Libertina, Dubrovnik

Zlatarska ul. 3, 20000, Dubrovnik, Croatia
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks –6/10
  • Style and Decor – 9/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 8/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 6/10
  • Value for Money – 7/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  8/10

Dubrovnik has done a pretty good job of evicting all traces of local life from its historic old town to make way for a touristic theme park. Apartments once owned and lived in by locals are now rented out to Western travellers gorging themselves on the feast of Instagram-worthy shots of the city walls and fulfilling such enthralling bucket-list items as the Game Of Thrones tour, as though the place itself only ever existed so it would eventually serve as the set of a TV show, then after, a museum dedicated to it.

The locals long since packed up and headed for the suburbs, set in sprawling hills outside of town where an entirely different economy operates. During my research, I didn’t find any diamonds in the rough bar-wise out there either, leaving the treacherous prospect of being stuck trying to find a decent down to earth pub in an old town where fairness and modesty are an endangered species. This was a challenge undertaken in 2015 by Guardian writer David Farley, and now, armed with his findings, I was to take on the challenge in 2017.

As you may expect, going for a night out slap bang within the city walls can be an expensive business and not a particularly enthralling one, with characterless generic bars (many of which are focused on wine) and an early call for bed time, leaving a sleepy, slovenly and fairly unexciting atmosphere to it in general – with the usual blight of being shrouded in cigarette smoke for good measure. You won’t find many local haunts anywhere within the old town proper and finding even a simple crap lager for less than £3 is close to impossible.

You may read blogs telling you how Dubrovnik being expensive is a myth, but rest assured – it isn’t – their rather clueless middle class claims are redundant.  The old town is far smaller than the likes of Venice and every square inch of it has been ruthlessly priced in the knowledge of a baying, wealthy and pliant audience. Following any recommendations on these blogs, particularly in terms of restaurants will lead you to places that sink in quality dramatically in the search for what are ultimately meagre savings. If you’re in an expensive place, you may as well enjoy yourself.

Libertina is hardly a shining example of good value or good beer either (you may be wondering at this point where the good stuff is going to start) but fortunately it executes the main thing our page exists to champion – it’s a really good, honest and atmospheric pub.

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You’ll find Libertina stuck at the end of the uphill stretch of alleys at the north end of the old town, a slightly less visited corner, and one you might miss out on altogether unless you were determined to eat your way through every single street in Dubrovnik’s grid-pattern old town like a demented Pacman.

There’s an arched doorway and upon entry you’ll encounter a pleasant and homely semi-circular bar area patrolled by a kindly simple chap by the name ‘Luci’, who is also the owner. Luci has quite the story to tell – he was a member of the apparently renowned Troubadours of Dubrovnik, the Yugoslavian entry to the 1968 Eurovision song contest where they took 7th place. The group toured Europe and Great Britain and Luci claims their medieval style outfits where the inspiration for the movie “Robin Hood – Men in Tights”. So there you go.

The shape of the pub invites communal drinking and you’ll quietly sing Hallelujah to yourself in relief as you can escape the corporate drudgery and enjoy the environment of a true pub, something not just Dubrovnik, but Croatia in general sorely lacks.

It appears Libertina has further nostalgic reason for its continued existence, being a popular meeting place during the war when the city was under siege. When you look at its location it really does have the kind of snug close-knit feel you can imagine banding people together – that’s something special.

The place is decorated with an appropriately nautical theme, not overstated but enough to give it a traditional and faintly rustic style. Libertina certainly isn’t interested in attracting the seen and be-seen crowd, and outside of the height of summer you’ll find the place largely filled with locals, which is a delight as a trip to Dubrovnik usually involves only interacting in a service capacity – predominantly them standing at the front of restaurants trying to get your attention and you telling them to get lost.

Please note that inside Libertina there is a prime spot to sit, on a raised seating area at the back of the room. It’s cushioned, cosy and snug, and has a great view of the pub proceedings without ever feeling detached from the action. If you grab that seat, you’re all set for the evening.

Paying western prices for 0.5l of the decidedly ropey beer Ozujsko will burn your wallet, and in a more subtle way, your sole, but it’s difficult, nay impossible to do any better elsewhere in the city – you may as well pay it somewhere that’s good.

