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Monday, July 16, 2001

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Over a cup of Kaffe...


Sumitra Senapaty

It was a wild winter; the wind made the fires and the lamplight glow all the brighter against the grey skies. The scene was picture-perfect and I was living in a state of exaltation. I couldn't quite believe that I was there. And, as though to put it bey ond question, I often repeated `I'm in Vienna' to myself, when I woke up in the night or as I wandered about the streets, when nothing was flying through the air more solid than snowflakes. Few delights could compare with these wintry days: the snow outs ide, the bare trees outlined by the frost, the muted light, and, indoors, the rooms following each other filled with the spoils, the heirlooms and the dowries of a golden age.

Vienna. The fumes of hot coffee and fresh cakes. Joining in my memory with the cold edge of the frost, the combination of these scents conjured up the city in a second. An old definition calls a Viennese cafe a place ``where one goes to be alone in compa ny.'' The tradition dates back to the 17th century when, as the story goes, a Hungarian introduced a stock of coffee beans captured from the Turks. Soon, Vienna was full of coffeehouses, delectable and fashionable, where the intellectuals and gentry ming led to pass the time of day.

Vienna is ethereal in winter and in this city of romance and culture, it is more than apt to sample a slice of its vibrant life at some coffeehouses. ``At the first accent, the word `Kaffe' describes a drink, at the second it means Cafe and Coffeehouses, a lifestyle in Vienna and Austria,'' wrote Hans Weigel. This stands true even today. What visitors to Vienna rate as a tourist attraction serves residents as an alternative living room and its artists and writers as a showcase institution: the Viennese coffeehouse.

The city boasts the best part of 650 cafes, although only a hundred or so actually qualify as `coffeehouses' in the time-honoured sense -- wooden floors, velvet upholstery, marble-topped tables and black-and-white clad waiters whose occasional grumpiness is sanctioned by tradition. Each walk of life has its preferred coffeehouse -- aristocracy, politicians, artists, glitterrati, civil servants. While every coffeehouse possesses its own unmistakable atmosphere and allure, they all share a hallowed patina accrued over generations.

Each `scene' has its own original cafe in the metropolis. The officials of the Ministry have the Cafe Ministerium, the art students their own and the politicians, the Landtmann. In a coffeehouse, one meditates, philosophises and lazes, reads the newspape r, gossips, plays billiards or chess. One can also discuss God and the world and much more with perfect strangers. Yes, and naturally also enjoy coffee and cake.

In the 1960s, a romantic statesman called Vienna ``an original Roman city'' which was turned towards the Mediterranean Sea. Therefore, in the Viennese Cafe, one also finds ``that meditative calm and the aimless passing of time'' that anyone who has visit ed an Oriental or Turkish cafe knows of. For a visitor to Vienna, it is the most suitable place to stretch out tired feet and start the tour again after some hot coffee.

The former Writers' cafe, Griensteidl, is legendary, especially for its `old-world' atmosphere. Re-opened since 1990, there is hardly any well-known writer, actor, critic, architect or musician who hasn't visited this Cafe. The most prominent thinkers of modern Vienna collected around the small marble tables. Many authors and actors had their own tables at the Cafe and some even gave the Cafe as their postal address. Some of them had `table' rules, which they didn't mean seriously. ``Cutting nails at th e table is forbidden, even with an old nailcutter which one has brought with himself, and specially not with one of those new fanged machines that will make the nails fly and land in the beer.''(Imagine fishing out the nails!)

A Viennese coffeehouse is much more than just a place where one drinks coffee. Coffee may be accompanied by something from the pastry shelf -- Sachertorte, Apple and sweet cream Strudel or the famous Viennese coffeecake. Sacher is an authentic 19th-centu ry cafe with paintings from that era. From this coffeehouse, the original and authentic Sachertorte began its triumphant conquest of the gourmet world. Just as it was in the old days, this landmark of Viennese pastry cuisine is still baked according to a secret recipe. Connoisseurs like to enjoy the cake in the old-world atmosphere of the Sacher Cafe itself. Next door, in the hall and the Red Bar, there's piano music.

The Vienna coffee house? Much like a living room: the Vienna scene meets there, chats and reads various newspapers. Drinking coffee is most enjoyable but almost incidental. ``A kind of reasonable, democratic, often visited club, where each guest can sit for hours, discuss, write, play cards and, above all, read an unlimited number of newspapers.''

Viennese coffeehouses are as diverse as they are plentiful -- there's one on virtually every street corner. Each has its own idiosyncratic charm and style. In fact, they have only one thing in common: an old-world atmosphere you could cut with a knife. A sanctuary of contemplation and repose sheltered from the bustle of the outside world by plate glass windows. It offers a refuge to which the waiter alone has access -- and that only because he brings your life-saving supply of coffee. The coffeehouses m ight have changed, but the reasons to visit them remain the same. Even then the Cafe is truly yesterday's world.

Fact file

Location: Vienna is comfortably located at the intersection of two European crossroads: the Berlin-Prague-Vienna-Venice route and the Paris-Munich or Brussels-Frankfurt-Vienna-Budapest route (that of the legendary Orient Express). Via the Danube, Vienna is also accessible on the Rhine-Main-Danube waterway. Vienna is at the heart of Europe, near the Alps (with nice ski-resorts close by). The highly-efficient Vienna International Airport is only 20 minutes from the city centre.

Special sights and attractions: The Burgtheater, Sigmund Freud Museum, Imperial Palace, State Opera House, Imperial Coach Collection, Schonbrunn Palace (summer residence of the Habsburgs), Johann Strauss' Residence and the famous Spanish Riding School.

Shopping highlights: Crystal, antiques, china and porcelain, embroidery and lace.

Picture by the author

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