James Stewart takes an espresso crawl from Vienna to Trieste, where Europe's cafe culture kick-started in 1719
In retrospect, Oliver Goetz may not have been the best person to ask about Vienna's coffee culture. In his artisan roastery in Wieden district, Alt Wien Kaffee (altwein.at), bearded 30-somethings nurse flat whites at a counter and earnestly discuss bean varieties.
"What the historic kaffeehaus serves has similarities to our coffee," Oliver concedes. "I mean, beans are involved." But there is no progress in those cafes, he says. "They navel-gaze. Ask for a flat white and they look at you as if you're crazy, whereas here . . ." Cue another sidetrack about brew methods.
Honestly, you would think hipsters had invented coffee culture. In every city, tattooed baristas get nerdy over single-source beans and "mouthfeel" (don't ask).
Don't get me wrong. I'm all for celebrating how far we have travelled since Mellow Bird's. What the cool kids don't acknowledge, though, is that their obsession is nothing new. Europe's first coffee hipsters were the Habsburgs - and their infatuation began 300 years ago.
When Charles VI designated Trieste a free port in 1719, the raw ingredients of a hitherto obscure Middle Eastern beverage arrived by the shipful (the story goes that Austria discovered coffee in 1683, when troops found sacks of the stuff in Ottoman camps after the Battle of Vienna). The empire went coffee crazy. Gilded salons flourished in Vienna and Trieste, which developed Europe's first cafe culture.
To mark the anniversary, slow-travel specialist Inntravel has launched a coffee-themed rail trip along the Habsburg import route: four imperial cities in three countries (Austria, Slovenia and Italy), with self-guided walks, cafe recommendations and accommodation in small historic hotels. I wondered if Habsburg coffee culture lingered. Did hipsters owe anything to the dynasty?
The trip begins in Vienna. It has to, really. Not only was the Austrian capital the seat of Habsburg power, but its cafe culture also has Unesco's approval. Vienna has historic cafes the way Rome has churches. They are sanctuaries to be found on every corner, with Thonet chairs and wood panelling instead of pews and altars. Their waiters - always male, generally middle-aged, usually as starchy as their black-and-whites - officiate with the air of priests.
I wander through the Hofburg, the palace from which the Habsburgs ruled for half a millennium (it's big). Disappointingly, there is a Starbucks outside. I am en route to Cafe Central (cafecentral.wien), dating from 1876, where Sigmund Freud and Leon Trotsky were regulars.
A doorman in a bowler hat and a white silk scarf nods me into the place, all gilded arches on faux marble columns. Oil paintings of Habsburg power-couple Emperor Franz Joseph I and Empress Elizabeth hang on a back wall. All the elements of Habsburg cafe society are here: the waiters, the brass chandeliers, the newspapers hung on a rack, the chess sets, the menu. I blink at its list of 15 unrecognisable coffees (see panel, below). I'm not sure hipsters would have liked my Wiener melange coffee: too weak, too frothy. They might also have rolled their eyes at the reverential atmosphere.
The thing to understand, says Daniel Burghauser, manager of cafe number two - Cafe Landtmann (landtmann.at), an institution from 1873 favoured by Marlene Dietrich - is that a Viennese coffee house is not about coffee. "It's the atmosphere, the reading newspapers, the being alone but in company. It feels like home."
Actually, this salon richly walled in marquetry panels feels as if the Habsburg empire never ended. It appears to be what Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig called "a sort of democratic club, open to everyone [for hours] for the price of a cheap cup of coffee": a young chap wearing a Loden jacket; four businessmen in a meeting; an elderly woman who scowls over Die Presse newspaper. No one is in any particular rush.
"Vienna is not like London or Rome or Madrid," Burghauser continues. "To drink coffee as fast as an espresso?" He shakes his head. "It's crazy."
It doesn't help that Vienna has been told about its genteel manners for so long that it has come to enshrine them. Name another European metropolis where horse-drawn carriages still clip-clop around the centre ($107 for 20 minutes if you are keen) or operagoers don dress tails. Quite.
Still, isn't nostalgia why you come? Cafe Pruckel (prueckel.at), styled where Mitteleuropa meets midcentury, is like a cafe by Wes Anderson, the director of The Grand Budapest Hotel. The oldest cafe on Ringstrasse, the Habsburg's grandest promenade, Cafe Schwarzenberg (cafe-schwarzenberg.at) has world-weary waiters who appear to have been on shift since 1861.
You can almost smell the moustache wax in Graz, too. My early train had thrummed south across flats then looped into alpine foothills. The Semmering line that linked Vienna to the Adriatic was the wonder of the empire when it opened in 1854. Today it is just a lovely ride, past grazing cows and chalets and pistes glistening among pine trees.
