European cafes: the place to engage in long talks, read, or scribble in your journal
When the feet can't make it to the next museum, when the eyes won't focus on another flying buttress, and the mind rebels at the babel of strange languages, the thing to do in Europe is to sit down in a cafe and let the world pass by.
Cafes are the favorite continental refuge, and cafe-sitting is perhaps the No. 1 sport. Though it's best practiced in the outdoor months when wicker chairs and tables spill across sidewalks and piazzas from the Seine to the Tiber, from Venice to Stockholm, there is little letup in fall and winter when sheaths of window glass are all that separate you from the passing scene.
Off-season cafe-sitting is a slightly different ritual, though - more conducive to engaging in long talks or putting one's head in a good book or scribbling in a journal. Though the popularity of Europe's cafes rises and falls like autumn hemlines, the worthy ones seem to carry on from year to year. Among some personal favorites:
One could write a book on the cafes of Paris (no doubt someone has) and it would take a fat chapter to deal with those of St. Germain des Pres, once and always the literary quarter. On Boulevard St. Germain, cafe sitters have worn a triangular path between Les Deux Magots, Cafe le Flore, and Brasserie Lipp. Deux Magots, at No. 170, is the birthplace of surrealism, and the scene of almost nonstop sidewalk theater. In the evenings the broad pavement on one side is staked out by touring fire-eaters and mimes who mock the gaits of unsuspecting passersby.
Cafe le Flore at No. 172 was once the home of the existentialists, of Simone de Beauvoir and Sartre and sometimes Camus, and Picasso often sat at the second table in front of the main door sipping a bottle of mineral water and talking quietly with his Spanish friends. Today it's a hangout for publishing types whose offices are concentrated in the quartier, but the white-aproned waiters give one and all the same service, brisk verging on brusque.
Across the street, Brasserie Lipp, as much an eating as a roosting spot, attracts politicians and film producers and writers who come, as Hemingway did 60 years ago, for the tasty choucroute. Hemingway, who knew the temptation of cafes, wrote in ''A Moveable Feast'' of avoiding the Deux Magots after lunch at Lipp so he could get back to work at his table at the Closerie des Lilas in Montparnasse, another quarter full of good cafes.
Romans love terrazza-sitting in all seasons. The sweet-toothed and the sentimental are drawn to Tre Scalini on the Piazza Navona where three fountains, including one by the sculptor Bernini, play day and night - and customers pick at the famous house tartufo, a chocolaty confection that is imitated but never bettered worldwide. One of the most up-to-the-minute cafes is Rosati on the Piazza del Popolo. Here Rome's beautiful people, the belle gente, show up at late hours in purring roadsters and sit for long periods over dishes of fruit-flavored gelati.
In Venice, a walker's city that demands periodic rest stops, no one should avoid the Cafe Florian, as much a tourist sight as the Bridge of Sighs or the Doges' Palace. Florian even rates a few lines in the architecture-heavy Michelin green guide to Italy, which notes the 1720 founding date and mentions such famous customers as Byron, Goethe, and George Sand. While the Quadri Cafe, just across the Piazza San Marco, is a morning refuge, Florian gets the afternoon traffic, shaded as it is from the slanting sun, which colors the Basilica San Marco a warm rose. Under an awning behind potted palms a piano player and violinist pour out Mozart and Gershwin.
Europe's best cafes are by no means confined to the warm Latin lands. Copenhagen, for example, is rich with cafes, not only in Tivoli, which closes down in the fall but on the somewhat trendy Grey Friars Square a few blocks from the shopping street, Strotjet. Something of a bygone Copenhagen still lives at the sidewalk terrace of the Hotel D'Angleterre, a handsome, red-brick, turreted building in the heart of the old town. Danish grand dames while away afternoons, and bright young Copenhageners pop in and out, going to and from the Royal Theater across the square. For a snack there is no resisting the open-faced smorrebrod or the crisp pastries, not called Danish here but Vienerbrod, Vienna bread.
In Stockholm there is nothing grander than a seat at the glassed-in Grand Hotel cafe on the harbor, but a personal favorite is the Stortorgskalleren, hidden away on a little square in the Old Town. This cellar restaurant has a narrow sidewalk cafe it keeps open as long as the Nordic weather permits. Around the square rise rows of restored 14th-century townhouses with their fanciful ochre, rose, and orange facades. Directly across the square stands the old balustraded Stock Exchange where the Swedish Academy debates and announces the Nobel Prize for Literature each year. If hunger strikes, the cafe's little crocks of pickled herrings will more than do.
In any roundup of European cafes one shouldn't forget the atmospheric little houses of Vienna - the Demel, the Sacher, Landtmann, Hawelka - or those on the Grand Place in Brussels or on the Leidseplein in Amsterdam. Part of the sport, of course, is discovering a new cafe, one that may or may not have an illustrious history or a large clientele but one you can forever call your own.