It’s one of the few places in the hollowed out city that has a real hubbub and character. Glam Café is also recommended, but for independent Croatian beer rather than for any particular atmosphere. However, you’ll want to spend the wealth of your time in the evening in Dubrovnik’s best pub, among the locals, as the last bastion of character clings like a limpet by the city walls to the corporatised husk left behind. Get down there and get the beers in while you still can!

 

 

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Café Jubilee, Valletta

Konvoj Ta’ Sta Marija, Malta
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks –6/10
  • Style and Decor – 9/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 8/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 6/10
  • Value for Money – 7/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  8/10

Sometimes quiet towns and cities can churn up such desperation for a drink that you’re prepared to lower your standards with alarming ease, as you wander past boarded up shops and sleeping houses in search of nightlife, or in lieu of that human adults that aren’t already in bed at 10pm.

Malta’s capital Valletta certainly knows how to make a beer drinking pub-goer concerned, as although it may be pretty and characterful, on an average evening out of season you may find its large old town to be packed away and fast-asleep in the manner of an English market town on a Sunday circa 1950. As with many countries with a warm climate, a bulk of the usual pub characters you’d see propping up the bar in an English pub or holding forth at the stamgast table in Germany or Czechia (craggy old men, let’s be honest) instead start the day with a pint and a cig at a drop-in bar, and are safely home for tea, bed and chronic farting by the time most of Northern Europe are venturing out.

It’s vital to do some digging if you want to hang around all evening in Valletta, as turning up on spec could lead to a good hour of traipsing around fruitlessly for drinking options, something which can become more confusing on account of the inconsistent labeling of streets on printed maps flitting from Maltese to English whenever it feels like it.

Café Jubilee is a shining star in this void, a bar I’d be eager to frequent were it in my town. Tasteful, sometimes striking art nouveau frames fill each inch of wall space making it a very stylish and atmospheric place for a drink, regardless of how many people are there, yet it is a popular place, predominantly with young people, and tables fill up during the evening. Grab any table you get the chance to. I’d say it goes past simply being tasteful and really crams in the art pieces to build a memorably busy-looking atmosphere.

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There is an unavoidable café element to the place, with that being the daytime purpose, and the furniture style being more in that direction, but I felt it transformed sufficiently on an evening to be a typical evening bar, a meeting place with a communal vibe developing that makes it feel more homely as the evening progresses, bubbling up to that pleasant background hubbub that combined with the elegant surroundings could be transporting you to Paris or Brussels.

It’s also a place to find Farson’s Blue Label on tap, reasonably rare as most other places tapping from Malta’s big brewery, one of many true oddities on the island serve only Cisk, a decent if not outstanding lager. The combination of cask bitter and the cosy, ornate surroundings are just the tonic to a city pub scene lacking on a number of levels. Service and price are not notable for the area, but neither are they offensive, and the service is likewise understated rather than fantastic, but those are minor issues. The bar is open until 1-am (wahey!).

The good news is Café Jubilee are stationed in Gzira and Gozo too, providing further pleasant places of refuge as you navigate options that fall between tacky ex-pat pubs and generic Mediterranean café bars. Along with the strip of stylish night bars that open on weekend evenings down the centre artery of town Café Jubilee is an essential port of call during your stay in Valletta, as the exemplary reviews elsewhere attest to.

 

Józef K, Gdańsk

Piwna 1/2, 22-100 Gdańsk, Poland
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks –8/10
  • Style and Decor – 10/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 8/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 7/10
  • Value for Money – 7/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  8/10

Any trip I make to a new city invariably involves researching local breweries and popular pubs in advance (this blog wouldn’t be up to much if I didn’t), which I find to be an enjoyable way to drum up excitement for an impending holiday, and useful so as to ensure you aren’t wasting your precious time abroad chancing it in drab dumps. There is always space for the odd unforeseen opportunity, however, and the ‘rabbit hole’ experience where you find to your surprise and delight you have found somewhere by accident is one to cherish. When you plan, be careful not to micro-manage those opportunities away.

While breweries are easy enough to seek out, for various reasons it can be difficult to filter out drab mainstream bars and Irish Pubs while google searching for bars abroad (thanks Lonely Planet for the gazillionth Irish Pub recommendation, you lazy middle aged wankers). In order to drill down to find alternative pubs and bars where locals go, or where there is anything different going on it can take a bit of persevering. Depending on the country, if you can’t find anything, that may mean it just doesn’t exist (eg. Croatia), but Poland is one of those countries where even if good bars aren’t obvious at first, it doesn’t mean they aren’t around.

