Prague’s Coffee House Mile



Move the map left and right to see start and end. Click on the coloured tags to get more information.

Prague’s Coffee House Mile, I may say, is my own discovery. It starts with the Savoy, the westernmost of the city’s grand cafés on Malá Strana or Lesser Town, opposite the fabulous National Theatre, and ends with the Imperial, owned by Prague’s bold TV celebrity and awarded chef Zdeněk Pohlreich, a dream in Art Deco and Cubism. This stretch is precisely 2.3 km long, identical to the Gallo-Roman Leuge – other definitions for „mile“ wouldn’t fit…

Café Savoy, typical example for the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, later a fish shop, a Communist party branch office, and from 2005 on, after thorough renovation, again one of Prague’s grand cafés with waiters in livery and great breakfasts. Foto: cafesavoy.ambi.cz

Of the ten or twelve most sophisticated traditional cafés in Prague, eight are located on this stretch, each of them has stories to tell, each of them has its own specialities, and – despite Starbucks and other phenomena from McWorld’s expanding empires – these places are well received and often crowded. One has to add that several of these coffeehouses had been decaying or were closed during the Communist era and revived only after ’89 and painstaking renovation, such as the Savoy, the Slavia or the Imperial.

These sanctuaries, guardians of European culture and preservers of slow pleasures – that’s what they certainly are – may praise themselves of another virtue, apart from good coffee and delicious cakes: Moderate prices and multilingual staff.

I don’t try to make you spend a whole day just in coffee houses – I guess your doctors would then put this book on the index of prohibited publications – but to give you a high quality choice, to let you reach one of theses glorious institutions from almost each point of the Old Town without too much walking and, above all, to have your stay in Prague crowned by the pleasure of a Vídeňská káva („Viennese Coffee“, milk coffee with whipped cream) or Káva „Slavia“ (Coffee Café Slavia – take care: Absinth…).

Praguers tend, like their Viennese counterparts to whom they are heavily related, to grumble and think that Vienna’s cafés are better and that Prague is lagging behind. To be honest – with all respect to Vienna’s great cafés (I know what I’m talking about – I AM from Vienna) – I have to admit, that Prague’s old cafés are simply wonderful. Even Paris would have a hard time competing.

Café Savoy

The Savoy is a typical late 19th century café, opened 1893 at a quiet corner behind trees, not far from the busy most Legií, the Bridge of the Legions, on the left riverbank, close to the border between the Lesser Town/ Malá Strana and the Smíchov quarter. It is, like most of the cafés, also a restaurant with good food and drink and is famous for its breakfasts, and for those with a sweet tooth, try their chocolate cake Savoy with cherry jam and a marzipan cover. The English language blog Czech Please dedicates to the Savoy a detailed, pleasant and quite entertaining breakfast review on http://czechoutchannel.blogspot.cz/2007/04/caf-savoy.html.

Such views make connoisseurs of the Central European cuisines realise fast, where the Viennese got their cakes and sweets from… Photo: cafesavoy.ambi.cz

Like with almost all of Prague’s traditional cafés and beer pubs, guide books will tell you that Franz Kafka used to go there. Very often that is certainly correct, but in case of the Savoy, this is certainly not sufficient. Maybe you read the following over a cup of coffee at the Savoy:

‘In Kafka, “other” languages are never present on the surface. His perfect standard German is devoid of any local influences or foreign words, yet this seeming referential regard for German is illusory: underneath the strictures of a standard idiom, Kafka opens up his language to an intricate play on Yiddish, Yiddishisms, and anti-Semitic slurs. If the German used by Jews is something like a stolen child, it is a thievery that Kafka appreciates. In a lecture he gave on Yiddish in 1912, as an introduction for a performance of Yiddish poems by his friend, the actor Yitzhak Lowy (also Löwy or Levi; autor’s note) he calls it a “Gaunersprache,” thieves cant, and celebrates its Wakean ability to take words from other languages.

This lecture is a key piece in Kafka’s oeuvre. As a young man, he was not particularly religious. Judaism “meant less a commitment to religious tradition than a setting for Kafka senior’s social ascent, marked by his repeated moves to smarter Synagogues.” His family of assimilated and westernized Jews hardly observed traditional customs, and his father mocked most things Jewish. Consequently, Kafka felt estranged from Judaism—as he writes in his diary, “Was habe ich mit Juden gemeinsam? Ich habe kaum etwas mit mir gemeinsam” (“What do I have in common with the Jews? I barely have anything in common with myself”).

