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Coffee and Tea Culture in Slovakia: the Kaviaren versus the Čajovna

Before 1989, partaking of a good beverage was significantly more limited than it is today in Slovakia.

But particularly where coffee was concerned. Almost everyone drank the same brand, heralding from Poprad – an underwhelming and grainy affair by most accounts (and that is only to mention the best of them). No one thought to question its origin beyond that. It was there, and that was what counted. Better beans were available on a prestigious foreign market that you could buy with bonds – if you happened to have foreign currency to pay for them, which you could only really obtain if you had relatives living “in the west”.

A quality array of teas was more widespread. After all, tea could be made with the herbs and fruits that grew in the woods and hills looming large across Czechoslovakia (foraging is still a popular alternative to relying on what is offered in the supermarkets today). This is much more likely to explain why discerning tea culture continued to develop whilst coffee culture took a tumble (ironic, with Vienna so near and yet so far) than, for example, the age-old influence of the Turkish on the region.

Come the 1990s and tea in Slovakia was often a fine-tuned and sophisticated thing, enjoyed in a range of čajovny (teahouses) which were as often as not the hangouts of the Bohemian sect. Coffee – at least the half-decent varieties of coffee enjoyed in kaviarne, or cafes, continued to be at best what Slovaks know as presso, low-grade espresso made in a simple presso machine.

But Slovaks, since then, and in spite of the fact they are ultimately a home-loving people, began spending time away in other parts of Europe, North America and Australia. When they did, they often ended up working in catering. They got exotic ideas and brought them back to Slovakia.

Slovaks jump to adopt and embrace foreign trends if those trends seem like winners. Pizza and pasta caught on quickly. Craft beer is the latest craze. Good coffee came somewhere between the pasta and the craft beer. It seems to have been a learning curve, slow, but steadier and steadier and only really developing into a “scene” worth talking about in the last five or six years. And a scene it is. The likes of Bratislava’s Štúr (2010) and Bistro St Germain, plus perhaps Košice’s Caffe Trieste spearheaded it: good coffee in atmospheric surroundings, in these cases with cheap, healthy lunches on offer too.

A ton more places have followed suit. This new brand of cafes have several traits. They seem, like the čajovny have been for a while now, to be real “worlds” – autonomous provinces free from the regulations, realities and disappointments of external goings-on, or at least refuges from them. They are also uncrowded worlds, which renders them all the more inviting. They are generally owned/operated by young people who have a passion for stamping their own unique take on how things should be. In Bratislava and Košice, many inhabit Old Town buildings looking out on streets where aimless wandering is often a visitor’s main concern – and at a slow pace, because of the cobbles:) – it would not take too beguiling a pavement cafe table to waylay anyone here. And there is not just one or two – there are many. They veritably assail you from within 18th-century buildings (buildings which, it must be admitted, suit standing in as cafes very well). They invariably capitalise on one major Achilles heel of the average Slovak – an inability to think about going through the day without a hearty lunch – and do well from it. All told, it is no surprise why Slovakia, in 2013, were the world’s sixth-biggest per capita coffee drinkers.

If anything, in Slovakia it’s the quality čajovna that now seems underground (underground meaning the scene generally but sometimes, yes, literally underground) compared to the kaviareň / cafe. That said, more places serve up top-notch tea than they do top-notch espresso, so it seems to me. With the coffee, it’s a work in progress. But already a very good work.

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Poprad: Nine Reasons to Linger

Poprad is the gateway to the High Tatras. Whether you’re coming here by road or rail you’ll have to pass through this sizeable city to those tempting and frankly quite bizarre looking mountains just beyond. And of course the question is: why stop? Why indeed, when there’s the beginnings of a mountain wilderness with scintillating hiking, and climbing – and some pretty exceptional skiing just a half hour’s drive or mountain rail ride away? The question seems more poignant yet when you see Poprad’s centre which, somewhat marred by tasteless ’60’s and ’70’s development, is no Levoča – not, in other words, with a great deal of old-fashioned charm (although in fairness it has been spruced up no end of late and now sports leafy boulevards, revamped museums and a burgeoning pavement cafe culture). But after a concentrated couple of days in Poprad recently, Englishmaninslovakia has come up with a list of Poprad’s plus points – and the list is longer than many might think.

