Vienna expert Barbara Grull-Cacao who runs the Austrian travel guide Vienna Unwrapped, had a trial run last spring of Vienna Coffeehouse Conversations, an event series aiming to bring a revival of coffee house conversations with debates and socializing between local Viennese and those who travel to the capital city of Austria. The success of the event prompted her to continue the series, and she was gracious enough to discuss her venture with Europe Travel recently.
Europe Travel: What gave you the idea to start Vienna Coffee House Conversations? Are there other similar events that you’re aware of in different European cities?
Barbara Grull-Cacao: In May last year, I read in the news about two conversation meals that were held to connect immigrants in Vienna to native Viennese. I loved the concept of the conversation menus used and thought this would be an ideal catalyst to help travellers connect with locals in a meaningful way. Visitors increasingly want to go beyond discovering architecture and food temples; they want to get a local perspective and engage with everyday citizens, but often find social and language barriers. The idea of using these conversation meals to bring together travellers and locals in English in the Vienna Coffee House Conversations was born when I met with Eugene Quinn, who had set up the first events with cultural group space and place.
The concept of the conversation meals was masterminded by Oxford University professor Theodore Zeldin to facilitate meaningful conversations between strangers. They have taken place as part of street festivals, in art galleries from London to Singapore, and at the World Economic Forum in Davos. I am not aware of any similar events for travellers in other European cities, though.
Europe Travel: As you had a trial run of the events last year, was there anything that really stood out among attendees as to what they really enjoyed about it?
Barbara Grull-Cacao: The first conversation-meal-style events in Vienna were held to tackle integration issues but used the same concept of connecting people through conversation menus. What participants enjoyed most was to engage with a complete stranger about matters of life they wouldn’t normally discuss, for example ‘How important is money to you?’ or ‘What are the limits of your compassion?’ Many of the conversation partners continued their talks way beyond the scheduled two hours, and some even extended them to weeks of animated email exchanges.
Europe Travel: What is the attitude of Viennese residents about the events? Do they generally enjoy welcoming travellers?
Barbara Grull-Cacao: The predecessor events of the Vienna Coffeehouse Conversations were sold out, with more than 130 Viennese waiting for the next opportunity to connect with a stranger in this unusual way. There were no travellers involved in these first local events. We have spoken about our new venture to a number of local contacts, though, and they find the idea of reviving the Vienna coffeehouse culture and of opening up the events to people from all over the world very exciting. The Vienna Coffeehouse Conversations are not a private tour guide service but a means to share dinner and a meaningful conversation with a stranger.
Europe Travel: What are some of your favourite things to do in Vienna when you return to the city?
Barbara Grull-Cacao: Going back to my hometown includes both visiting my favourite wineries, coffeehouses, taverns and shops; and catching up on new exhibitions, cool places and developments. Vienna is booming, so there are many of them!
First and foremost, however, I love to meet my local family and friends, and to find out what’s going on in Vienna. On Saturdays, I would accompany my mother on her trips to the food and flea market at Naschmarkt. Walking through the pedestrian area between the Vienna State Opera and Freyung square is a must. I’m still dreaming of visiting all the seven different locations across Vienna where I once lived.
Europe Travel: What are a few of the must-see attractions for first time travellers to Vienna?
Barbara Grull-Cacao: The number one attraction is Schonbrunn Palace, the summer residence of the former Habsburg Emperors. Take time to explore the wonderful gardens with the Gloriette cafe on top, an authentic 18th century Tyrolean farmhouse, the zoo and the palm house. An insider tip is the historic marionette theatre on the grounds, which performs Mozart’s the Magic Flute and other plays.
The historic city centre is a UNESCO world heritage site, and packed with beautiful architecture, romantic alleys and hidden courtyards, called ‘Pawlatschen’.
The Ringstrasse Boulevard is lined with state buildings and museums, among them the Vienna State Opera, the Museum of Fine Arts, the Parliament, the City Hall, the old University and the Museum of Applied Arts / Contemporary Art. Take the yellow ‘Ring Tram’ for a 30 minute ride around Ringstrasse.
Vienna coffeehouses are a must for every traveller as well as the locals. Our coffeehouse culture is UNESCO-recognised. I recommend choosing a selection of coffeehouses that represent different styles, such as Cafe Griensteidl, Cafe Museum, Cafe Prueckel, and Cafe Braeunerhof. Dare to go off the beaten path from our famous Sacher cake. There are so many sophisticated traditional cakes that deserve one’s attention!
Europe Travel: Do you feel there is a better time of year or season for travellers to visit Vienna?
Barbara Grull-Cacao:Vienna’s main attractions are open all year round, but for those travellers with special interests there are certain periods when it’s best to visit the city. For fans of opera, classical concerts and baroque horses – September to June; for ballroom dancers – carnival season; for lovers of Danube boat trips and biking enthusiasts – April to October; for wine lovers – September, October; for fans of both classical and contemporary music and film – May and November (the season for festivals like Wiener Festwochen and Wien Modern);
Europe Travel What do you hope travellers/attendees can get out of the events?
Joining the Vienna Coffeehouse Conversations means jumping beyond city sightseeing and extending a cultural trip with a social element and personal insights to take away; after all, I believe the most memorable travel experiences include social encounters with local people (remember the story of that taxi driver…?).
The Vienna Coffeehouse Conversations not only revive the salon-style coffeehouse culture of the 19th and early 20th century Vienna; they help travellers connect with residents and understand the local zeitgeist in a kind of depth that is hard to achieve elsewhere.
If you are a couple or a group of friends you can share some insights from your 1:1 encounters, and let the conversation continue within your group.
Europe Travel: Anything else that travellers considering attending Vienna Coffee House Conversations should know?
Barbara Grull-Cacao: While we provide a menu of questions for participants and their conversation partners to choose from, they are free to discuss what they like, and how long they like. Eugene and I are planning to go for a drink somewhere local after the event – we’d love participants to join us and get to know the wider crowd.
Vienna Unwrapped and Barbara Grull-Cacao can be reached via her contact page here. Learn more about and register for the Vienna Coffee House Conversations by visiting the site at www.vienna-unwrapped.com/vienna-coffeehouse-conversation.html.
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