Wednesday, January 4, 2012

In praise of the Hawelka

There are hundreds of Kaffehäuser, but for many the Café Leopold Hawelka (or just the Hawelka for short) has a special claim. It's been untrammelled by the snares of modernisation (though the recent addition of free WiFi is certainly a boon). Although immaculate, it wears its history on its slightly grimy sleeve. The posters that crowd the wall range from the bang up-to-date to the faded glories of the late 20th century. The telephone booth has the whiff of John Le Carré and the strong smell of Hausblend permeates across the dark space. All in all, atmosphere is everything at the Hawelka.

It was a great sadness, then, to hear on arriving in Vienna last week that Herr Hawelka had died. His 100 years of life witnessed everything from the collapse of the Empire, the attrition of the Great War, the establishment of a Republic, the rise of the Nazis, his own time in the Wehrmacht, the battle of Stalingrad and a return to a broken Vienna. Leopold had opened the café before the war, but it was only in 1945 that the place really hit is stride. Just a stone's throw from Stephansplatz, it would become the haunt of the disgruntled artist, the conductor, the playwright, the office worker and the tourist.

Sitting in the Hawelka last week, there was a sense of continued history, despite Leopold's absence. After the death of Frau Hawelka, Leopold began to take a slightly more back seat attitude to the café, though his presence on the morning shift (or in the photos on the walls) often belied a handover. You might be pushed to imagine that among the throngs of regulars are the geniuses of tomorrow, but there is something timeless about the great institution. As we sat there drinking another glass of Averna, Hawelka's legacy seemed primed to continue for a century after his death.

Click here to read an obituary of Leopold Hawelka (1911-2011) from the 30th December edition of the Daily Telegraph.