Monday, September 29, 2008

Top Five Budapest Cafés for Writing

Since the tacky renovation of my favorite writing café, Angelica Kávéház, on the Buda side, I have made it my business to scout some other attractive places to sit for a few hours with a notebook and pen, or laptop. It is not easy. A good café for writing is one where you can find solitude while still being amidst a crowd (which is not entirely unlike a writer’s function in society). There should be noise present, but not invasively so. And, for me, there needs to be an unnamable sort of moldering in the air, the knowledge that writers before you have fearlessly taken up their task in the space you are sitting in, and others will come after. Every good café has a ghost or two.

New Starbucks clones, as well as old Viennese-style coffee houses, abound in Budapest. Some are opulent beyond belief (the New York Café), some are local-minded and packed with students (Praga café) but only a few are truly ideal writing spaces. It is worth pointing out that, at the turn of the last century, the city’s cafes were hotbeds of intellectual activity, and social clubs for the those involved in the golden age of writing in Budapest, when the famed Nyugat literary review published the work of Hungary’s most daring, innovative, as well as revolutionary (in the real sense of the world) writing–the writers known as the nyugatos. Those days are gone, but the writers who lived and wrote over a hundred years ago (Móricz, Babits, and Ady, to name but a few) are paid homage in one way or another at cafes across the city, which are quick to put on display any paraphernalia connecting them to this unique literary scene.

As for me-I write, live, and commit acts of minor revolutionary import, on the Pest side, and the list reflects that:

5. Café Eckermann: the only truly new space on my list, though its former incarnation on Andrássy was a regular spot of local artist and writers, including Esterházy Péter. Not many revolutions were started from that place, but more than a few drinking binges were. The new space on Ráday is one of the only cafés that can still actually lay claim to hosting a literary community: editors of the German literary review Harom Holló (Three Ravens) meet here regularly, and their review is available for purchase. Eckermann also offers great vegetarian and home-cooked food, as noted in my review on chew.

4. Puskin Kávéház: Nothing grand or spectacular here, but the Puskin has always been a wonderful spot to people watch, and be left alone (in a good way) by the wait-staff for hours. Its space is functional, but all the components come together well, and the coffee is very fairly priced. Frequently doubling as a gallery, up-and-coming Hungarian artists and photographers are chosen by a curator who knows what they are doing. This is a great fall-back café that stays open later than most others. Puskin, it should go without saying, is named for one of Russia’s greatest writers.

3. Uránia Café in the Uránia National Cinema: they invented the cliché ‘painstakingly restored’ with the Uránia Café in mind. The details on the vaulting and ceiling are worth a trip alone. There are surprisingly few tables in the large space, and they are set far enough apart that conversations of surrounding patrons diminish to nothing more than a pleasant babble. Plus, there is a choice table, but only one, on the balcony overlooking Rákóczi, for those who really want to be alone to work.

2. Művész Café: I have been going to Művész off an on since arriving in Budapest so many years ago. There is a faded, refined feel to the place; it is homey and well patronized by expats, though it also attracts its share of tourists. That they closed for renovations was cause for worry, but they reopened with no real modernizations; it still looks old, just a bit more polished. Művész is a Budapest classic, and good for writers who don’t mind overhearing the next table’s chatter, and can allow for interruptions from friends, as it is quite popular. Prices reflect the Andrássy location.

1. August Cukrászdá: Just when I thought I knew every good café or pub to go to in Budapest, friends over at the food/music blog Dumneazu turned me on to this classic café. Old and elegant without being ostentatious or stuffy, professional and deferential service, a few dark, shadowed nooks, and fantastic pastries, cakes, and coffee, it has everything a writer could want. August is a quiet, atmospheric, and intimate space, hidden in a courtyard off Rákóczi. It attracts mostly locals, as the tourist traffic is no doubt lured away by the near-by Café Central, which reeks of literary history, but is a bit too up-scale for my taste. August is great for those who like solitude and quiet within a public space, and like to write in long hand (I have yet to see a laptop there); which means, ideal for me.

Matt Henderson Ellis is a freelance manuscript editor and author coach working with writers who publish in print and digitally.

1 comment:

jenniferkoliver said...

These places sound amazing. I wish there were some cafes like this around my way.

Thank you for sharing!