The world in a cup

Sightseeing can be exhausting, museums a chore, beaches sometimes boring — but in a cafe the atmosphere always entertains, writes Brian Johnston.

A long time ago on a trip to Paris, I realised I'd finally been freed from guidebook tyranny and the expectations of friends. I knew this when I walked away from the snaking queues outside Notre Dame and sat in a cafe instead. I was over must-sees. I'd must-seen plenty of gargoyles and rose windows over the years. Everyone said I must see the Mona Lisa, too, but nobody explained how a dull picture of a smirking Italian would contribute to my appreciation of Paris. A cafe is another matter. Locals go to cafes, not cathedrals. In a cafe, you can soak up the native lifestyle, eye the fashions, get a glimpse of people's passions. You can watch the world go by, attempt to decipher a foreign-language newspaper, have a conversation. You can stickybeak at business meetings, the blossoming of new romance, the behaviour of children. Grand sights can't match the intimate look at real life that cafes so effortlessly provide.

In no time at all, you learn plenty about Parisians. You learn they prefer austere espressos except at breakfast, when they dunk croissants into bowls of milky coffee that becomes slick with butter. You'll discover it's cheaper to stand at the bar than sit on the pavement. The Parisians kiss each other a lot, let their dogs lick cream from their fingers, sit for an hour over a single coffee and are never chased away.

Paris walks past. Most cafes have terraces from which to watch the well-dressed, perambulating parade. Guidebooks direct you towards the terraces of Les Deux Magots and Le Flore, once associated with writers and artists. These days, dazed tourists jam elbow-to-elbow over expensive ice-creams, wondering why Sartre and Hemingway bothered. I'd rather relax in any of a string of cafes along rue Linne, rue Soufflot or Place de la Sorbonne, where university students hang out among dog-eared magazines and apple flans like extras in Amelie.

As I grow older, cafe-sitting takes over more and more from sightseeing duties. But I've long been a lover of cafes. The first place I travelled on my own, aged 18, was to Corfu. I remember little about its must-see sights, but have vivid pictures of its cafes on Sunday mornings, full of neatly dressed locals buying pastries for family lunches, delivered in handsome boxes decorated with gold cord and rosebuds. I spent hours at the cafe tables of The Esplanade, watching Corfiots sashay to and fro as a band parped from the wrought-iron bandstand. Locals played cricket on the green, and sometimes the ball landed on a tabletop with a crash of coffee cups.

In Corfu, I got little thimblefuls of coffee accompanied by ergolavi (almond macaroons) or baklava dripping with honey. In Paris, it was baba au rhum, a pastry stuffed with rum-and-raisin cream. In Vienna, I go mad on the indulgent fiaker coffee with hot kirsch, whipped cream and a maraschino cherry. The sweet temptations of local cuisine are good reason enough to hang out in cafes. Even the coffee itself tells you something, whether it's the cream-rich concoctions of central Europe, the sedate latte of Australia's chattering classes, or the cardamom-spiced brew of Oman.

In Oman, elegantly curved coffee pots are practically the national symbol; kitsch monumental versions grace the centres of roundabouts in the capital. Over the years, I've found lovely pockets of cafedom in unexpected places. The Swedes drink more coffee than most. Yellow light from cafes spills out across the cobbles of Stockholm's old town on wintry afternoons, inviting you to warmth and a semla bun stuffed with almond paste.

In Jakarta, cafes are little more than street stalls, where you sit inhaling motorbike fumes and sucking up kopi tubruk, a grainy coffee served with condensed milk. And in Rio de Janeiro, street-corner bars beckon. You stand at the counter and knock back a tiny cafezinho beside workers in paint-smeared overalls and businesswomen in natty suits.

You wouldn't get this pleasing contrast of styles in a museum. Cafes are repositories of culture and history, too, but lots more fun. Vienna provides a fine example. Some of its coffee houses are a marvel of bosom-bursting baroque ceilings, crystal chandeliers and age-spotted mirrors that recall its imperial heyday. Others have a slightly seedy, fin-de-siecle atmosphere where lank-haired students loiter over chess and argue about politics as they munch on plum dumplings.