Jitzchak Löwy, a random acquaintance of Kafka and the reason, why he got familiar with Jiddish and Ashkenazi Judaism. Photo: http://servertrest.trest.cz/kafka/index1.asp?lng=en (Highly recommended!)

This changed when he met a group of Yiddish actors from Lemberg, directed by Lowy. They were poor; they performed in the seedy Cafe Savoy dressed in shabby costumes; and their plays were bad, but Kafka loved them and attended over thirty of their performances. He became friends with Lowy, and under his influence started learning about Jewish history and Yiddish literature. Lowy and the Yiddish actors showed Kafka a way of being a Jew that was different from the assimilated Judaism of Prague and of his parents, who were either secretly or openly embarrassed to be Jewish and wanted to show the world that Jews were as good as gentiles. Jacques Kohn, the fictionalized version of Lowy in Isaac Bashevis Singer’s story “A Friend of Kafka,” puts it well: “The Jews of [Kafka’s] circle had one ideal—to become Gentiles.” Lowy and the Yiddish actors, on the other hand, represented an unself-conscious form of Judaism. Their identity as Jews was completely independent of the Christian world, and they possessed a sense of identity that Kafka lacked but wanted.’

(Source: www.academia.edu/4208839/Of_Sirens_Silent_and_Loud_The_Language_Wars_of_Joyce_and_Kafka; p. 47; Footnotes not included; highlights by myself)

See also Mitchel Abidor: „Franz Kafka’s Jewish Question“, http://jewishcurrents.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/02/jcarchive046.pdf#page=1&zoom=auto,0,574

Kavárna Slavia

A short walk across the bridge (most Legií) – note the kitschy but marvellous view of the castle on your left and the National Theatre (both performances as well as the guided tours to be recommended!) in front of you – and we arrive at the Kavárna Slavia, at the corner of Národní Třída und the Smetana embankment/ Smetanovo nábřeží. It is less glamorous than the other cafés in this chapter, yet very stately with it’s pre-War interior, and tourists’ complaints about too many tourists – what a paradox – are actually not true. I am there often enough to be sure. It has the typical atmosphere of a large metropolitan café, good and multilingual staff, good coffee, moderate prices, and if, before or after the opera, you catch a table by the windows facing the river, you might have a splendid view of the castle and the Lesser Town across the Vltava.

kavarna_slavia_cafeslavia.cz

Café Slavia – cosmopolitan, urbane, timeless, ideally located across from the National Theatre, and, most important, with very good coffee, served in remarkable cups, by the way. Photo: http://www.cafeslavia.cz

The name – Slavia means glory, and Slavia was also the mother of Slavonic mythology – has a background. The street connecting the river with Wenceslas square, formerly Ferdinand Street, now National Street/ Národní Třída, was the domain of the emerging Czech elite in the late 19th century, the Corso, as it was called then, whereas the „Moat“/ Na Příkopě, was the elegant promenade for the German upperclass population. The issue was quite complex, suffice it to say that Czechs and Germans tried not to mix – neither linguistically nor socially. A more detailed discussion on this issue later; see also a short overwiev on Lonely Planet.

The café was one of the centres of Czech intellectualism and its political awakening, discussion forum for writers and artists like Jaroslav Seifert, Vítězslav Nezval, Karel Teige, Karel Čapek, Josef Čapek or Jan Zrzavý.

The café as we can see it today was refurbished during the First Republic (1918-1938), stylewise French Art Déco, which gives the place its timeless appearance. In 1948 it was nationalised, like every other business, but somehow kept it’s rebel character as it became a focus for the (then illegal) opposition, the dissidents, including personalities like playwright and later president Václav Havel or the writer Ota Filip, both imprisoned svereal times. Filip even gave one of his novels the title „Café Slavia“. Even in its early times, the café played a role in literary creations – Rainer Maria Rilke, born in Prague, called it „Café National“ in two of his tales, alluding to its role in the pre-World War I era, and Jaroslav Seifert mentions it in connection with Guillaume Apollinaire’s visit to the city. A more contemporary visitor is the Czech Republic’s major contribution to Hollywood: Miloš Forman.

For a long time the café was closed, but after the Velvet Revolution in 1989 it was sold to a US investment bank who promised to reopen it, but didn’t. Heavy protests followed and resulted in its revival – and there it is, as if nothing had happened all the years, a firm pillar in Prague’s coffehouse landscape – and in my coffee house mile.

More? Café Louvre, Café Adria, Grand Café Orient, Café Municipal House, Café de Paris, Café Imperial!

Interested? Order my new book in English or German or book a FunTasticPrague Bed&Breakfast Special Package! (Links and dates as from Oct. 1st, 2013)

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