I disembark into a Lilliputian Vienna. There are Baroque palaces and unironic Tracht shops in cobbled streets. Bells peal for Mass. Graz is pretty, prosperous, a little insular, perhaps, but vivified by daring galleries and a large student population.
I see the sights: the castle where Leopold III signed the treaty that seized Trieste from Venice in 1382; the Kunsthaus gallery, which throbs like an ambient rave at 10 to the hour. I also visit studenty cafes. Tribeka cafe (tribeka.at) is minimalist, industrial chic. Murinsel (murinselgraz.at) is a glass bean floating on the river. Introduced when Graz became European Capital of Culture in 2003, it is fun and a little disorientating, though that could have been the mocha with red wine and vodka.
So, onwards south the next day. At Spielfeld, a guard in a grey uniform disembarks. Another in a teal-green number boards. "Dober dan," he says - hello - and we trundle from Austria into the rustic fairytale of Slovenia: white churches on hummocky hills, haybarns silvered in the sun.
Habsburg DNA runs through Ljubljana. It has the requisite hilltop castle, the Baroque streets in fondant colours, the Germanic obedience to pedestrian crossing signs. Yet the pea-green river is a parade of al fresco cafes. The mood is lighter. Italianate, almost.
It is in Trieste that the empire's strands knit together. I'd arrived on an early train. It turned a corner and there, suddenly, was shimmering sea. You knew it was coming but it still dazzled after days inland.
The Habsburgs' only seaport, Trieste remains a coffee town. Home to Hausbrandt (founded in 1892) and Illy (1933), it lands two million sacks annually. What surprises is the Habsburg swagger. Empress Elizabeth's statue is outside the palatial train station; Leopold I waggles his sceptre at Trieste Commodity Exchange, built in 1755 by Empress Maria Theresa, who also planned the quarter of 19th-century banks and insurance companies with mosaic floors and portentous statuary.
In the Commercial Museum, the manager tells me Trieste fared better under Austro-Hungary. Trieste isn't Italian, he confides conspiratorially: "People here look to Austria more than to Rome."
And the Habsburg cafes remain. The oldest, Caffe Tommaseo (caffetommaseo.it), established in 1830, is a refined pleasure-palace with musician cherubs and buxom belles on its arches. Caffe degli Specchi (caffespecchi.it), on Piazza Unita d'Italia, a square of splendid Mitteleuropa pomp, has the requisite smart waiters and baffling menus. What's different is the clientele - Italians are slugging down espressos at the counters as garrulous as starlings. They would have a fit back in Vienna.
I end in Caffe San Marco. James Joyce and poet Umberto Saba favoured its art-nouveau salon; author Claudio Magris still does. Around me, students study on laptops (the Wi-Fi is free), blokes read papers, friends gossip. It is Zweig's "democratic club" writ large, a secular retreat in which to while away a day writing or discussing ideas, even if that is online.
I sit with a macchiato and ponder. I can see how Freud or Joyce would have flourished here. In a modern coffee chain? Not so much. It also strikes me that the 1719 deal didn't simply launch European coffee culture - it changed our civilisation.
Maybe point that out next time a hipster bangs on about latte art.
A Habsburg coffee reader
Coffee geeks are in for a shock in Vienna and Trieste. The wellsprings of Habsburg cafe culture have their own coffee lexicons. Indeed, if you want to confuse a waiter ask for a "kaffee".
In Vienna, basic coffee means a kleiner brauner - a large or small espresso with a jug of milk to taste, an improvement on customers selecting strengths by a brown colour chart in the heyday of kaffeehaus. An espresso is a kleiner schwarzer.
The city's classic beverage is a Wiener melange - espresso with equal parts steamed and frothed milk.
A verlangerter approximates an Americano while a kaffee verkehrt approaches a latte. Order a salon einspanner and your double espresso will arrive obscured beneath whipped cream.
A second menu includes booze. Vienna's exclusive beverage is the Maria Theresia (perhaps the Habsburg empress had a taste for orange liqueur and whipped cream). A kaisermelange has egg yolk, honey and a shot of cognac stirred through. The black coffee with liquid sugar, red wine and vodka I had in Graz? A kosaken kaffee.
In Trieste, all this changes. Here an espresso is a nero and a capo a macchiato. Ask for either "in B" and your drink will come in a glass (a bicchiere) - better than china to savour flavours, a barista told me.
A goccia is an espresso with a drop of milk foam in the centre. All come in decaffeinated "deca" versions.
And your beverage is always served on a silver tray alongside a glass of water with a spoon balanced on top.
— Telegraph Media Group
On the Trail of the Habsburgs (inntravel.co.uk) costs $1940pp sharing. The price includes eight nights' B&B in four and five-star hotels, walking notes and Vienna-Graz-Ljubljana-Trieste rail travel. For more information on Vienna and Graz, visit the Austrian National Tourist Office (austria.info)