Cafes in Europe—definitely not a Starbucks experience

Here’s the rule of thumb about cafes throughout the parts of Europe we explored: do not go to one unless you have time—and plenty of it—to enjoy the experience.

First you scout out a table. We like the ones not too near someone already smoking; but you need a lot of good luck not to have another patron sit next to you at an empty table and light up a cigarette. Smoking is very popular in these parts and relaxing with a coffee seems to be the best time to light up.

Once you’ve picked out your table, pull the little chairs together so you can talk to one another. Those chairs may not be that easy to pull together since most of these outdoor cafes are on cobblestone or brick surfaces. That also means it’s tough to settle into a chair then scootch it up closer to the table—just warning you! And don’t rock back in your chair in a cafe—most of the sitting, because it needs to accommodate weather outdoors, is done on either folding chairs, metal chairs or plastic chairs. It’s not a sign of less “style,” it’s just practical.

Now comes the first challenge: Figuring out what to order. It’s not really as easy as just saying, “A coffee, black, please.” If only…

Viking passed out a sheet, in fact, giving clues about ordering coffee at Vienna cafes. It’s that complicated. And the document only skimmed the surface of what to ask for.

Okay, as someone who isn’t a coffee devotee, it was pretty darn tough to puzzle out what I wanted. You see, back at home I’ve become accustomed to a mocha a couple of times a week (16-ounce, triple shot of espresso, steamed whole milk, one-third the cocoa and no thanks on the whipped cream). Every place I’ve ever visited makes a mocha. But, evidently, Vienna isn’t up on this bastardization of the coffee protocol. On the Atla, I could push a button and get a “moccacino” from one of the two coffee machines 24/7. It was like a mocha but with coffee instead of espresso; it certainly tasted just fine, though, in the morning when I’d grab a cup and head up to the top deck to greet the day.

But at cafes in Germany and Austria they just looked at me funny when I tried to order a mocha. I’d describe it even and just get shoulder shrugs and a quick suggestion for something entirely different (no, thank you, I don’t need rum in my coffee; at least not at this time). A serendipitous suggestion, though, in Passau (at the Oberhaus cafe view point), resulted in a delicious “iced chocolate.” It was the tastiest cold chocolate milk, a small scoop of vanilla ice cream dropped in the middle and a frothy cap of whipped cream. Yummy, indeed. But not a mocha.

Finally, on a free afternoon in Vienna, I got something close to a mocha—but not without enduring a smirk and outright laughter from two servers. Gary, Marla and I had enjoyed a Vienna adventure outing and decided to top it off with a visit to a real cafe. We chose the Sacher hotel, famous for the eponymous Sachertorte cake.

Side note: It was unexpectedly difficult to find a “real” Austrian cafe that afternoon. We’d visited the farmers’ market with the ship’s chef and had to walk clear back to the center of town to find an Austrian cafe. Evidently we were in the midst of all sorts of international neighborhoods and we found everything but Austrian cafes. We didn’t want Italian or Chinese or French or even English fish and chips—we had a hankering for Austrian (we were in Vienna, you know).

We found an outdoor table just being vacated (don’t ask how; it’s a bit embarrassing to admit we inadvertently cut a queue—which we really hadn’t seen] and perused the minimalist menu. No “mocha” here. I had one more try left in me so I queried the waiter: Could I order steamed milk and espresso with some hot chocolate added in?

The server was incredulous, repeating my request to me. I nodded. The waiter at another table laughed aloud. Really, was it that big of a deal? Starbucks does this all the time…

Our waiter puzzled it out. Finally he complied, but I had to agree to pay for both a hot chocolate and the steamed milk/espresso. Sure, why not? I probably won’t be back in Vienna for at least a week or two.

It arrived and was pretty tasty, but frankly, it didn’t come close to my favorite mochas on the Big Island of Hawaii made from Kona coffee. Hmmm…obviously there are better things to order in Vienna than a “mocha,” but I did it!

After ordering at a cafe you wait. You also wait before ordering, but we’re going to assume you’ve already gotten to this point. And then wait a bit more. Don’t try to catch the waiter’s eye, he has other tables he’s bringing coffees and treats to. And it’s not yours. Not yet.

But the wait is an easy one because the cafes typically are outside on the sidewalk and you can do some world-class people watching while waiting.

When the goodies finally arrive, sit back in that metal chair and take little sips. “Little” because you want to savor the experience and also because those coffees come in very little cups. They’re dear things and there’s a miniature spoon accompanying them. Periodically stir your drink with this small spoon to make a satisfying clink—and make you look like you know what you’re doing. This is not your basic, Denny’s Restaurant “unending” cup of brew so sip. Just sip.

Eventually you’re done though and you’ve discussed everything you can think of with your cafe partners. Or maybe it’s time for dinner, or bed or something else. But those waiters have not rushed you by trying to hustle you along with a check. Nope. They can’t be accused of that at all. You have to ask for the check in a European cafe and then you still will likely wait a bit longer to receive it.

But why hurry? You’re in a cafe and time is just a number on a clock.

Categories: Uncategorized | 8 Comments

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8 thoughts on “Cafes in Europe—definitely not a Starbucks experience

  1. Julie Matthews

    Thank You! Thank You! Thank You! I have been enjoying your blog sooo much! We leave next month for our Viking Budapest to Amsterdam cruise. Your charming and witty blog is just the thing we needed to get even more excited about our first river cruise (didn’t think that was possible).


  2. Michelle carrafa

    I am enjoying this were you charged extra for sitting outdoors I believe in Italy your coffee could be 3 times as much had you sat inside.


    • I don’t believe the prices were any higher for sitting outside at the cafe anywhere we were, Michelle. The menu passed out in both locations was the same.


  3. Karen Baker

    Your coffee ordeal reminded me of here….Gold Beach is in Curry County…..out best known saying here is: no hurry in Curry 😀 I totally love your blogs!


  4. I think the attitude in Europe must be that it would be an insult to rush you out of the place. Very different from our “time is money” attitude. I blame it all on Ben Franklin and his aphorisms.


  5. Carolyn

    Don’t you love the “pace” of life in Europe? In Ireland it is what made the biggest impression on me.I never saw a person walking and drinking out of a to-go cup. If you wanted to eat or drink, you took time to sit and enjoy it. I think we could learn something valuable from them! I have so enjoyed reading your blog. Thanks for sharing your trip with all of us.


  6. Dagmar

    I sympathize about having to make choices based on smoking conditions. I too had had to sit outside when I would have preferred to be indoors. When we were in Vienna a couple of years ago we drank melanges, which are the closest thing to lattes we could find. My favorite cafe was Demel where you could actually watch them make pastries. Can’t wait to hear about your adventures in Budapest.


  7. I assume that you’re home now and recovering from jet lag. Thanks so much for your blogging. I’ve recommended it to several people who are getting ready to take their first river cruise. It’s been consistently great from packing to coffee drinking! Thanks again!!


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