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
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.
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,