1: Get the Info

Before you rush off into the mountains, it’s worth pausing to find out exactly what you can (and, sometimes, can’t) do there – and Poprad is the fount of all Tatras outdoor activities knowledge. There are several key bases you might want to head to – Ždiar for culture, Tatranská Lomnica for the highest mountains, Starý Smokovec area for some of the main chairlifts up into the mountains proper (and the most abundant accommodation) or Štrbské Pleso for the biggest ski resort, great hiking and that cherry on the cake of Tatras Hotels, Grand Hotel Kempinski. Do you, for example, want to go husky sledding? Would you like to stay in fancy accommodation or huddle in a mountain house? Do you like hanging from a chain off a precipice or not?

The answers to all these and more will influence where you want to end up, and Poprad’s perfect for providing answers. You can check out the pleasant little tourist information office or scout out the veritable mine of Tatras information that is Adventoura tours (actually Poprad’s coolest tour agency and offering loads of different activities).

Yeah – so get all the info you need, which will take an hour or two, and then go off and do something like – well – one of the things right below!

2: Spišská Sobota

Spišská Sobota is one of the best-preserved clutches of medieval architecture anywhere in Slovakia. It doesn’t grab the headlines like nearby Levoča does but it’s almost as splendid. The Gothic Kostol Svätého Juraja (Church of St George) at the western end of the long tapered oval of the námestie dates from the 13th century originally and – get this – the enigmatic but highly regarded Master Pavol was responsible for the altar here. Just across the way is the church architect’s old workshop.

Culinary Cool

But quality is kept high in the modern day too in Spišská Sobota. Arguably Poprad’s best restaurants flank the square here (such as Vino & Tapas, where the owner cooked for the Queen when she visited Poprad, on the northern side – or Fortuna on the southern side). Then there’s the atmospheric accommodation options in and around the square (again, in our opinion, Poprad’s best (Penzión SabatoPenzión Fortuna or, a block off the square, Penzión Plesnivec).

Oh, and how do you find Spišská Sobota? You take the main road Štefánikova and follow it (or the river running alongside it) east from the centre for about 1.5km, past Aqua City, then turning left at the sign for Penzión Plesnivec. Or follow the river along passing Aqua City until you hit the bridge by Hotel Sobota, turn left then take the first right up the hill to where you can already see the Spišská Sobota church tower.

3: Aqua City

Poprad’s Aqua City is the perfect way to counteract and sooth any aches and pains from a strenuous few days’ worth of hiking. Nigh-on 20 indoor and outdoor geothermal pools, all with temperatures in the mid- to high thirties (and that’s after being reduced from a natural 49 degrees): Aqua City might look starkly modern but its comforts are guaranteed – it’s one of Eastern Europe’s most well-appointed spa/wellness centres. There’s a hotel and wellness centre, of course, with cryotherapy and Thai massage centres & the like…

The High Tatras in their morning glory from Kvetnica

The High Tatras in their morning glory from Kvetnica

4: Kvetnica

Ten minutes’ drive outside Poprad is a forest park which gives you better views of the High Tatras than you get in the High Tatras (if you want an overview of the whole range, that is). There’s a farm here which may be your best chance to see the timid mouflon (large-horned mountain sheep) that have a large enclosure of several acres here. In Kvetnica there’s also a network of hiking and mountain biking trails and a chateau. Kvetnica is also much more verdant than a lot of the Tatras are – it makes for a gentle and enjoyable afternoon’s walk. Ask at the Poprad Tourist Information how to find it – it can be quite tricky.

5: Podtatranské Muzeum 

This museum has a fascinating new exhibition on the ancient treasures of a 4th-century Germanic prince dug up recently during construction of an industrial park, as well as permanent exhibits on Poprad since, er, Neolithic times. It’s recently moved to a new location in Spišská Sobota

6: The Tatranská Galeria (Tatras Art Gallery)

This art gallery is well worth a visit – you don’t expect to encounter culture in a mountain resort supply town but here it most definitely is. We’ve recently written this new post about the venue at  Hviezdoslavová 12 known as the Elektráreň (Power Plant). It hosts some pretty damned good exhibitions!

7: Cool Cafes (and Caffes) from Belltowers to Bistros!

In one of several buildings that still retains its old-fashioned grace (the bell tower right behind the church in central Poprad), the mean espresso mini-chain Caffe Trieste has opened its doors. I mean “mean” in terms of the cafe’s ability to produce a mean espresso, of course; not that its staff are mean (they’re not!). There’s also a wine bar here (upstairs up the spiral staircase) – making this the city centre’s most atmospheric drinking spot by a country mile.