Jozef K was one such place I probably would have walked straight past if it wasn’t for word of mouth recommendation from a guy I know who had recently visited. Granted, it is located on Piwna (‘Beer Street’) in Gdansk, one of the main nightlife spots in an old town not short of good options, but has no courtyard and the entrance is so plain you would never get an idea what was inside unless someone told you, or unless you were morbidly fascinated by the plain exterior of that particular building.

The bar is situated in a modernist building with impressive and elegant narrow windows stretching from the ceiling downwards. Strangely enough I can’t remember too many bars with such windows, of a kind which reminded me, weirdly, of the science block at my secondary school. These soaring windows allow quite a deal of light into the bar, and you’ll find the place operates with the lights off until fairly well into the evening.

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The style of the place is salvaged defunct scientific equipment + antique furniture which is a combination which could look odd, but when placed together and mounted so they all align with each other creates an impressive feel like a museum of professor’s study that has gone rogue and become a bar. Certainly techy and geekier than your usual retro chic bar, but pointedly elegant with it. It borders on the ‘ruin bar’ aesthetic but manages to be its own thing really well. There’s lots of stuff to look at, so when you’re tucking into a lovely strong Polish beer you can let your eyes wander around the room appreciating the effort, which stands apart appreciably even among those bars it is inspired by. That good.

Jozef K also appears to be the place to see and be seen if you’re a millennial in Gdansk, and in the evenings there are groups of townie types who will appear after 10pm, who don’t quite appear to understand or appreciate the aesthetic but have an intrinsic understanding of their obligation to be there. The seating is a little sparse which reflects how quickly the transition from sleepy afternoon place to buzzing night venue takes place. It gets very lively indeed.

Jozef K’s beer choice is admirable, as nearby brewery Browar Amber is represented well  – one smaller brewery that pre-dates the Polish craft ale explosion and serves beer in styles tradition to the region. Being a Pomeranian brewery, their offerings are largely Germanic, with interesting bocks, double pilsners and pszeniczne, a useful word to learn (psheh-neetch-nay) as it means wheat beer! It’s great to see the brewery concentrate on heritage styles rather than copying the popular US styles as so many other Polish breweries have opted for. The price at the bar is typically competitive for Western wallets – not necessarily the best value for the city but for an English tourist paying between £1.50-£2 for a beer will not break the bank.

Jozef K deservedly earns a reputation as a good all-rounder. The atmosphere and style is good, the vast majority of the other visitors are Danzig born and bred, good cheap and slightly different beer and it seems to occupy an important role in the local pub scene. The music works well for the environment and it moves seamlessly from stylish and studious cafe bar to lively night bar. There are no real lows to think of and a visit comes highly recommended.

Šnekutis, Vilnius (Užupis branch)

Polocko g. 7A, Vilnius 01204, Lithuania
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks –8/10
  • Style and Decor – 9/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 10/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 8/10
  • Value for Money – 7/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  10/10

At times in a city, pub going can feel a tad sterile and soulless without the company to elevate your surroundings, no more so than when drinking in chain bars who focus on reliability but never excel at anything or give the impression anything interesting will happen in them. They become like waiting rooms, simply painted in a pub style rather than being actual public houses. This is a dangerous template to churn out. Without pub character, what is there inspire loyalty and affection?

In England that question often drives me to explore places that offer something a little different, even if that risks disappointment. As I live in Leeds, this usually means visiting alternative, pricey ‘scene’ bars, as sadly there are only a few pubs left with a genuine DIY feel around the country, let alone in Leeds, I mean the kind of hostelry where you can see food being prepared in a normal homely kitchen out of the corner of your eye, where you can crowd around a real fire, and where the primary purpose is to make you feel as comfortable as your own home, with the cumulative effect that you can’t bottle. The sound of people together having a fucking good time.

Snekutis is Lithuania’s single best answer to the problem of sterile modernity, tracing their nation’s distinctive folk heritage to bring together a pub that truly feels like something far more than a business, with all the folksy quirks, rustic food, enveloping warmth and good cheer that ought to involve. But neither is it a hackneyed, plastic, unimaginative stereotype of such a place – this is a genuinely ramshackle venue out on its own on a quiet street  out of the way lane up hill out of the bohemian quarter of Vilnius, Uzupis. The pub looks like (and in a few ways is) a giant shed, even containing a tree growing out through the roof. Throw in a fish tank by the window, objects collected from the far corners of wherever and everywhere, wooden walls and a roaring hearth and you have quite the quirky little venue.

