18 April 2023

Café Slavia has been at
the heart of cultural life
in Prague since the 1880s

‘The Absinthe Drinker’ by Viktor Oliva in the Café Slavia in Prague (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

On our last night in Prague last week, Charlotte introduced me to the Café Slavia, once the traditional hangout of Czech writers, artists, intellectuals, and political dissidents.

Although those days have long gone, the Café Slavia – or Kavarna Slavia – opposite the National Theatre, remains a national institution in Prague. The wealth of traditional coffee houses in Prague is a legacy from the era of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. But Café Slavia is probably the best-known in the city.

Café Slavia, on the corner of Národní street and Smetanovo nábřeží, is across the street from the National Theatre and overlooks the banks of the Vltava River. This legendary Prague institution first opened its doors in August 1884. When the National Theatre was built, the plan was to have a coffee house across the street from it. Theatre audiences came during the intervals and the actors and musicians arrived after the performances.

The place has changed in appearances over the years – from Art Nouveau to Social Realism, leaving us with the Functionalist interior with Art Deco wall decorations of today. The walls of the 300-seat café are lined with photographs of many of the writers, artists, revolutionaries and intellectuals who once came here for coffee and to debate with one another.

The café quickly became a cultural place where writers, poets and intellectuals met to talk and debate. The original regular clientele included the composer Bedřich Smetana, the actor Jindřich Mošna, the poet Jaroslav Seifert, avant-garde writer Vítězslav Nezval, Josef Čapek and many others. The list of guests and visitors has been described as ‘a who’s who of Bohemian culture at the time.’

During the era of the First Republic, the interior was changed to the popular style Art Deco style and it has remained unchanged since then. The original Tonet chairs, the dark wood tables and the green marble walls continue to evoke the 1920s.

During the communist era, the café became state property. But it continued to draw artists, writers and intellectuals, even after the Prague Spring and the invasion by Warsaw Pact troops in 1968, and became the meeting place for dissidents.

The coffee house has found its way into literature. Jaroslav Seifert refers to it in his book Halleyova Kometa, and Ota Filip published a novel, Kavárna Slavia, in 1985.

Václav Havel was once a regular patron of the Café Slavia (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

During the Velvet Revolution in 1989, the regular guests included the poet, playwright and human rights activist Václav Havel, who later became the Czech president, and the poet and artist Jiří Kolář. More recent guests have included Hillary Clinton and the writer Arnošt Lustig.

The café closed in 1992 because of a complex legal dispute, but re-opened in 1997 with a glittering ceremony that also marked the eighth anniversary of the Velvet Revolution.

President Havel, who was in hospital with pneumonia, sent a message saying the re-opening of Cafe Slavia was a victory of ‘reason over stupidity.’ He said its reopening was a step towards renewing the natural structure of Czech spiritual life, stressing the café’s role as a meeting place for different artistic streams and currents of opinion.

The café is also known for ‘The Absinthe Drinker,’ a copy of the large painting by Viktor Oliva, and measuring 2 meters by 1.80 meters. The original hangs in the Zlata Husa Gallery in Prague, but this copy has been on the wall of the artist’s favourite café since 1920.

Viktor Oliva (1861-1928) belonged to the ‘Parisian Bohemians’, a group of Czech artists who lived in Paris in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and it was there that he discovered the joys of absinthe.

In among the chairs and tables of Café Slavia, a man sits alone sipping a glass of absinthe, with an open newspaper to one side. In the background, a waiter is approaching to serve him. But the man’s eyes are fixed on the figure of an alluring but transparent young green woman perched on his table.

Is she his muse?

Is he reminiscing about a past or lost love?

Or, has he fallen in love with the ‘green fairy’ – another name for the strong hallucinating drink?

The present owners of the Café Slavia have tried to recapture the atmosphere of the 1930s, when the café was in its hey-day, and n the evenings, a live piano player helps to create a romantic atmosphere in the evening.

and from the windows, as we looked across the Vltava River, we could see Prague Castle and Saint Vitus Cathedral lit up against the night sky, high above Malá Strana.

The café was once a place where writers, poets and intellectuals met to talk and debate (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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