Cafe society

Paris is the place to sip coffee and watch the world go by, writes Stephen Bayley. But hang on a minute, says Rhiannon Batten, Europe is brimming with coffee shops
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The Independent Travel

Italy and the remnants of Austria-Hungary have their claims to great café cultures, but for me, France will always be the place to experience this living art form.

This is because for my generation and, indeed, for most of those before, France offered the first vista of escape from the drab normality of England. Those first teenage trips on Channel ferries: the squawk of gulls and the way French petrol smelt different. Such strange cars too. The colours were better defined. The amazingly well-dressed girls and the fact that you could eat and drink all day.

Here was the sheer fascination of its foreign-ness. The newspapers looked more interesting and more serious. And the exhilarating exoticism of it all, so different to a sleazy English pub or coffee bar (as they used to be called). France meant indulgence, freedom, sex, or at least the fantastic prospect of it, and ... release. And this meant cafés.

And, if I am honest, there was a level of intellectual adventurism about it all too. I had read my Sartre and my Camus, done my Cubists, glossed my Roland Barthes, and knew that so much of that thrilling modernism had been fomented over a grande crème (or more likely a hallucinatory absinthe) in a Paris café. There was a saying in 19th-century France that "cafés are the salons of democracy". Exactly so - 20th-century culture is street culture and so much of it happened around a table on the pavement. The eroticist Georges Bataille explained that to a man of culture, a café had the same status and significance as the races to a woman of fashion. They are places to see and be seen.

Still today, every time I visit Paris, without fail I go to Les Deux Magots, by Saint Germain in the prettiest part of the Latin Quarter. Yes, I know the coffee is foul, the food mediocre and everything over-priced because of the Da Vinci Code tourists, but any place describing itself with glorious innocence and arrogance as "le rendez-vous de l'élite intellectuelle" gets my credit card. Whatever the weather, I sit outside. A part of the pleasure of a great café is the architectural play between inside and out: with scarf and collar up in winter, a handful of papers and a train of coffee, it is one of life's keenest pleasures to watch the parade go by.

And if I ever tire of the street theatre, I take an invigorating bath in history. Verlaine, Rimbaud, Oscar Wilde and Mallarmé also sat here. I just hope their croissants were better. The decadent poet Arthur Symons wrote The Absinthe-Drinker at a Deux Magots table. They drafted the Surrealist manifesto here, Picasso met Dora Maar, Gore Vidal and Christopher Isherwood bitched. Best of all, it was a conversation in Les Deux Magots with the journalist William L Shirer in 1926 that inspired Grant Wood to go back to the United States and paint American Gothic, his singular masterpiece of Americana inspired by a Paris café.

Curiously, Americans have shaped our views of the great cafés, most notoriously Ernest Hemingway, whose Moveable Feast (1964) recounted his epic Paris years. While living over a sawmill at Notre Dame des Champs, the orotund old boaster declared the Closerie des Lilas (just down the road from Les Deux Magots) to be the city's best café. Hemingway was seduced by the daily romance of meeting working poets at breakfast. And who wouldn't be? But there were contrasts too; Hemingway had less salubrious haunts, including the Café des Amateurs which he described as the "cesspit of the rue Mouffetard ... a sad, evilly run café where the drunkards of the quarter crowded together".

Well, that's all changed, but the romance of Paris cafés stays. Just writing this takes me there. I hate to be unfaithful to Les Deux Magots, but the café in the Place de l'Odéon has on many occasions seduced me. The seating arrangements are very different; parallel rows of chairs, as if all the customers are flying economy class in a 747. You sit there and watch the traffic and the fountain (and the girls) in dappled sunshine. Or there is the unique - and by no means entirely agreeable - smell of that scruffy little Café-Tabac on the rue de Beaune where the malodorous old boys are, even today, "killing the worm" with a shot of brandy first thing in the morning. Then there is Ma Bourgogne in the gorgeous Place des Vosges, quieter, more discreet, adult.

Cafés are a way of life. I love the way their mood changes with the times of the day; torpid and quiet at breakfast, more animated with a lunchtime beer. Relaxed and ingratiating at the cocktail hour, mysterious late at night with waiters stacking chairs and couples on their first - or last - date. Or, this being Paris, possibly their only date. I could spend a whole day moving from one to the other, changing my reading matter as I change location.

In theory, now that the laws have changed, you can get the same experience in a Harvester pub in Berkshire. Except you can't.

Café culture is Paris culture. I adore both.

Bewley's Oriental Café

Where is it? Dublin.

What is it? Ireland's most historic café was rescued from closure - reopened earlier this year.

Who's eaten there? All the giants of Irish literature, Oscar Wilde, Brendan Behan and James Joyce have all scribbled in their notebooks at a table there.

What to order? A cup of Bewley's tea or the Bewley's breakfast, which includes a bowl of porridge.

How to find it? 78/79 Grafton Street, Dublin 2 (00 353 1 672 7720).

Café Americain

Where is it? Amsterdam.

What is it? The grandest of the city's grand cafés, with vast ceilings and elaborate stained-glass windows.

Who's eaten there? Mata Hari held her wedding reception there.

What to order? The full works for Sunday brunch.

How to find it? 97 Leidsekade (00 31 20 556 3010).

Café Slavia

Where is it? Prague.

What is it? An art deco intellectual hang-out turned tourist hot spot.

Who's eaten there? Vaclav Havel, both before and after his presidency.

What to order? Blackberry and sour-cream pancakes.

How to find it? 1012/2 Smetanovo nabrezi, (00 420 224 218 493).

Café a Brasileira

Where is it? Lisbon.

What is it? The city's classiest and oldest café, with mirrored walls, wooden booths and a vast, ancient bar.

Who's eaten there? Local poet Fernando Pessoa was a regular (the statue outside the café is of him).

What to order? "Bica" - local slang for a strong, no-nonsense coffee.

How to find it? 120 Rua Garrett (00 351 218 346 9541).

Café Opera

Where is it? Stockholm.

What is it? Schizophrenic - by day it's a café and by night a club.

WHo's eaten there? The staff are keeping schtum about Greta Garbo and Ingrid Bergman, but Madonna has definitely paid a visit.

What to order? Pickled herring and an Aquavit chaser.

How to find it? Karl XII torg (00 46 8 676 5807).

Café Metropole

Where is it? Brussels.

What is it? A 19th-century extravaganza that has aged rather better than the hotel above it.

Who's eaten there? Albert Einstein, Marie Curie.

What to order? The surroundings are more impressive than the menu.

How to find it? 31 Place de Brouckere (00 32 2 217 2300).

Café Central

Where is it? Vienna.

What is it? The grandest dame of the city's surviving 19th-century coffee houses.

Who's eaten there? Trotsky is said to have planned the Russian revolution here.

WHat to order? A classic Viennese coffee and some delicately spiced apple strudel.

How to find it? On the corner of Herrengasse and Strauchgasse (00 43 1 533 376 424).

Café >Gerbeaud

Where is it? Budapest.

What is it? The most famous, if also the most commercial, coffee house in a city that's bursting with them.

Who's eaten there? Franz Liszt.

What to order? Beautifully wrapped chocolate and caramel Dobos cake, to go.

How to find it? 7 Vörösmarty ter (00 36 1 429 9000).

Café Florian

Where is it? Venice.

WHat is it? Prime posing territory, set right on St Mark's Square. Has the most elaborate interior decoration this side of a Murano chandelier.

Who's eaten there? Casanova, Byron, Goethe and Proust.

What to order? A sliver of haute-couture cake.

How to find it? Piazza San Marco (00 39 41 520 5641).

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