Cafe Hawelka, Vienna

Cafe Hawelka, photo Robert Mullan

The city of Vienna has forever been associated with creatives: Freud, Mozart and Beethoven to name just three. These and other like-minded souls from the arts, music and science met their peers in what was to become a city institution: the Vienna coffee house. Laterally, during the 1960s artists like Hundertwasser, Werner and von Doderer regularly hung out in these. One can only guess at what was exchanged during their late-night, wine-infused encounters.

Yet the Cafes weren’t just for the gregarious, it provided the more solitary with the ultimate private experience: there they enjoyed the comfort of their own space while surrounded by others. These ’public living rooms’ were open to all, you just had to buy a coffee or a glass of wine or beer and stay as long as you wanted. The concept of a Viennese Cafe has been tried in other cities without success. City and Cafe proved inseparable.

The picture I posted here was taken in Cafe Hawelka, more a city institution than a cafe. It has an unprepossessing exterior, lurking shyly in Dorotheergasse, a side street off the fashionable Steffanplatz, a ‘stone’s throw’ from Am Graben, the most expensive and elegant shopping street in Central Europe. Started by Leopold Hawelka and his wife Josefine in 1939; this proved bad timing, military service beckoned and Leopold was called up. The café had to be closed with the outbreak of WWII. When hostilities ended in 1945, with the building largely intact, he and Josefine lost no time in opening its doors again.

The following years saw Café Hawelka becoming a meeting place for writers, painters and actors. Indeed, writers often considered it their office. Waiters never pressured customers to buy another drink. For the price of a coffee or beer, customers could browse the free papers, read (or write) a novel or just contemplate. All under the watchful eye of proprietor Leopold!

In the wake of visitors like Bill Clinton, Václav Havel, Peter Ustinov and Andy Warhol the small cafe became infested with tourists. Despite this, Leopold stubbornly resisted modernisation. The interior is largely as it was in the 50s, his only concession to modernity: an espresso machine!

When I first visited the cafe almost twenty years ago to do some pictures for Alamy I briefly met the famous host. Then in his nineties, sharp-eyed as ever, watching over his tables while seated near the entrance. When I pointed my Nikon is his direction I got not a picture but a dismissive wave of his hand. But ever the charmer, it was followed by a mischievous smile. To mark his hundredth birthday, in 2011, a postage stamp was issued in his honour. Leopold, son of a Bohemian shoemaker from the village of Kautendorf in Austria’s wine region, died in 2011.