In the Middle East, even the smallest of villages has coffee houses. They might be little more than a concrete room with metal tables and sawdust on the floor, but they're as much social institutions as anything in Vienna. Old men hang out in them discussing their ailments; you can get infusions in coffee houses, such as cinnamon for the throat or ginger for coughs. Cigarette smoke curls around posters of plump presidents and Egyptian pop sirens, like incense around images of Hindu gods. Sesame halavah is crunched up, and hubble-bubbles burp and bubble. I've sat in cafes like this for hours, playing backgammon and getting dizzy on coffee that has the kick of a camel.

Middle Eastern coffee is black as hell, strong as death, sweet as love, according to a Turkish saying. It's often flavoured with chicory, cardamom or coriander. The thick sludge takes a bit of getting used to. If truth be told, the biggest joy of Middle Eastern coffee houses is neither the coffee nor the dodgy decor but nut-stuffed pastries of magnificent absurdity. In Turkey, I can't resist nightingale's nests, a flaky pastry filled with finely-chopped pistachios soaked in syrup and perfumed with rosewater and lemon. And few things can beat freshly made Turkish delight, which locals call lokum, a word that refers equally to a voluptuous woman. It's the perfect match for the masculinity of thick, dark coffee.

As a frequent traveller, coffee isn't just for enjoyment. It can be a kick-start medicine, too: not always nice when it goes down, but beneficially stimulating. Italians take it like this in the mornings on the way to work, downing strong, dark espressos without lingering. A doppio (double dose) or basso (extra strong) will fix any jet lag. Sometimes I fall back into Aussie habits and ask for a latte or cappuccino, but Italian baristas usually look at me as if I'm halfwitted. Milky brews are for children or invalids.

The coffee plant originates in Ethiopia and was first cultivated in Yemen before spreading across the Islamic world. An Italian physician named Prospero Alpino was the first recorded European to mention coffee. On a trip to Egypt in 1580, he noted it should be enjoyed as a delicacy, and in mouthfuls. Italians have more or less stuck to that. They often have their coffees while standing at the bar, a cultural habit I find hard to appreciate. Coffee goes with resting the feet, as far as I'm concerned.

I like loitering in Italian cafes for all kinds of reasons. Newspapers rustle, white cups clink, the espresso machine grumbles like an old dog dreaming. Good-looking people with movie-star eyelashes come and go, and baristas work in a choreographed dance of metal levers and steam.

Italian baristas pride themselves on producing good crema on their coffees. It holds in the aroma and flavour and should momentarily support the sugar poured from those little sachets. When you've finished, the residue leaves a pale brown froth that creeps slowly down the sides of the cup. A crema that disappears rapidly indicates stale or inferior beans, or excessive roasting. Baristas often leave the empty cups standing on the bar top to prove the point. This is what I learn in Italy, beyond the confines of museum walls.

Sometimes, as in Paris, I'm happy to pay extra for a grandstand seat outdoors. In Rome, Piazza Navona provides baroque architecture and a Bernini fountain where sculpted muscle meets gurgling water. I sit wilting in the evening heat as kids, still loose at midnight, giggle over ice-creams. In Milan, the 19th-century mosaic-studded Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II is just the place to linger in the afternoon, as sun filters through stained glass and Claudia Cardinale lookalikes waft past on clouds of perfume.

For the record, I did actually visit the cathedral in Milan, but I passed on the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana. Apparently, the museum is a must-see for its paintings by Bellini, Tiepolo and Botticelli. But really, there are Botticellis in every Milan cafe, with flowing tresses and luminous skin, updated into Armani and high heels. They come and go, but I doubt they talk of Michelangelo.

Instead, there's chatter and love and life, and you can soak up the Italy of here and now. Hands gesticulate, almond biscuits crunch and sun glints off ice-cream glasses. I never do see The Last Supper in Milan, but my panettone, studded with orange peel and raisins and served with mascarpone, is surely a work of art.