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by Bob Brooke

A crystal chandelier glistens in the afternoon sun streaming through the lace-curtained windows. A young waitress balances a tray of pastries and coffees on one hand, while her patrons read the afternoon papers to the quiet strains of Mozart's Symphony Number 9 in G-major.

The atmosphere is quiet and reserved. The sweet smell of chocolate and fresh-brewed coffee mix with the heady smoke of European cigarettes. The waitress delicately sets a large glass filled with dense coffee and a dollop of ice cream topped with an Everest-like mound of whipped cream on my table. Next to it she places a glass plate on which is a slab of chocolate sponge cake, layered with rich chocolate icing and topped with an immense , ruby-red strawberry. This is the Sacher Torte, one of the many things for which Vienna has become well known.

Vienna has it all—beautiful buildings, graceful statues, grassy parks where string orchestras play Mozart, Strauss, and Beethoven, and delightful restaurants. It’s said that the Viennese work hard so that they can enjoy life. And one of those pleasant joys to be found in this city is in the hundreds of coffeehouses.

Coffeehouses in Vienna are not like any other. They’re little neighborhood pastry shops and cafés where the Viennese can drop in anytime, have some coffee and pastry while they read their daily newspapers or check the latest news on their laptops. Although patrons can stay as long as they wish without fear of upsetting the owners, during busy hours, it’s the courteous thing to stay only a short time.

Each Viennese coffeehouse is like a little jewel box, richly appointed and cozy, offering shelter from the hustle and bustle of this modern city. The institution dates back to 1683, when for two months Turkish armies laid siege to the city, isolating it from the rest of the world. Though Vienna's defenders numbered only about 15,000, the Turks almost succeeded in breaking through its fortifications.

When a combined force of imperial troops and relief armies from Lorraine, Bavaria, Saxony and Poland broke the siege, the Turks retreated and left behind 300 cannon, 15,000 tents, and lots of coffee beans.

The Austrian Emperor gave the beans to George Franz Kilschitzky, a courier who repeatedly has passed through enemy lines, as a reward for courageous deeds. Kolschitzky learned to roast and brew them and soon opened a coffeehouse.

The strong brew quickly caught on in Vienna and then spread through the rest of Europe. The coffeehouse flourished and café life became a part of the Viennese scene. By the 19th century, most businessmen negotiated their deals in coffeehouses. Men formulated philosophies and political ideologies, wrote books and newspaper articles, analyzed textbooks and lecture notes, composed symphonies, operettas and waltzes, began, cultivated and terminated romances, conveyed letters and messages, embellished memories and exchanged gossip.

Even in the 21st century Vienna's coffeehouses still serve many of these functions. All cultivate the mystique of coffee, offering different types and styles under a variety of fancy and sometimes obscure names. The Viennese like their coffee strong—with milk or cream. For instance, Melange is hot coffee with steamed milk, while cold coffee with vanilla ice cream and whipped cream served in a tall glass is known as Wiener Eiskafee. Pharisaer is coffee with rum, sugar and whipped cream, while Kaffee Kirsch is hot coffee with kirschwasser, the cherry brandy from Switzerland--and so on, and so on.

A variety of warm woods panel the walls in many while crystal sconces beam romantic light and curtains hang in the windows. The walls sparkle with polish, and tiny round ice cream tables stand in front of plushly upholstered banquettes. Waiters wear pressed dinner jackets, while waitresses wear black dresses with white, doily-like aprons. While the atmosphere is formal, the air is informal and a hush-like library environment prevails in some.

Coffeehouse food ranges form open-faced Danish tea sandwiches to rich creams and tortes. The variety of goodies is infinite—Napoleons, cream puffs, tarts and cakes of every description, all topped with mounds of whipped cream, known as Schlag. Coffeehouse owners also use Schlag to lighten a cup of coffee. Many patrons, including myself, like to eat it by the spoonful all by itself.

One of the most famous coffeehouses in this city of waltzes is the Cafe Mozart on Albertinaplatz. Many visitors also stop into the Sacher Hotel Café across from St. Stefan's Cathedral or Demel's, at Kohlmarkt 18, the pastry palace to end them all. Forget the calories and indulge.

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