lec­tu­als, ac­tors and artists, prob­a­bly the most colour­ful clien­tele in the city.

Be­cause of its cramped quar­ters, Cafe Hawelka is al­ways crowded, adding to its at­mos­phere. There is not much in the way of nib­bles of­fered here, but the fine cof­fee is lov­ingly pre­pared.

One of the plea­sures of the Vi­en­nese cof­fee house is that no mat­ter how mod­est the or­der, once served, cus­tomers can stay as long as they like. Herr Ober is in no rush to present the bill. John Ha­gan was a guest of the Vi­enna Tourist Board. www.aus­

Sugar heaven: The cake-laden, kilo­joule-rich in­te­rior of leg­endary Vi­en­nese cafe Demel, a shrine to the sweet-toothed

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