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The crowd inside depends on luck, as Snekutis started off as an in-the-know independent place then caught on through the arty Uzupis crowd in the late 00’s as craft ale and what may loosely still be termed ‘hipsterism’ started to make an impact. As Lithuania became more of a destination for Westerners in the mid-part of this decade, there are tourists and backpackers too, as quite a few hostels have sprung up in this fashionable neighbourhood. Depending on time of day, year, any % mixture of these people may be in attendance, which in itself adds to the variety of the experience.

I really enjoyed some time among the locals enjoying a rough and ready vegetable stew and a pint (it was minus 10 degrees outside), but the night before I had popped in to find some talkative British lads by the bar who were making a quick stop to down some vodka and move on. The prospect of visiting after reading that may put you off, but I believe that not to be the normal way of things in this bar. As with all good pubs, the atmosphere subtly changes over the course of the day on into the small hours and is stolid enough to absorb such shocks to the system as an impromptu gatecrashing of British tourists.

Service is attentive, English speaking (as with Lithuania in general) and nice enough, certainly patient enough to entertain my questions and have polite conversation which made me feel welcome as a solo traveller.

Lithuania is currently showing off its craft beer scene, particularly ‘farmhouse ale’, and Snekutis blazed such a trail, serving raw unfiltered, or as they call it “live” farmhouse style ale, emerging from a blue barrel they don’t overly advertise (licensing laws are a grey but steadily tightening area on this issue). The beer is cloudy, slightly sweet and very refreshing. Reportedly, Lithuanian yeast cultures are unique, leading to a distinctly different flavour. There are a great range of other Lithuanian beers to sample, including some very reputable dark beers and Baltic porters to enjoy, which won’t clock in at much over 2 euros 50 cents, a typical example of how Lithuania is a great way to explore Swedish/Finnish style surroundings on the cheap, and a fridge full of other options if nothing floats your boat.

Snekutis have other branches around the city, all of which are enjoyable in different, more conventional ways, but none has the truly rustic and corporate-free charm of the Uzupis branch. It’s the kind of place that inspires and fosters loyalty by being brave enough to do something unpretentious yet still different, just as I was saying at the start.

With all these positives in place, and the dark Baltic winter outside, you can see quite easily this all adds up to a pub of genius in the making, not just strikingly different and thoroughly enjoyable but outstanding further than that. It is one of my all time favourite places and among the top ten pubs I would call upon to spend my time in and thoroughly deserves a 10/10 rating. Get to Vilnius too, it’s excellent.

 

Senk Na Parkanu, Plzeň

Veleslavínova 59/4, 301 00 Plzeň, Czechia
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks –10/10
  • Style and Decor – 7/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 7/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 6/10
  • Value for Money – 7/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  8/10

Drink unfiltered unpasteurised Pilsner Urquell delivered in barrels via horse and cart from Plzensky Prazdroj brewery up the road.

It doesn’t get much better than that for beer drinking, and despite the relative expense (cost being £1.70 rather than £1 which is the usual price for a beer in Czechia) it still represents extraordinary good value by nearly all other Western measures for supping what still is, pound for pound, the nicest beer going.

The horse and cart service also goes around a few other Pilsner Urquell pubs in Plzen on a largely ceremonial journey (though a good quantity of beer is delivered), such as U Senku and U Mansfelda,which are also worth checking out, but Na Parkanu is really the cultural epicentre, located in the bailey in the city walls and features an adjoining brewing museum which is brief, and poorly signposted but comes with a pint thrown in.

Na Parkanu itself is a shiny new pub, albeit in a traditional cookie-cutter Pivnice style, with some nice traditional features and a few little quirky concessions to the local hockey and football teams, along with reliable, absolutely conventional Czech food. You can sit down and just have a beer anywhere, much in the way you can at a chain pub in England, but there is a dedicated bar area too if you want to sit away from diners.

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In the main, Na Parkanu is a fairly by-the-by venue and in local terms a tad expensive by virtue of self-awareness of its own importance.

Why the fuss then?

The place serves a special beer that is very difficult to obtain in both unfiltered + unpasteurised form in Czechia let alone anywhere else, so there is always a tinge of excitement at the prospect of drinking at the ‘place to be’, which, outside of the Plzensky Prazdroj tap itself, this pub pretty much is, and everyone knows it, and is excited by the fact, which alone elevates the experience of drinking there.

