It happened like this. We were wandering around Nitra, on a snowy evening in December, checking out log baskets on the Christmas market (a present for my father). They had a great deal of choice. The selection process took some time. We were cold and exhausted in the way that only shopping for presents can exhaust you. Our car, for some reason, was parked far away. We struggled off, basket-burdened, down Kupecká, one of the pedestrianised streets that fans out from Nitra’s circular Námestie.
And there was the Antikvariat (aka antiquarian bookstore) – pretty much the only welcoming light on an otherwise dark wintry street. In we went, based on afore-mentioned tiredness primarily but also because wherever I am in whichever city, I’m always happy to give secondhand bookstores a browse. And based also, perhaps, on the fact that the welcoming signs on the glass (come read on our terrace, come speak a little English at our speaking table – speaking table is not quite as fairytale like as it sounds, but the phrase Slovaks give to weekly foreign-language practicing sessions) gave the feel of the place a certain something that whetted our curiousity.
The Antikvariat, or to give it its official name, Pod Vrškom, is far more than any old secondhand bookstore. Temporarily, in fact, as you come through the door you temporarily forget about the books because you find yourself in a rather elegant (and I mean the word in the hipster sense, “hipster” being the term by which most cool, alternative places run in a kinda counter-culture way by young people are known) cafe. Cafe Libresso. Yeah. Ancient standard lamps lean gutterally to provide subtle lighting over the kind of creaking old coffee tables you’d expect at your grandmother’s house. Books and magazines pile against one wall hung with photographs of trees. The ceiling when you look up is a huge abstract mural. The counter when you look down again is full of temptations (three types of cheesecake, several types of homemade biscuit, genuinely alluring baguettes – and anyone who has spent long in Slovakia will know that as a rule baguettes sold in kiosks and cafes are the very opposite of enticing) that made me think of Kerouac gushing about the sweet treats on offer in a diner when he walks into one, cold and hungry, in the dead of night at the beginning of Visions of Cody.
The speciality coffee came thick and rich and strong (they bring it with water to dilute but have it without and it’s Slovakia’s best coffee experience). Or you could have your brew Pod Vrškom style, that is, with banana and whipped cream. The chocolate cheesecake, if it’s on, is pretty much essential – er – eating. And the ambience – the cafe part of Pod Vrškom only opened in 2013 – is just what you want for a respite from a chilly winter’s evening.
The secondhand bookshop out the back is another delight – a veritable Aladdin’s cave of books with one of Western Slovakia’s best record selections (they’re expensive, mind but the selection is good-quality). All told, it’s couple of hours you could while away here.
And the BUT? For me, the Antikvariat is a wintertime place – perhaps because of this first, favourable impression. A summer visit recently did not feel quite the same. Perhaps because, on this occasion, I mis-remembered what type of coffee I’d gone for before. Perhaps because they didn’t have on any of the promising homemade cider. Perhaps because it was a different and less-friendly waitress serving. Perhaps because the bookshop/record shop was closed (it closes daily at 6pm, although the cafe goes on until 9pm). The summertime street front seating area has been done very well – a delightfully disordered mix of leather sofas, garden benches and beat old wooden chairs for the seats, some books to peruse).
But you know how it is. Ever been back to that lovely restaurant you lounged on the terrace of in summer in, I don’t know, Greece? Then gone back on a cold rainy day, necessarily wanted to sit inside and found the ambience somewhat lacking. Some places have an outside ambience but no indoor ambience. And Cafe Libresso is the opposite. It’s indoors where you want to be and that’s not so desirable in summer.
I’ll be back. But I’ll leave it until dusk on a November afternoon when I want a pick-me-up. Before 6pm, of course, so I can buy some vinyl and some old dusty volume too.
LOCATION: Kupecká 7 – that’s not the main pedestrianised shopping street leading off from Svätoplukovo Námestie but the next one round in a clockwise direction.
OPENING: 9am-9pm (cafe); 9am-6pm (bookshop/record shop)
BEST TIME TO VISIT: 4pm-5pm on a winter afternoon
NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From the Antikvariat it’s 30km east to Arborétum Mlyňany