By TIM RICHARDS
Nothing succeeds like nostalgia. The Berlin Wall has crumbled, Red Square is infiltrated by burger chains and China is into capitalism in a big way. But the red flag is kept flying in the most unlikely of places: the hilly city of Wellington.
When Helen Clark became Prime Minister in 1999, some locals dubbed the city "Helengrad". But there's more to the Soviet flashbacks than a short-lived political quip. To get to the heart of the matter, take a stroll down Cuba St, in the city centre.
Named after one of the first British ships to arrive in the founding days of the city, it has since evolved into a popular shopping strip.
At one end, a dowdy mall is lined by respectable department stores and bakeries. As it trails away from the centre, however, it becomes refreshingly alternative. Tattoo parlours, new age shops and ethnic restaurants vie for attention from passers-by navigating its narrow footpaths. And near the end lies Fidel's, the city's most famous cafe. As you'd expect, its name is not coincidental.
A portrait of the bearded revolutionary leader hangs above a slogan promising "Every cup perfect". The windows are frosted with his profile, and photos of his Caribbean island hang on the walls.
Owner Roger Young says the connection is more than skin deep. "We sell Cuban coffee, supplied by Havana Coffee Works." He also thinks the communist connection appeals to his local customers. "Wellingtonians like to think they're part of some kind of revolution."
There is certainly evidence of political consciousness across the picturesque capital city, with frequent graffiti addressing genetic engineering, overseas wars and other hot topics of the day.
Fidel's is a relaxed, slightly shabby cafe. Optimistically, considering Wellington's perpetually windy weather, there are two outside courtyards. Inside, it spreads through two former shops. The second room still sports the title "Super Cuts", from the hairdressing salon that once occupied it.
Wellingtonians swear by the coffee, and tourists are drawn by the ambience. Even actors from the Lord of the Rings trilogy were known to drop in between filming. The atmosphere is a slice of Wellington: relaxed, friendly, and intellectually stimulating. With Fidel's distinctive bowl of coffee and a newspaper at your elbow, you're set for the day.
Across town, in the more establishment area of Lambton Quay, Pravda offers an elegant take on the communist nostalgia theme. Its polished wood walls and high ceilings suggest a European coffee house of the Viennese variety. The decor is complemented by busts of Lenin, and large hanging banners in Russian and Estonian.
Not far from Pravda is one of Wellington's newest bars, Red Square. This is done out in the smoothest modern style, with curved plush seating, low lights and gleaming fittings. It could be a fashionable drinking hole dropped in from any international city.
But the down-to-earth vibe of Fidel's is definitely the template for Wellington cafes. Along Cuba St and through the downtown area, they compete to be ever more chipped, scuffed and easygoing. Another popular establishment with the downbeat look is Espressoholic in Courtenay Place. They serve a great Afghan biscuit, in unpretentious surrounds.
Wellington has an atmosphere of its own, with its undulating terrain, weatherboard houses and narrow streets. Though the dominant cafe decor is grunge rather than chic, it has an undeniable comfort and appeal.
Young would agree. "There are some of the best cafes in the world here. It's because the owners are varied and lively, and really enjoy what they do. That's why I do it."
So enjoy Wellington's cafe life and drink a comradely toast to Soviet-era nostalgia.
By TIM RICHARDS