The 12° Pilsner Urquell Nefiltrovany has that classically thicker texture and sharper flavour you get with a lager pre-filtration, but that makes it no more difficult to drink. The reviews speak for themselves. The beer slips down with alarming alacrity, while the keen-eyed servers have their eyes trained on any near-empty glass, and are only a quick nod of the head away from providing you with a replacement.

That’s enough in itself on this occasion. The venue is otherwise ‘steady’, it doesn’t really have any weak points (other than failing to fulfil my desire for it to be wonderfully old, preserved and traditional), which is hardly its fault. If they keep the layout for the next 80 years they may achieve that. It’s a solid pub you’ll find around in many a place, just one that’s blessed with something nearly every other pub doesn’t have.

If you’re feeling brave, try some of the intimidating looking ‘food to go with beer’ options on the menu, and wash it down with the gorgeous beer – you’ll soon be transported into a fatty, gristly, and delicious world of true Czech pub going – halitosis central but that’s just your body trying to communicate how satisfied you are!

A trip to Plzen that doesn’t include a pint of unfiltered PU at Na Parkanu would feel strangely hollow and lacking. This is something that I and the other Google reviewers seem to agree on. Join the throng and drink the tastiest damn beer you’re ever going to have, right from the source.

 

U Poutníka, Brno

Vstup branou č.p. 14, Starobrněnská 16/18, 602 00 Brno-střed, Czechia
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks –9/10
  • Style and Decor – 8/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 9/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 6/10
  • Value for Money – 10/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  9/10

Czechia excels in very unpretentious pubs devoted to swilling high quality beers of its own making. These pubs are the very definition of down-to-earth (particularly the ones located in cellars), welcoming all comers so long as they wish to experience and uphold this noble mission.

U Poutnika is Brno’s best example, possessing attributes common to those rare standout pubs that tie everything they do and everything they are together to produce ‘genius loci‘, a phrase which refers to that most indefinable and frustratingly hard to pin down thing – a place’s ‘spirit’ – (no, not Becherovka or Slivovitz ) – an accumulated sense of place and purpose that produces that atmosphere most people are seeking when they go out and socialise: vitality and character, usually so elusive to the majority of bars and pubs. The phrase ‘you had one job’ springs to mind whenever I think of some the hapless, and occasionally pretentious soulless holes I’ve stepped into.

Genius loci is a very well-used phrase by Czechs on reviews of their pubs, so it seems appropriate to mention it in reference to U Poutnika, which is as good a pick as any to demonstrate how an otherwise simple place with a look you could barely pick out at an identity parade can be elevated by virtue of its operation and customers, who every day contribute in their own way to the maintenance of a tradition, and who knows, perhaps even one day a legend. Some people may scoff at this, but even cursory research indicates that this place, much as several others has had its very existence threatened by bureaucrats, and therefore anyone who in their own way has patronised a pub, become an advocate, or a regular can fairly be argued to be participating in a peaceful revolt against such nonsense.

U Poutnika enjoys a central location in Brno’s ‘old town’ (largely a bustling and business-like provincial city but with some very pretty areas and buildings too), meaning no special trip-out to the suburbs is required in order to join the young, old and everything in-between who drop by on their nightly ritual. Although the pub may be central, its unassuming position nestled in a side-street arcade seems to provide at least some shelter from passing trade. However, upon your arrival you may notice a throng of people outside (all smoking). It will be quite busy, as Brno itself has very lively nightlife of a kind anyone from a northern city in the UK might be quite familiar with.

From a simple look around at the exterior, with its shopping arcade frontage and rather straggly-looking signs you may be adjusting your expectations downwards by the second, and I wouldn’t blame you if you were a touch tremulous arriving solo. Sod it – you’ve come this far, so why baulk at the last minute? Dive inside!

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The taproom is located right at the front, so if you want a quick beer ‘on the stand’ as they say, find a leaning post and have at it. U Poutnika is lucky enough to boast a “tapster” – invariably a rotund, middle-aged man whose sole job is to attend to the cleaning of glasses, pouring of beers and maintenance of the taps and kegs. Separately the server’s job is to go around tables doing the ordering and delivering of said drinks, but if you’re alone it may be easier and quicker (given how busy U Poutnika is) to approach the tapster directly when you first walk in – not always the most pleasant experience. These chaps can be quite growly and monosyllabic, even in their own language, let alone trying to converse with them in yours, so approach with caution, know your ‘dobry den‘ from your ‘ahoj‘ (the latter reserved for friends and regular acquaintances only) and be clear in your demands.

