"Look here, steward, if this is coffee, I want tea; but if this is tea, then I wish for coffee." - Punch, 1902.

July 18, 2014

Czech Republic, Prague: Cafe Slavia

Cafe Slavia was built in 1881 at the same time as the grand National Theatre at the river end of Narodni. On the other side of the street and also fronting the river Vlatava, its purpose was to cater for theatre-goers.

Customers included Czech composer Bedrich Smetana, but the Slavia became highly popular with writers - particularly poets and dissidents - and it became known as the writers' cafe in Prague.

On a fiercely hot day of 31oC, when we could do little except drag ourselves from one cafe to another, this was our last port of call - a place to refresh ourselves after crossing the elegant most Legii bridge from Mala Strana.

A cream marble entrance hall with small fountain and gleaming brass Brasilia antique coffee machine offered instant relief from the sun.

Cafe Slavia's 19th century interior was replaced with Art Deco furnishings at the time of the first republic, and those fittings remain today - light marble, mirrors and dark wood, straight lines.

An exhibition of black and white photographs decorated the walls, waiters and waitresses in black and white huddled round an idle baby grand, white linen cloths draped over their arms.

We sat in a window, deliciously cool thanks to powerful air conditioning and broke our usual drinking habits - me ordering a bottled blackcurrant vitamin drink and Spooky, mint tea with honey. And roasted almonds to snack on.

These took almost half an hour to arrive, to the point I thought the waiter had forgotten. But when he brought them, the reason became clear.

Piping hot and oily, nestled in a bread basket, they'd obviously been freshly prepared and lifted straight from the oven. Their heat almost burnt my mouth - but the salt was a welcome antidote to the heat.

Other interesting items on the menu included Ice Cups of lemon ice cream with warm blackberries and mint, a Golem - sponge biscuits, mixed fruits, egg nog, whipped cream and strawberry sauce and Turkish coffee. A counter of home-made choclates and gateaux also greet the customer at the door.

I have to mention here that, as it was our last day in Prague, we'd just enjoyed a three-course lunch on the terrace overlooking the river at the Kampa Park restaurant, hence our ability to resist these temptations.

This also meant we couldn't finish the almonds, so I wrapped the remainder in a serviette and, hoping our waiter would not notice, tucked them in my bag.

Cafe Slavia partly prompted Rilke's Tales of Prague and inspired a poem bearing its name by Nobel-prize-winner, the poet and journalist Jaroslav Seibert. Unfortunately at time of writing this, I haven't managed to lay my hands on a copy of it.

Former Czech president, dissident, playwright and poet Vaclav Havel is also said to have plotted the overthrow of the Soviet regime in Cafe Slavia.

Songs and stories have all been penned - probably helped by the cafe's inspirational location, overlooking the river and its bridges with Prague castle elevated on the opposite bank.

But equally as famous as the scribes, is the cafe's absinthe drinker, a character portrayed in a large painting, with a green, will-o'-the-wisp woman floating before him like the absinthe fairy of
Baz Luhrmann's 2001 film Moulin Rouge, played by Kylie Minogue.

Absinthe is still on the menu, at 85 Koruna - around £2.50 a shot. If you order one, midway through the day during a typical Czech summer such as this, you're a braver person than I am.

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Think Expats Prague

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The Globe Bookstore and Coffeehouse

Cafe Central, Vienna

July 02, 2014

Czech Republic, Prague: Grand Cafe Orient

This elegant cafe in one of Prague's most architecturally interesting buildings, proved to be my favourite haunt.

It was where I went to escape the heat and the crowds, revelling in its black, grey and mushroom marble, cool mint decor and graceful dark wooden furniture.

Grand Cafe Orient is on the first floor of an angular, terracotta pink building, which was Prague's first Cubist structure and now the home of the Museum of Cubism.

It was designed by the 31-year-old Josef Gocar as a department store, and is strangely known as The Black Madonna Building due to its statue of the Virgin and Child fixed to the corner facing onto the busy street of Celetna.

Black Madonnas are relatively rare. The most famous are found in the cathedrals at Chartres, Marseille and Vichy but they can also be seen depicted in altar paintings across Europe.

According to the fascinating book Esoteric Prague by Jiri Kuchar, black madonnas were made in the late Middle Ages possibly as part of the cult of Isis, which had spread throughout Europe from Galilee. Underground chambers of churches in the early Middle Ages were used to store statues of the Egyptian mother god.

Another theory outlined in Kuchar's book, is that the madonnas represented raw iron ore and therefore the 'original earth'.

Prague's Black Madonna dates from the 17th century. Before she was brought to her present home, the building was known as 'The Golden Bars'. Gocar's first plans for the department store, in a prominent location on the ancient coronation route for the Czech kings, were turned down by the Association for Old Prague. His second design was accepted in 1912.

The statue is a concession to the city's past, and although her fleshy features and elaborate robes are incongruous with Cubism, the juxta-posing of radically different styles is typical of Prague. Some believe her positioning here was to guard the former headquarters of the Knights Templar opposite - a sort of talisman.

Cubism lasted only 10 years between 1910 and 1919 and the cafe closed when its popularity waned. It was re-opened and restored to its former glory in 1993 and is now the only entirely Cubist cafe in the world. Everything from wallpaper to china is exquisitely authentic - the herringbone parquet in dark wood, the wall of square mirror tiles, the giant bronze chandeliers that hang overhead like angular crowns.

A narrow balcony terrace overlooks one end of Ovocny Trh (the Fruit Market) but it was far too hot to sit on it. Instead, I tucked myself in a corner inside with a pot of green tea, enjoying the background early jazz.

Prague is renowned for its Art Nouveau architecture and there are some breathtaking examples - such as the grand Municipal House, home of
The Prague Symphony Orchestra, with its dazzling semi-circular mosaic Homage to Prague on the facade and ground floor cafe, where chandeliers rain cascades of glass.

I prefer something more minimal and edgy. Cubism perfectly combines understatement with innovation. I adored the staircase winding up to Grand Cafe Orient - not spiralling but snaking, with a 3D iron rail featuring signature 90 degree angles, the movement upwards providing the 4th Cubist dimension of 'passage'. Elegance is achieved by the tension between sharp angles and the gentlest of curves.

Prague's only Cubist lamp post can be seen at one end of Jungmann Square, looking rather strange standing in isolation in front of the gates of the Church of Our Lady of the Snows.

Due to the heat and a large breakfast, green tea and decaffeinated coffee were all I tried on the cafe menu, but it lists jasmine and mint teas, Vienniese and Algerian coffee and also a Grand Cafe Orient special - espresso with bacardi rum and kahlua. I imagine the latter would give you a welcome kick in the harsh Czech winter.

The museum was closed for renovation, but the building also houses Kubista, a shop selling Cubist art and objects - both original and reproduction - which is a treasure trove. I bought a black and white, limited edition lithograph of a vase of flowers for our living room.

Since our house was built in 1905 and has an original mantelpiece and ceiling rose which are not Cubist but are geometric and minimal, I think this will go very well.

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The David Mellor Design Museum Cafe, Hathersage.