International hospitality from Iceland to Bosnia
There is an old story about Lenin, set in the gilded splendour of a café somewhere in Central Europe, sometime in the early 20th Century. A pair of distinguished old gentlemen are discussing affairs of state over steaming cups of coffee and slices of cake. “There’s talk of revolution,” says one, moustache quivering. “Any day now, they say.”
"Revolution!" scoffs the second, cocking his thumb at the next table, where a scrawny young man with a goatee beard and flat cap is scribbling furiously in a notebook. "And who's going to lead it - him???"
The tale is almost certainly apocryphal. But sitting in Prague's art deco Café Imperial, scooping the whipped cream off a vídeňská káva (Viennese coffee), it is an evocative fantasy. The future Soviet leader did visit Prague, in 1912. In fact, it was at the Prague Party Conference of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, held just around the corner in Hybernská street, that his Bolshevik faction broke away from the Mensheviks for good, with untold consequences for humanity.
Unfortunately the Imperial was not built until 1914, so there goes the Lenin theory. But with its creamy tiles and Moorish mosaics, it is still a great place to sit and watch the world - and the trams - go by, though the prices are no longer revolutionary. Like many Prague coffee houses, the Café Imperial has undergone something of a makeover in recent years. Gone is the dark and dismal interior, the indifferent service, and - a terrible shame this - the legendary doughnut bowl, whose stale contents could once be bought and pelted at fellow patrons for exactly 1,942 Czech crowns (just over 100 dollars), a homage to an incident in the classic 1942 novel Saturnin, a sort of Czech Jeeves and Wooster.
The Imperial is one of a handful of the great pre-war cafés - temples to caffeine, creativity and conversation - left in Prague. You wll find two of the most famous on the city's Národní street. The first, Café Louvre, boasts a beautifully-preserved interactive map in the marbled lobby, displaying the unfeasibly long list of cafés (160!) that served the Czech capital before war, Communism and Starbucks intervened. Each is marked with a little bulb that lights up when you press a button. Most, sadly, are long gone. But the Louvre, with its pastel pink decor and excellent sweet trolley, survives to this day, its genteel ambience unchanged since 1911, when Einstein, then a visiting professor, would pop in for a piece of strudel.
Further down Národní - scene of the 1989 Velvet Revolution - is perhaps Prague's most famous coffee house, the art deco Café Slavia. Its large plate glass windows frame perfect picture postcard views of Prague Castle and the Charles Bridge. Mirrored walls reflect the imposing 19th-century edifice of the National Theatre. Slavia was a popular meeting place for anti-Communist dissidents - Václav Havel was a regular customer. When it closed in the early 1990s, its fate uncertain, Václav, now President, Havel joined a sit-in demanding it be returned to its former glory.
Today Slavia is thronged with tourists and theatregoers alike, though the students (mostly from Prague's Film School next door) are stirring pressos (medium-sized, strong espresso coffees), rather than revolution. At least one former dissident was still in attendance when I visited, however, smoking furiously in the corner. The most coveted table, underneath a painting called The Absinthe Drinker, was, as ever, "reserved". For Havel, no doubt, it is always available.
A short walk from Slavia and the Louvre, but well off the tourist track, is the little-known gem, Café Montmartre (Řetězová 7, Praha 1). Before the war it was a magnet for pre-war debauchery and high jinks - evidence of which can be found in the delightfully louche photos on the walls. It was also a regular haunt for members of the so-called Prague Circle of German-speaking writers, most notably the angst-ridden Franz Kafka. Closed for half a century and reopened in 2000, the Montmartre is now enjoying a new lease of life.