The words “café culture” generally conjure up images of sophisticated socialites relaxing before, during and after work, bathing in the glorious sunshine of a Parisian plaza or Spanish side street. They do not necessarily immediately spring to mind when we talk of the largely less romantically idealised European cities such as Brussels and Cologne. Though they operate without the sense of a kind of pre-ordained sophistication attached to the streets of Paris, these gems are amongst the most beautiful and culturally rich cities in Europe.
The city of Brussels in Belgium nestled between France, the Netherlands and Germany combines elements of all three cultures, exhibiting that truly continental pastime of cafés surrounding every street without a cup of coffee in sight. It’s all 25cl glasses of (expensive!) local beer, served every time with a basket of bread and butter completely free of charge. After relaxing in one such café, tourists and businessmen alike reach for the countless waffle stands to treat themselves to an authentic Belgian waffle covered in your choice of chocolate sauce and various fruit and cream toppings. Belgium is of course famous for its exquisite chocolate, it just wouldn’t be a proper Belgian holiday without a visit to the tiny Museé du Chocolat et Cacao just off the Grand Place, picking up complimentary samples along the way of course.
What is sometimes then forgotten is that as you travel further inland on the continent this café culture of drinking at any point of the day, chocolate and waffles is continued, albeit with less waffles, into the robust German cities across the border. Stereotypically the Germans have managed to pick up an image of being less laissez-faire than their French and Belgian counterparts, preferring order and punctuality to lounging around. However, in the city of Cologne there is the sense of that same continental attitude. The Brauhaus is a unique German phenomenon where the beer sold is brewed on sight or very close nearby in the heart of the city. The beer of choice in Cologne is Kölsch and there are 26 varieties all originating from different breweries spread across the city. This coupled with the Lindt chocolate factory situated on the river Rhine and the huge wealth of ice cream parlours, which are again things decidedly unique to the continent, gave the city the feel of something still very much German in identity but much more Parisian and Belgian in substance.
Either way both cities exuded a feel and an atmosphere very different to anything you sense around England, where even in the capital there are virtually none of these little stalls and parlours dedicated to one nationally defining food substance. Yes there are cafés over here but 80 percent of them are more often than not chains, rising to more like 90 percent when you look at restaurants. The closest I came to finding a German style Brauhaus was in Covent Garden where the English food and menu, although top quality and thoroughly enjoyable, appeared to clash with the traditional continental surrounding of beer sticks and tasting sessions. Perhaps then the issue is with the association such places hold with their national identity and location. This place in London was perfectly lovely, yet it felt there was something missing and that lies perhaps in the use of language.
Belgium in itself adheres to a large French population, being one of the few European countries with two official spoken languages: French and Dutch. There is a huge sense of multicultural diversity in the country as both French and Dutch must be written and spoken in the capital Brussels, whereas in the various Dutch and French communities only their respective language is written and spoken. Therefore a train travelling from Antwerp to Charleroi gives its announcements firstly in Dutch as Antwerp is a Flemish community, then as they approach the capital Brussels the announcements are in both French and Dutch with the native language of the announcer coming first followed by the other, before the train then passes into the French region of Charleroi where only French announcements are given. On the Eurostar to Brussels the announcements begin in English followed by French, followed by Dutch switching to Dutch followed by French, followed by English on the return journey. The connecting train between Brussels and Cologne is then even more confusing as German is added into the mix and every single announcement is made in four languages with the attendants being obliged to answer and converse in any one of the four.
This linguistic confusion highlights to an English traveller that are they are very much removed from their British normality and it is from that point on which the continental atmosphere is created. It then feels normal to be surrounded by the café culture as you are constantly being engulfed by a European identity in the languages being thrown around. The use of German, Dutch and French then combine to create that atmosphere reserved in the minds of the wider population to a very select few locations, widening the continental café culture and highlighting the distinct lack of the same sort of mentality here in Britain.