Jedno Pivo, prosim‘ will result in being presented with the house light lager, which is the excellent, criminally under-distributed Poutnik Pehlrimov, (translating to Pehlrimov Pilgrim) a Moravian beer difficult to find in Prague and Brno, let alone anywhere else (forget about tracking it down in the UK). As always in Czechia, light lager is so much more than the thin, gloopy and over-crisp offerings Brits are used to. This beer is poured with a smooth thick head, giving you a correspondingly thicker, smoother drink, and one which is so easy to knock back it becomes virtually irresistible. They do the 12 degrees and the unfiltered equivalent. That’s all – and that’s all that’s required. Try escaping from a pub having had just one half-litre of Poutnik – I haven’t seen it happen yet.

And ‘Czech‘ out the prices (sorry, I had to do that once and I promise never to do so again) – unbelievable! 29 crowns for a half-litre, ie. a pound a pint in a city centre pub, without having to enter into a slum with a tap, or one of Czechia’s notoriously rough and occasionally dodgy ‘Nonstop’ Herna pubs that stay open 24 hours for gambling, chain smoking and putting back of gallons worth of budget lager in a haze of depression. This great value has not escaped the attention of everyone – the pub is name-checked in a 2010 article in The Guardian.

Fuck, we haven’t even sat down yet! Have a glance around the taproom first – there are usually some pub emblems, mascots and ornaments that give a place individuality, and U Poutnika is no different in that respect, but head into the backroom for the sit-down and a chat amongst Brno’s finest.

You’ll find a curved ceiling in the archetypal Czech pivnice style, bench seating around the perimeter and plenty of communal tables, with a yellow ceiling telling tales of the millions of cigarettes smoked in the room and a palpable sense of history reverberating through the echoes and murmurations of friendly conversation going on around you.

Once seated, the server will be round to hand out a slip, and mark your slip for every beer you consume. He works pretty hard considering the almost constant demand for fresh beers – it is no cushy job, and you can tell that by the thickness of forearm and glistening forehead. The drinking goes on between 2pm and midnight – a relatively late closing time in a country with a more conservative attitude in that regard.

As with a lot of the best pubs, the come-one-come-all inclusivity here is what makes it – you can rub shoulders with students, architects, petty philosophers, borderline-vagrants, politicians, quiet pensioners, who may sit there silent for an hour before a conversation topic sparks them into life. Idle chit chat, card games, passionate political discussions, bitter feuds over sporting rivalries, it’s all to be had in places like this where everyone no matter how low or lofty is allowed to express themselves and be at one with each other.

It’s the kind of pub you would make your local minutes after moving into town.

Café Den Turk, Ghent

Botermarkt 3, 9000 Gent, Belgium
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks –8/10
  • Style and Decor – 9/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 9/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 5/10
  • Value for Money – 7/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  9/10

Any pub described as a ‘city institution’ carries its reputation before it. A heightened expectation level can and has resulted in occasional disappointment for me in the past, however a visit to Café Den Turk was not among such occasions, indeed, the place cemented its reputation, as I’ll explain below.

Café Den Turk is located in the very centre of Ghent, among an unparalleled, stunning display of Gothic and medieval buildings, which at points achieves a grandeur not even neighbouring Brugge can quite match. That alone has a tendency to draw you towards the place, which acts as a natural start or end to a sightseeing circuit of the city centre.

The longevity of Den Turk (reputedly the oldest continuous drinking hole in the city) appears to partly be down to officials from the town hall nipping across the road for lunchtime and post-work drinks. It really does feel like the kind of place where you come to shoot the shit about the latest political shenanigans or strike a clandestine deal over lunch and a beer – a proper pub.

Den Turk has striking signage and is located in a classic stepped-gable Flemish house, transmitting all sorts of positive signals before you’ve even walked through the door.

Although the interior of the bar area is typically Belgian, there is a more universally recognisable sense, that you get with those classic pubs that have so clearly and resolutely refused to change with the times. Furnishings and bar area are similar to a brown café, which are better known as being characteristic of Amsterdam, and Netherlands but are just as prevalent in Flanders too. However, the layout of Den Turk is more like a country English pub with ‘plotting’ rooms and corners, along with some pub-style corner seating, all proudly old fashioned with that doorstep sandwich thickness to the unvarnished tables that gives off a rustic feel.

