Yesterday was a cold, miserable day in Toronto, dark and wet and windy. And on days like that, I go looking for a warm, welcoming place to sit with a steaming mug of something. And invariably, my choice is a coffee house.
In fact, my choice is a coffee house wherever I might be in the world. But the place that does coffee houses as well as anyone is Central Europe. To me, there aren’t many things more pleasurable than to sit in a centuries-old room, with its classic woodwork and ornate fixtures, and have a coffee. In Canada the coffee is all I need, but when you’re in Europe and there are delicious pastries fresh from the oven — well, who could blame you?
On my Viking river cruise of the Danube this spring, I got a chance to enjoy the hospitality of a few of Central Europe’s coffee houses. So in case you’re feeling the chill as much as I am, I decided to give you a quick tour of the classic coffee houses I managed to visit as we cruised our way across Austria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary.
Café Landtmann, Vienna
I wrote about Café Landtmann in an earlier post. But it’s fitting to start the tour here, since the day I arrived in Vienna was one of the coldest I’ve ever experienced in Europe. So as soon as I got a chance, I was off to seek the shelter of somewhere warm and inviting.
I knew exactly where I was going, and why. My fellow blogger Maarten Heilbron and I had a debate about which of Vienna’s many famous coffee houses was better. I’m a fan of the renowned Café Central, while Maarten preferred Café Landtmann. He wasn’t the only one: Café Landtmann was the regular coffee stop of Sigmund Freud when he taught at the nearby university back in the 1880s.
I found the coffee house with no trouble, right across the Ringstrasse from the Rathaus, Vienna’s iconic city hall. And it was just as classic-looking as I had expected – with the exception of the new glass sunroom on one end. But inside, it was still a vision of the past, with dark wood panelling and cozy booths under the window (see photo above).
I perused the menu, with its array of classic Viennese dishes and endless variations on the basic cup of coffee. It was all tempting, but I decided to keep it simple: an espresso and a piece of Landtmann’s famous apple strudel. It soon arrived, warm, rich, bursting with apples and raisins. And after a few bites, I almost forgot about the frigid day outside.
Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic
Cesky Krumlov is famous for one thing: the 13th-century castle that stands on the heights above the town. And it’s a great place to spend a morning, feeling as if you’re in a Robin Hood movie. But after you’ve seen the castle, especially on a chilly day, you want something to warm you up.
I found it in the lovely town square, in an ancient building with arched windows and a patio outside, where a few brave (and young) souls sat outside despite the temperature. I was happy enough to get inside, especially when I could sample one of the local specialties, this pastry filled with ground nuts.
This was a busy spot, with a constant stream of tourists on their way to or from the castle. But it was still cozy, and after a cup of tea, I was ready for the trip back — so ready that somehow, I forgot to write down the name of the coffee house. If you know it, leave a comment.
Kaffee Mayer, Bratislava
The highlight of our visit to Bratislava, Slovakia was a walk through the city’s quaint and well-preserved medieval centre. But for me, the real highlight was on a corner just off the main square. There stood a statue of a man tipping his top hat to passersby, in front of a sign that read, “Kaffee Konditorei”.
I knew this was my kind of place. So while the rest of the ship’s company was busy shopping for souvenirs, I slipped back for my coffee fix. Again, it was the real thing: once inside, I stepped past a glass case filled with sinful pastries of all descriptions, to a small but perfect room lined with wood panelling.
The menu was short but simple, and it didn’t take me long to decide — once again — on the strudel. But this time, I opted for a local touch: cherry strudel. It arrived without delay, along with a cup of delicious coffee (see the photo at the top of this post). A half-hour later I was back on the ship. Lunch? No thanks.
Oh, and the statue of the old fellow out front? The story goes that he was fond of the ladies, and would stand in the square tipping his hat to them as they went by. When he died, they missed him – so the town commissioned a statue.
Auguszt Coffee House, Budapest
Budapest, the last stop on the cruise, is a city with more atmosphere than most places you could name. So it stood to reason there would be at least one classic coffee house among the historic buildings lining its downtown streets. On one of my last days in town, I spotted it.
The sign outside said, “Auguszt, 1870”, and the front windows gave a glimpse of a glass case filled with gorgeous pastries. I had to visit, and while this wasn’t the oldest Auguszt coffee house in Budapest – the Auguszt family has run it through five generations — it still fit the bill. Its marble-topped tables, upstairs balcony and a huge graphic of a gryphon on the wall gave it a classic-meets-modern feel.
It was time for a change of diet, so instead of strudel I had a strawberry napoleon, which was as good as it looked, with fresh strawberries and flaky pastry. And in Budapest, the coffee is always good – even the coffee machines in the convenience stores put out a good cup.
That was my coffee house tour of Central Europe. The only thing missing from this trip was Prague, where I visited a historic coffee house or two on my last Viking cruise. But almost anywhere you go in Central Europe, you can find a coffee house with that magical combination of warmth, great coffee and sinful but irresistible food.
It’s a wonderful part of daily life in that part of the world — especially compared with the Starbucks culture
that seems to rule North America. Europe is good at preserving its historic places: let’s hope it can do the same with its classic coffee houses.