As a fiction writer, one of the main reasons that I came to Budapest was to explore all of the great cafes. I’m always on the lookout for good places to write; cafes with an easy-going atmosphere where one can linger for hours over a coffee without feeling like you’re simply taking up space. There are cities I’ve lived in that are full of such cafes, both in Europe and the U.S. San Diego, for instance, has a great number of independent coffee houses with tons of character sprinkled throughout the city’s more eclectic neighborhoods. Seattle as well. In Europe I’ve found Tallinn in Estonia to be particularly well-suited for a writer. And Budapest is not half-bad either.
Historically, it seems that writers who frequent cafes have tended to pick one as their favorite and virtually set up shop there, visiting the same place every day. At least that is the impression that I get from reading of the literary café culture around the previous turn of the century. Writers here in Budapest were known to literally write for their lunch. The grand cafes that hosted them would accept a poem or story penned in the establishment for payment.
Today several of these grand cafes still exist in Budapest. I never go to them. I just don’t feel comfortable in them at all. These include the New York Café, Gerbaud, Lukacs, and some others. For one thing, they tend to feel quite pretentious, with white table cloths and crisply dressed wait staff whisking through the room. How could I possibly relax when I feel like they constantly have an eye on me, waiting to turn the table? Then there is the clientele, seemingly consisting of nearly all tourists. And lastly there are the prices, which are twice as much as an average café.
No, the “grand cafes” are no longer a writer’s paradise. Sadly they are now more of a tourist curiosity, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t vestiges of elegance where a writer can still feel comfortable. The Alexandra Bookstore café, which I’ve mentioned here before, is one such place. And today I’ve found another.
The Urania Coffeehouse is upstairs from the lobby of a majestic old movie palace. This room itself is early 20th-century elegance defined, with an ornate ceiling and intricately carved pillars. The coffee is cheap and good, and in the hour that I’ve been here today I am the only customer at all. No rushing me out the door here. True, a few other customers would add some life to the place, but I’m not complaining.
I’m not like those writers of yore who choose a favorite café and stick to it day in and day out. I like to mix things up a little, having a string of favorite cafes that I visit once every week or so depending on my mood, but I’ll definitely add this place to the list!