Cafe Cities of the World – Prague
by Paul Golding
The cafes of Prague represent a completely different concept to the Australian café ideal. Before you can begin the experience, you must embrace the notion that coffee is not the central tenet or reason for visiting… Prague’s cafes are places to meet, to talk, to discuss business, to linger. In the older establishments you’ll find huge beautifully decorated rooms, waiters in formal attire, wine, beer, excellent food and good coffee, with the understanding that you could spend several hours at your table enjoying these things while you write, read or chat. Coffee in Prague is very good compared to much of Europe, but it is extremely rare to find the boutique specialty cafes now so common in Australia. .
Prague is frequently referred to in the Czech language as Stovezata Praha, City of a Hundred Spires, due to its amazing skyline of Baroque and Renaissance architecture. There is a palpable sense of history in the air, as you walk through the streets of the city, which was an important trading centre, cultural hub of Europe and seat of the Holy Roman Empire 400 years before England decided they required a penal colony on the far side of the world.
Prague reached its height under Charles IV, ‘Good King Wenceslas’ – from the well-known Christmas carol – crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 1355, and founder of building projects like the Charles Bridge, still the main walking route linking the Old Town and Little Quarter today.
Many famous figures have lived in or visited Prague since the beginning of construction of Prague Castle in the 9th century – authors, scientists, painters and musicians. Over the last century and a half, Prague’s cafes have been host to many well-known minds, such as Albert Einstein, Franz Kafka, Max Brod and Mozart. If you like the idea of sitting at café table where Einstein pondered relativity, or Kafka made notes for his unfinished books, Prague is the sort of place you must visit.
At this point I will say to all Australian and New Zealand readers and lovers of fine coffee: if you are currently operating under the illusion that the European coffee scene is somehow superior to ours, stop now and give thanks to our specialty roasters, because we enjoy an availability of single origin and finely crafted blends, carefully handled by trained baristas, which is extremely rare in Europe!
Having passed that message across, I can thankfully get on with the more positive part of my coffee discovery, which had me completely in love with Prague’s vibrant café scene by the end of the week, starting with the discovery of Bakehouse in Kovi Street.
As the name suggests, the Bakehouse is a bakery/café concept with beautiful pastries, breads and salads, all out on display. The coffee was Illy, so familiar a brand of coffee, but one that was thankfully also well made. In both the espresso and the giant latte – which could have satisfied a family of four – I literally bit off more than I could chew, as I did with the delicious raspberry meringue, which was about 20 cm across! I could have piled whipped cream and berries on it to make a good sized pavlova!
Since the café occupies a bright sunny corner outlook on a small square, and there is never any hurry to move along in Prague, I was able to sit and nibble for an hour or so before bagging the remainder for later and paying the ridiculously small bill.
The next stop was Café Louvre, a landmark in Prague on the main shopping street, Narodni Avenue. Louvre has been operating since 1902, a favourite haunt of both Kafka and Einstein, among others.
The café was interrupted during the communist era from 1948, when the beautiful interior suffered damage, then reopened after 1992 with all its traditions of billiards, free newspapers and periodicals, tuxedoed waiters and excellent food from early morning to very late evenings.
Louvre is always buzzing with interesting conversation, and has enough ‘favourite spots’ to satisfy every guest, from the seats next to the massive picture windows, to long banquets against the wall, through to the intimate privacy of the lounge seats adjacent to the billiard room. You can virtually spend half the day in Louvre moving from breakfast with their excellent coffee, through to brunch with a selection of Czech beers or French wines matched up to things like honey braised chicken, or the amazing Minted Pea Soup with potato and bacon. Louvre stationary and pencils are on every table for scratching down your thoughts, and the waiters have a brilliant knack for leaving you alone until you want something, which they’ll get you immediately. Among all the places I visited, my mind returns to Louvre with a wistful longing every time I think of Prague.
One could be excused for never moving on, but there are some other café destinations which also should not be missed.
My number one breakfast spot in Prague is the Café Savoy, located in the Little Quarter on the west side of the Vltava River.
Open since 1893, the Savoy also experienced trouble during the communist era, when the stunning Renaissance ceiling had to be covered by the wary owners to avoid the destruction of this ‘bourgeoisie’ decadence. Now revealed in its considerable glory, the ceiling presides over a huge sunlit space. It’s a good idea to reserve a table at the Savoy, as its food and in-house patisserie are justly famous with locals. The patisserie can be viewed downstairs through a huge window wall, so you can watch the uniformed chefs at work under a massive chandelier creating cakes, pastries, croissants and the like. Adjacent is a wine cellar holding exclusive champagnes, cognacs and wines from France and the Czech Republic. Upstairs in the café you can luxuriate in one of their country themed breakfasts, such as French, English, American or Czech. The French, in particular, seems to go on forever with fried toast, merguezi sausage, frites, ham, eggs, cheese, croissants, fruit and coffee. This feast will set you back about AUD$12 – incredible! I have to flip a coin to decide between that and the Omelette Savoy, which I believe may actually be the best omelette in the world. Perfectly cooked fluffy egg layered with Gruyere cheese, sprinkled with chives and cracked pepper, it is truly something to be savoured in respectful silence. The coffee is Italian, Danesi Caffe, served in their characteristic rounded cup, which weighs about a pound by itself. The espresso and caffe latte are very well made, strong and rich to round out your meal. Bliss!
On the far bank of the Vltava is Café Slavia – another time warp from the 1920’s with its massive, stylish art deco interior. A great place to grab a table with views of the Charles Bridge and Prague Castle, Slavia has a terrific array of ice creams, and even offers single origin coffees. For my visit they had Ethiopia Sidamo, which was served as the long black -style espresso and which impressed me with the delicate body, hints of orange blossom and dark chocolate. With free Wi-Fi and unhurried ambiance, many people use Slavia as their office, where they can work in peace and call for coffee or food whenever it suits, a perfect spot for meetings.
My last find was a place quirkily named Cukrkavalimonada, literally ‘sugarcoffeesoftdrinks’, but in this case meaning sweets, a variety of hot drinks and fresh juices. CKL (for short) is located just off the Charles Bridge on the west side. The room is small for Prague, in a beautifully re-decorated antique space. The coffee here is seriously good, with a slightly lighter roast style highlighting a South American dominated blend. The crema is dark, and the acidity bright, with citrus and almond carried on the light, fine body. The food specialty is pasta, and it’s well worth the walk; we returned several times for the perfectly cooked tagliatelle and rich, creamy sauces. The staff are young and less formal than is the norm in Prague; here you can chat with them about the news of the city and relax to the quiet hip lounge tunes while they turn out carefully crafted coffees from the shiny new Faema machine. A note here to hot chocolate fans – CKR has the best hot chocolate in all of Prague, thick, dark, heavy chocolate you can nearly stand a spoon in!
For new visitors to Prague from our part of the world, this place should be the first stop, to begin the process of slipping into the local café scene.
I could happily spend a year in Prague, drifting from one café to another – from breakfast through the working day to dinner, if only I could find a suitable internet based line of work! The prices are low, the vibe is relaxed, the food, drinks and service are excellent.
The thing I will always love most about Prague though, is the long held tradition and history in places like Louvre and Savoy, which make you feel as if time somehow moves slower there… ceasing to be a dictating force, and becoming yours to spend as you wish, enriching your day instead of ruling it.
Maybe some of Einstein’s Relativity Theory lingers on, or it could just be a part of the deep creative culture of this amazing city.