A brew steeped in his­tory

In just one day you can take only a small sip of Vi­enna’s cafe cul­ture, but it’s deep, dark and full of flavour, writes An­thony Dennis

Sunday Mail - Travel/Escape - - CAFE SOCIETY VIENNA -

FOOL­HARDY as it may seem to trust the good cof­fee judg­ment of an Amer­i­can, writer Mark Twain was none­the­less on the boil when he de­clared that ‘‘ the best cof­fee in Europe is Vi­enna cof­fee, com­pared to which all other cof­fee is fluid poverty’’.

Of course, he made this re­mark be­fore the Ital­ians fully pop­u­larised the espresso ma­chine in the early 20th cen­tury. Now you’d say that while the Ital­ians serve Europe’s best cof­fee, it’s the Aus­tri­ans who de­liver the best, most his­toric and at­mo­spheric cof­fee houses.

The orig­i­nal Vi­enna cafes emerged af­ter the sec­ond Turk­ish siege of Vi­enna in 1693 when the Vi­en­nese dis­cov­ered bags of strange beans left by the van­quished Turks. Many of those who sub­se­quently fre­quented Vi­enna’s grand cafes over the cen­turies, from Sig­mund Freud to Vladimir Lenin, have done so as much to think, plot, con­ceive and con­verse as they have to take cof­fee.

Me? I’min Vi­enna, as part of an APT cruise be­tween Bu­dapest and Amsterdam, and have just a sin­gle day in the Aus­trian cap­i­tal with a plan to visit a quin­tet of the city’s most his­toric cof­fee houses, in­clud­ing a manda­tory homage to the home of the sacher­torte, Aus­tria’s most fa­mous cake.

8.30am: Cafe Sperl

My first stop is the ven­er­a­ble Cafe Sperl, a cof­fee house that has al­ways been pop­u­lar with artists, mu­si­cians, ac­tors and singers, a group viewed with sus­pi­cion un­der the Third Re­ich oc­cu­pa­tion of Aus­tria un­til af­ter World War II.

It must be hard to break into the Vi­en­nese cafe scene, what with stay­ers like this one that drip his­tory and tra­di­tion (though, heaven for­bid, there are al­ready nearly a dozen Star­bucks in Vi­enna). Founded in 1880, Cafe Sperl fea­tures all of its orig­i­nal fit­tings, in­clud­ing, it seems, the age­ing, no-non­sense wait­resses.

Cafe Sperl is as hushed as a mu­nic­i­pal li­brary and I seem to be the only tourist here at this hour. My caffe latte is served in a glass with a han­dle and atop a rec­tan­gu­lar sil­ver plat­ter com­plete with a small bowl of su­gar, salt and pep­per shak­ers and tooth­picks (for my or­der of hard-boiled eggs).

The wood-pan­elled walls, the colour of choco­late sprin­kled on cap­puc­cino, heavy mus­tard-toned drap­ery and patched-up and painted-over chairs all project just the right amount of faded glory.

10.30am: Cafe

The Aus­tri­ans en­joy a rather wicked tra­di­tion known as ‘‘ sec­ond break­fast,’’ which ef­fec­tively trans­lates as an ex­cuse to hang out at a cafe for an ex­tended pe­riod at some stage mid-morn­ing.

It’s a wor­thy cus­tom in which I’m more than happy to in­dulge, as I take my seat at my next stop, the Art Nou­veau-style Cafe Pruckel.

Cafe Pruckel is on the Ringstrasse, which dates to 1857 when Em­peror Franz Joseph I de­cided to re­place Vi­enna’s city walls with a modern boule­vard. Nearby is the cap­i­tal’s ‘‘ first district’’ and across the road is Vi­enna’s beau­ti­ful city park and its Mu­seum of Ap­plied Arts.

I elect to tol­er­ate the haze from the to­bacco in the smok­ing sec­tion, since the area re­served for the ab­stain­ers has the least at­mos­phere. I or­der a Vi­en­nese cof­fee, which comes with lav­ish whipped cream and serv­ing of choco­late for sprin­kling pur­poses.

Cafe Pruckel is a vir­tual Vi­en­nese cof­fee-house new­comer, hav­ing opened its doors in 1903, with the decor last fully up­dated in the 1950s, as ev­i­denced by the weath­ered arm­chairs. On the menu are no less than 13 dif­fer­ent types of cof­fee, in­clud­ing all of the Vi­en­nese ‘‘ kaf­fee’’ spe­cial­i­ties.

Not speak­ing or read­ing Ger­man,

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