Café society was a reality in Prague and many other Czech towns and cities during a golden era before the First World War and between the wars. There were hundreds of such cafés with the latest addition often trying to outdo its predecessors in luxury and splendour. This edition of Prague Spotlight centres on one of the most famous of these cafés, the Café Louvre. It is one of the few great cafés which have survived the ravages of time and has been restored to some of its original grandeur.
Prague’s great cafés were in their heyday often architectural, artistic and literary landmarks. The Czech capital was awash with them. And in an age before mobile phones, television, radio and central heating, they provided a crucial point for contacts to be made, ideas exchanged or where you could just keep warm and enjoy luxurious surroundings nursing an ever colder cup of coffee and avoiding facial contact with the waiter. In time and concept, they are far removed from today’s counterparts, the likes of Starbucks and Coffee Heaven.
The Café Louvre was a relatively late arriver on the scene with the famous Slavia already established two decades earlier down the street. The first Prague café is thought to date from 1711 and was established by a writer on the Mala Strana side of the city. By 1808 there were 26 cafés listed following a city survey. This compares with around 400 pubs and 40 of what passed for wine bars.
Yet as the current manager of the café. Mr. Sylvio Spohr, remarks, the Café Louvre did try to differentiate itself from the rest when it opened its doors in 1902. First of all, it was the biggest café in the whole Austro-Hungarian empire, covering several floors and boasting 800 rooms. As Mr. Spohr explains, there were other innovations as well.
“Certainly there was an attempt to make progress. Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects is the electrification of the place. This was the first electrified café, that is to say that it was no longer lit by candles but by electric bulbs. There was also a step in the direction of women’s emancipation. It is an interesting fact that this was the first place where ladies could get together, the first ladies’ salon was here. Until then, ladies met in so-called salons at home. It was not common for ladies to be seen in society in cafes or restaurants, certainly not alone. They had to be accompanied. So the Louvre had the first salon where ladies could meet.”
The café soon became a meeting place for intellectuals, artists and writers, for example being chosen as the fortnightly meeting place of the German Philosophical Circle. Mr. Spohr says this was more a chance than a deliberate development.
“We did not seek intellectuals or attempt to help them. That sort of came about on its own. The overriding principle was commercial. This was a business, that means providing and selling coffee. The idea at that time was that you offered attractive rooms in the style of a country estate or palace and for the price of a coffee people could experience that luxury. That was the principle behind cafes: in order for people to be willing to pay a relatively high price for coffee they had these beautiful period rooms.”
“I would say that in winter intellectuals spent most of their time here. They would not spend a whole day in one café but rather there were a few locations which they frequented a stayed at. In short, heating for homes was not affordable for many. Cafes offered a warm space, a relatively quiet environment, a few daily newspapers which you could read and you could meet certain hygienic or physical needs on the spot and meet people that you needed to.”
For some intellectuals, cafes were working places and places where they could be called on the phone. They also served as revolving meeting points.
“It was a certain address where you could be sure to find someone. In short, it was known that this or that writer would, say, be in this café on Wednesday afternoon and that on Thursday afternoon he would be at another café or restaurant. In order that people could be found they had a certain weekly list of places where people could be found at certain intervals.”
The list of the Café Louvre’s intellectual clients is long but a few stand out:
“Naturally there were a lot and I will just recall the best known. Franz Kafka, who together with Max Brod was a member of a discussion group from which Max Brod was eventually expelled. Kafka also left in sympathy with his friend. There are letters saying how they got together in the café on Ferdinand Avenue, later Národní Třída in the Louvre. It is very interesting that Albert Einstein during the year that he lived in Prague visited and met his friends here. Karel Čapek visited the Louvre café. There are many, but these three are the best known and we use them for publicity purposes.”
Franz Kafka and Max Brod spent at least part of their time at a rival café, Arco, with the habituees known as Arconauts. The café can still be seen on the corner of Hybernská and Dláždená streets not far from what is now Masaryk train station. While it survives, it is in a run down and sorry state.
Czech artists and writers were already frequenting a handful of cafés mostly located a stone’s throw away from the Louvre in the 1920’s and 1930’s. These included the Národní Kavárna, Union, Metro, Slavia, and Tůmovka cafés. Some of the clients included Nobel prize winning writer Jaroslav Seifert, poet František Halas and writer of plays, screen plays and film director Vladislav Vančura.
At the entrance to the Louvre there is now a map together with photos of some of the 20 great Prague cafés from the golden age with a commentary about them in Czech. While the café competition was tough, there seemed to be enough customers to go around until the Great Depression struck in the 1930s.
“Until the depression, it was the golden age for cafes. It was incredible, some streets if you knocked down the walls then you would have been able to go from one end to another just through cafés. In the main streets, most of the first floors were devoted to cafes with the commercial space on the ground floor. On Wenceslas Square, Národní Třída or Na Příkopě it was one café after another. We are talking about hundreds of cafes which due to the economic crisis, war and Communism disappeared. We are talking about hundreds and hundreds of them.”
The war brought its specific ravages with some cafés reserved for Germans. Intellectuals in any case were not one of the Nazi regime’s favourite groups whether they spoke German or Czech. For the Louvre, the fact that it was a favourite hang out for German speakers did not improve its post war prospects. Mr. Spohr again.
“It was mostly Germans that got together here in the period before 1948. It was probably more of a German cafe— because cafes were divided along social and linguistic lines. So it was a German café and a café for the well off. As well as the intellectuals working, there were also gaming tables during the night, so the Louvre was a symbol of bourgeois life which was liquidated in 1948. It was with great gusto that the furniture was thrown out of the windows then onto the street below.”
In the period afterwards there were several ideas what to do with the massive space. One, apparently was for a non-alchoholic and non smoking café, another was for a Slovak-style meeting place and restaurant. Nothing came of these. At the end of the Comunist era in 1989 the space was being used as offices.
Restoration, with the initial costs at around 200 million crowns financed from loans at exorbitant rates of interest, took place in the early 1990’s with the Louvre reopened in 1992. While seeking to maintain the flavour of the past, the current café is a much smaller version than the original which even had a celler wine bar.
“Reconstruction was very difficult because the café had not been used for about 50 years. It was necessary to do everything from the start: the plumbing, electricity, gas, and work out the logistics because it was not possible to use all the original space. The original kitchens were on another floor and I weighed up the possibility of using a lift but we had to use other rooms and salons as cloakrooms for the employees and office space and so on. All that took up quite a lot of space. The opening was accompanied by a surge of enthusiasm and anticipation. But we waited three years before we achieved the number of clients we needed to keep going. That is today around 1,000 people a day who come into the Café Louvre.”
Many tourists come to get a taste of past grandeur but the café’s priority is more regular customers who will keep on paying the bills.
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