See our article on Poprad’s suavest new cafe

 8: Bon Bon Chocolates

Oh, what is that beautiful correlation between mountain town resorts and chocolatiers? I don’t know, but I’m very happy with it. This is one of the best chocolatiers in Slovakia, and it’s right by the train station. I’d argue it’s even worth missing your train for. Small (and quite inviting) area for actually sitting and sipping – but you can always take that hot chocolate “to go” (yeah, in Slovakia now they actually often use the English “to go” for takeaway food which is rather comical when you listen to an ancient Slovak babka (grandmother) that cannot speak another word of English uttering it). Anyway, Bon Bon is on Dominika Tartarku – heading north from Štefánikova towards Poprad Tatry train station.

Our post on Bon Bon

9: Pizzeria Utopia – and the rest of the City’s Cool New Eateries

In an old schoolhouse out in the paneláky, Poprad’s coolest and liveliest pizzeria has been going ten years and is still every bit as popular as ever. Inside, it looks cosy too, with three dining areas and a great array of tasty pizzas. I’ve actually never seen a pizzeria even in Bratislava look as inviting as this one. It’s just south of the hospital on the other side of Rte 18 from the centre – and perfectly walkable from there. Pizzeria Utopia might be one of the first of this new breed of cool Poprad restaurants but it’s the tip of the iceberg as far as local dining goes.

Our post on Poprad’s new gourmet burger joint.

The final thing to remember is that Poprad is a far more pleasant mountain supply town than Zakopane on the Polish side of the Tatras and is certainly no worse than, say, Aviemore in Scotland or in fact many of those terrible big, soulless French ski resort towns. It’s not as beautiful as what lies just beyond, true. But it does have plenty of hidden charms… and yes, a little soul.

MAP LINK: (Kvetnica is indicated by the pinpoint at the bottom of the map)

GETTING THERE: Trains run every 1.5 to 2 hours from Bratislava’s Hlavná Stanica station to Poprad, take 3.5 to four hours and cost 11 Euros for regional trains or 19 Euros for the flashy IC trains (which have wifi).

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Poprad, the obvious choice is heading 32km north to Ždiar to hike some of the lovely Tatranská Magistrála, or – for those that don’t like hiking – it’s 72km south to Rožňava, nearby which are some of Slovakia’s best caves

RELATED POST: London to Poprad Flights Alive and Kicking (could that in fact be reason 10 to get out to and hang out in Poprad?)

RELATED POST: How to get between Poprad, Zdiar and Zakopane in Poland by public transport (could this be reason number 11?)

Hanging Out at The Hangout

Wifi: slow but steady.

It’s a Friday evening, just around six, and the Hangout Cafe at the beginning of Kapucinska is uncharacteristically quiet. All day it’s been buzzing with cool young things, busy on their laptops, on their speedy business lunches. And now it’s just us. It’s a rarity. Normally, day-time, Hangout Cafe is full. Heaving would be the wrong word. Just pleasantly full. In a casual, metropolitan kind of way. Maybe it’s because Lukáš the owner is not here. He does, admittedly, add a certain gravitas to the place. He is the one, after all, who claims to make Bratislava’s best coffee, which is quite a claim these days.

But first, the place. It’s right on the main street which leads from the big church on the corner of Hurbanovo Námestie up towards the castle – an ideal location – and is perfectly poised for those middle-of-the-day or after-work business lunches. Indeed it is a place which seems to be the “hangout” of men – often single, well-dressed men, sometimes groups of two, comparably well-dressed men. They’re always well-dressed, and they’re invariably men. What do they like about the place? The high window-facing tables? The seats at the bar? The free wifi? The partial industrial vibe, created by large, obscure pictures of brightly-coloured cars whooshing through various monochrome but ultra-modern cities?

Who knows? We came in with two girls in our party and caused a stir. Everyone else left. But that was cool too. It was prime, after-work time in Bratislava and we had a stylish hangout all to ourselves. And their house red wine is some of the best in the Old Town too! It made us linger. As for the coffee, it was better than most of the other top cafes in the Old Town (and an espresso is a mere Euro). But I am going to say something controversial here. I’ve tried better in Nitra. Having said that, there’s few places in the Old Town that so stylishly oversee the transition from daytime cafe to evening hangout.

