Cafe Culture Flourishes Anew in Bratislava's Old Town ; the Tradition Was Halted in the Communist Era to Limit Social Interaction

By Germanova, Miroslava | International New York Times, August 12, 2016 | Go to article overview

Cafe Culture Flourishes Anew in Bratislava's Old Town ; the Tradition Was Halted in the Communist Era to Limit Social Interaction


Germanova, Miroslava, International New York Times


A wide variety of coffeehouses, once subdued by Communist authorities eager to limit social contacts, have sprung up across the Slovakian city's Old Town.

The aroma of roasted coffee beans filled the air on a recent morning at U Kubistu, one of Bratislava's sleekest cafes. It is as popular with Wi-Fi-addicted college students looking for a hangout as it is with well-heeled professionals seeking a quick morning jolt.

The broad appeal of modern cafes like U Kubistu, and the wider availability of better-quality coffee in Slovakia's capital, may seem old hat to urban dwellers long used to caffeine options on every block.

But in Bratislava, they have ushered in a revival of a grand cafe culture -- interrupted during the Communist era, when the authorities tried to limit social interaction -- and have injected energy into the city's sleepy Old Town.

A decade ago, Bratislava's cafe scene was unremarkable: Hidden in shopping malls, coffee shops served bland, utilitarian fare. Traditional cafes in the Old Town, like Kaffee Mayer, with its classic dark-wood furniture and gilded accents, attracted tourists lured mostly by history.

The first cafes opened in Bratislava in the 18th century, when aristocrats sipped European-style coffee and wine in elegantly appointed salons. They could play chess, cards or billiards and read the latest newspapers. By the 19th century, the middle classes -- merchants, lawyers, doctors and artists -- joined them.

"Every group of people had their own favorite place," said Peter Salner, a professor of ethnology at Comenius University in Bratislava who studied the history of the city's cafes.

Up and down Bratislava's social registry, residents could find what Professor Salner called "a social asylum," where they could freely mix with their neighbors in public.

This cafe culture reached its peak during the interwar period, when students, writers and artists all had their favorite cafes where they could "fight about politics," Professor Salner said. Some cafes organized concerts or cabarets at night.

That social space disappeared after World War II, when the Communist rulers of Czechoslovakia frowned on social networks outside official spheres, and Bratislavans mostly sipped their coffee at home.

When the Iron Curtain fell in 1989, and after Slovakia split from the Czech Republic in 1993, young people were able to travel more freely, experience the open cafe culture in Western Europe and sample exotic coffees imported from Latin America and Africa. The old cafes were no longer good enough.

"All of a sudden, people started seeing coffee as a gourmet thing," said Jan Krekan, owner of Stur Cafe in Bratislava. Mr. Krekan's cafe, which opened in 2010, was the precursor of the modern Bratislava coffee house.

"We wanted to make a little cafe revolution," Mr. Krekan said, by moving away from the quick-stop coffee shop model and creating a "third place," after home and work, where customers could come regularly to meet friends and enjoy decidedly better coffee.

Stur, named for Ludovit Stur, who is credited with inventing the modern Slovak language, opened on a relatively quiet street in the Old Town near Comenius University. …

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