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Along the Amber Route: Vienna

Vienna, Brecht observed, is ‘a city built around a few coffee-houses where the population sits together and reads papers’. Viennese cafés are a joy, civilised places where you can enjoy a coffee or a glass of beer, read a newspaper or a book, or even play an afternoon-long game of chess without being hurried by the staff or assailed by the piped music that pollutes almost every public space in Britain. They are places where solitude is accepted as normal; people have written novels or run businesses from their regular table. The typical denizens of the Viennese café, according to the satirist Alfred Polgar, are people ‘who want to be alone but need companionship for it’.

Arthur Schnitzler, Hugo von Hoffmannstahl, Hugo Wolf and Arnold Schoenberg frequented the Café Griensteidl on Michaelerplatz. Gustav Mahler favoured the Imperial, near the Staatsoper, as did Sigmund Freud. The café was the defining institution not just of Vienna but of the whole Austro-Hungarian Empire, and can still be found throughout its former lands, from Budapest to Sarajevo. Joseph Roth believed it was part of the glue that held the empire together. ‘The one coffeehouse in Zlotogrod,’ he wrote of a remote town in Galicia, ‘looked very much like the Café Wimmerl in the Josefstadt where I was accustomed to meet my friends in the afternoon . . . The chessboard, the dominoes, the smoke-stained walls, the gas lamps, the cake-trolley in the corner by the lavatories, the blue-aproned waitress . . . all of this was home, stronger than any mere Fatherland.’

No café in Vienna pleases me as much as the Hawelka, so I was glad – insofar as I could feel glad about anything in my notebookless state – to find the place gloriously impervious to ‘improvement’. The dark, dilapidated interior was archetypal. You entered through the Windfang, a glazed lobby intended to prevent draughts, which also functioned as a transition zone between the outer and inner worlds, allowing the customer to survey the clientele to see if there was anyone they wanted to meet – or avoid. Inside, beneath a maroon ceiling, the dark wood panelling and peeling wallpaper were adorned with tattered film, theatre and concert posters. From an old iron stove, a rickety flue ran up one wall and turned a sharp right angle to exit through another. The round, marble-topped tables were surrounded by bentwood chairs, with mauve-and-white striped banquettes against the walls. The woodwork was a stratigraphy of overpainted chips and drips. The seedy lavatories were approached through a heavy velvet curtain at the back. On the doors, several letters had dropped off so that, instead of herren and damen, they read err and amen.

From Along the Amber Route by C.J. Schüler

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C.J. Schüler

C.J. Schüler