Viennese Coffee – A Love Story

Melange – photo by Amanda Gynther

This is a guest post from Amanda Gynther.

Vienna, the beautiful city of dreams, sits on the border of Western and Eastern Europe, at the heart of the European continent. It is a gorgeous city of gardens and parks. Its earliest roots lie in Celtic and Roman settlements, which gave way to medieval and baroque architecture. There is also Bohemian flavor that pops up here and there as it sits right beside Bohemia and once encompassed it as part of the Ottoman Empire.

The city of Vienna is small compared to many of the large cities in the USA. Many of the oldest shops go unmarked, on the second floor of large old stone buildings designed to give a nod to the city’s earliest Roman roots. As a foreigner, you will never be able find these shops without the help of someone who knows where they are because their mother showed them and because their mother was shown by her own mother. The buildings are very old by American standards, many of them several hundred years old. The one I am sitting in is more than 250 years old, which, though not new by Austrian standards, is also not particularly old either. The buildings are artfully decorated with motifs that call to mind ancient Roman settlements and legends. In more recent years, spray paint has become a favorite of the Viennese people, who continue to leave their marks on their own beautiful architecture.

The people of Vienna are quick to laugh and enjoy a relaxed pace of life. They go to work a few hours a day and take long vacations every year, as is standard in Europe. They value good music, the arts, and tradition very highly, which is what inspires me to write this post.

You see, right now in Vienna, there is a bit of a hullabaloo going on related to one of their most cherished traditions: coffee culture, and in particular Melange, a special Viennese coffee that is hard to come by outside of Vienna.

Melange is half espresso, part milk, and part milk foam, so that milk makes up half the cup and the espresso makes up the other half. On top, the foamed milk sits most beautifully. Often, it is garnished with a small amount of shaved chocolate or cinnamon. Melange is served usually in a small white tea cup with a handle that sits on a small saucer with two very plain cookies on the side, next to a small shot glass of water, on a metallic silver tray. The hullabaloo at the moment is about how some of the cafes have decided to begin charging a tiny sum of money for the water that is part of the Melange tradition of Austrian café culture. The people are quite enraged. They have taken this custom for granted and enjoyed it for generations, and no one spoke of an added charge for anything.

At present, this is the leading café issue of our day. Which is interesting, because it used to be that many great thinkers, writers, poets and philosophers, musicians and actors gathered at these cafes to discuss all manner of things. At some cafes you can still find labels by the tables as to which famous person sat at which table over the course of the last three hundred years. Would you like to sit at Freud’s favorite table, or would you prefer sitting where some other famous author once used to sit to talk about big things while sipping his Melange and free water?

Vienna has this spectacular tradition and café culture because it was through them that coffee was introduced to the rest of Western Europe, back when Austria was part of the Ottoman Empire. The love affair with coffee in the Ottoman Empire became banned during the 17th century, some time after its introduction to Europe, because coffee was fuel for big thinkers; it gave them a reason to gather, discuss, and think creatively. This, of course, meant that it had to be shut down.

Coffee culture was viewed by the ruling elite of the time as a catalyst for rebellion.

Today, so it remains in Vienna: The people sit in their beautiful café houses, which in the summer spill right out onto the sidewalk, eating their cookies and drinking the water they now have to pay for, remembering the time only several weeks ago when the water was free. As they drink their coffee, they write letters to their editor on their laptops, using the free internet access that is part of the more modern café culture, to complain about the new fad of charging for water. Still rebelling, with coffee as a catalyst. This is just the tradition of Vienna. If it were not the cost of water they were concerned with, it would only be something else, I think.

This is the nature of the café culture of Vienna. It breeds thoughtful, creative, humanist culture that takes the form of rebellion.

It is amazing to sit in these beautifully painted cafes, full of murals that were sometimes painted by the leading artists of the day, hundreds of years ago, enjoying a cup of Melange, knowing nothing has changed the traditions of this city for hundreds of years – not even a bombing that leveled the city. Vienna never wavered. They know who they are. They are the people who are going to enjoy their traditions without added fees for water, because these traditions belong to all of the people of Vienna, not just to the cafes.

I find myself falling in love with this country and city very slowly. If I don’t get out of here soon, I may find myself so taken with the culture, the compassionate, kind people, and the coffee, that I may not be able to leave. Already, Viennese Melange has made its way into our home and into our hearts, as have the Austrian people.

Would you like to experience the coffee tradition of Vienna? I share information on how to make Melange, the drink of rebels, thinkers, and artists, on my website.

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Amanda Gynther began traveling in her early teens to see what existed beyond her own backyard. Today, she continues her travels with her husband and keeps a blog to track the adventure. You can find her on twitter, on Facebook, and on Etsy. Amanda is a lover of good food, good music, international good times, crafty things, art, and good company.

3 thoughts on “Viennese Coffee – A Love Story

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