Evening Hangout

And often, especially now in these days of savvy web searches to plan where you’re going to go to grab a good glass of wine, “hangout” is an understatement of what the evening scene is like here. “Positively humming” might be nearer the mark. But if you want to come away from the evening having learned something about wine, come when Lukáš is around. He knows a thing or ten, and he isn’t reticent to share his knowledge…

Still, this joint is still (just) more cafe than bar. Its great coffee sets it apart from the competition more than its good wine.

MAP LINK:

LOCATION: – Zupné Námestie 9 (beginning of Kapucinska near tram stop no 5/8)

OPENING: – 9am-10pm daily, until 1am (semi-unofficially) Friday/Saturday

BEST TIME TO VISIT: – Early to mid evening, for a damned good espresso or an afterwork glass of wine.

LAST UPDATED: (Spring 2014) Same vibe, but met the owner this time (and the coffee was way better as a result, not that it had been bad before). A few words are worth a thousand pictures, to twist an old saying: Lukáš told us all about the type of coffee bean he was using (Kimbo, from Naples) which creates a potent, richly oily brew. That’s the bean that was his favourite when he was working as a barista in Italy. As for the opening hours, he said that, true to the Italian style, weekend hours were more like whenever the last customer left… (April 2017) Place is firing on all cylinders, especially come night time!

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: From Hangout Cafe it’s a 1km walk east to more good coffee at Bistro St Germain

Update March 2014:

 

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Prešporák

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Wifi: Good

Just sometimes, there’s a cafe which makes you glad you moved to a city. Actually, in my case, Prešporák could have been a deciding factor. One October afternoon I was wandering Bratislava’s Old Town streets with my girlfriend and we almost bumped into two guys carrying this big replica of a 16th century Dutch sailing ship. It was easily the most interesting thing going on at that time. So we followed. They left it outside this cosy-looking place on Baštova. We stood, admired it until it probably seemed like we were trying to steal some of the rigging or something, then passed on. I remember looking through the window and seeing all kinds of delightful old furniture and books, but at that dreary hour on a Sunday it didn’t even definitely look like a cafe. Just, well, a cosy place that was going to get a really beautiful old ship.

Fast-forward a week or so and a friend is taking us on a tour of Bratislava cafes. It’s probably worth you knowing at this stage that I’m a coffee addict. I’ll drinks cups of it. Gallons of it, if you let me. So when I hear someone who knows a LOT about good coffee (and my guide certainly does) say: “apparently they do some of the city’s best coffee” I pay attention. Imagine my surprise and delight when my “some of the city’s best coffee” image was reconciled with my “16th century ship” image. It was the same place!

Prešporák is, in fact, mainly about really good, strong coffee. Sure it does tea, and some cakes (it doesn’t have a kitchen so nothing more substantial food wise except for the dependable encian (a creamy cheese served with a delicious oily onion salad). But the crema on that expresso, wow. Delicious. Fruity. I actually preferred it to Caffe Trieste, another pit stop on the same coffee tour. Caffe Trieste, whose merchandise (cups, sugar packets) Prešporák is using and doing itself no service by so doing. These guys should get their own brand out there, asap.

With cafes, I always have a soft spot for the ones that look like places where they wouldn’t really care if you lingered all day. Where there are comfy battered chairs, and shelf upon shelf of browsable books, and random paraphernalia to occasionally distract my gaze (old sewing machines for example). Prešporák has all that. And now, of course, that fantastic ship. A perfect writerly hangout this. I fully intend to hang out there. And probably write another blog on Prešporák when I do… Pictures to follow.

LOCATION: Baštova  9 (Baštova is best described as the little street to the right after you’ve strolled under the town gate).

OPENING: 11am-10pm Monday to Saturday

BEST TIME TO VISIT: Early afternoon, after the main lunchtime coffee rush, when it will be just you and a few students skiving lectures, and the odd caffeine-craving tourist.

RELATED POST: See Top Ten Best Cafes in Bratislava

Update Dec 2014: With regret I have to state that Prešporák is permanently closed (their Facebook page states it too now) so I’m removing it from our Bratislava Cafes section. I’ll keep it as a post on this blog, just in case it by some chance reopens or if you want a bit of a trip down memory lane. But I am gutted. This place was a real gem… :(