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The choice on tap is a pointedly sensible working class array of typical AB InBev products, Leffe, Hoegaarden, Stella, yadda yadda at decent prices about you’d expect to pay in a well-to-do Belgian city centre, but check their menu! They stock a small but choice selection of bottles that will keep any Belgian beer fans well interested, not least a few Ghent beers that don’t crop up very often. Ghent Tripel is nice (but not a Ghent beer strictly – it is brewed to order elsewhere and relabelled) but Gentse Gruut is brewed only walking distance away, and their blonde ale makes for a sensible choice for a first drink in Ghent. Gruut style beer is brewed with spices in substitution for (or sometimes in addition to) hops, leading to a different flavour balance. The spices are also slightly botanical and bitter which balances well against the sweet, yeasty Belgian blonde you’ll be familiar with.

The pub regulars look dyed-in-the-wool and give off that vaguely reassurring feel of permanence; that while they remain in attendance everything in the world is ticking over nicely, or at least doesn’t matter a great deal for the time you are there. Better still, the place , like Ghent in general, is tourist-free. Expect a few stares to greet you on your entrance, as they clock an unfamiliar face, but the servers expect one or two new comers and are welcoming, if a bit upright. The city website itself tells of typical Ghent arrogance which may be overplaying it slightly, but then even their own website seems to take pride in the reputation. Yes, the service gives off an air of fellows who are masters of their domain – they won’t be fawning over you or pretending to be your mate, but it isn’t really obnoxious.

One quirk is the red and white patchwork tablecloth spread on many of the tables which don’t seem to fit the brown café style or the jazz bar intentions (that it wears quite casually), being more akin to a Hungarian Etkezde or trattoria than what you or I may think of for a pub. That’s a slight distraction, however.

An afternoon drink in Den Turk is quiet, surprisingly so for such a central location but the place acts as an oasis of calm and normality, of a sort that normally lends a place a permanent appeal.  However, while an afternoon drink in here is far from unpleasant I most recommend visiting in the core of the evening where everything takes on an atmospheric and shady glow, and the murmur of conversation starts to bubble up.

In the evening there is an understated jazz and blues soundtrack which are naturally complimentary and the whole effect coalesces to become a brilliant pub.

Den Turk is deservedly an institution, and a visit to Ghent without popping down for at least one would be to deny you one of the city’s finest and most authentic offerings. It seems almost impossible if I worked in Ghent I would not join their venerable councillors for a drink in Den Turk every lunchtime.

Bar Pastis, Barcelona

Carrer de Santa Mònica, 4, 08001 Barcelona, Spain
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks –6/10
  • Style and Decor – 10/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 9/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 8/10
  • Value for Money – 7/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  9/10

Any cursory research into Barcelona’s bar scene will lead you to the venerable and incredibly dinky-sized Bar Pastis, a staple venue of the Raval district for decades – with very good reason.

You may be concerned the place is over-exposed and  overly touristy – that’s understandable given how often it happens – well don’t worry. Bar Pastis can’t physically contain very many people for a start – secondly, the format of the place acts as an effective filter repelling faint-hearted rubberneckers, mainstream middle class folks and gormless teens almost as soon as they walk in (if they even get that far).

The outside of the bar really looks like nothing special, so much so that you might do a double-take before even trying the door. A late 80s/early 90s era sign in black and white ‘futuristic’ lettering hardly signposts the atmospheric speakeasy inside – just look at it! – but be brave, intrepid traveller, and dive in.

Once entering, and on the – not guaranteed – proviso you’ve managed to secure a comfortable standing or leaning spot, do take a moment to glance around at people entering the bar for the first time; enjoy the shocked and intimidated looks on people’s faces as though they’ve opened the wrong door into something truly disturbing and smily wryly as they reverse back out.

The old geezer running the bar wouldn’t want it any other way – indeed you’ll notice many stickers behind the bar area pointedly directing Erasmus students to an eff marked off.

So what’s this all about then?

Well, despite its diminutive size Bar Pastis could mostly call itself something of a music venue. It seems silly, even then, considering the place most likely fits 25 people in at a push (including any performers) but as true as day, there’s a small stage at the back of the bar that might allow 3 musicians at most, a table by the door that seems to become ever more useless and in the way as the night progresses (you can’t see the stage properly from there) and a few bar stools. If you’re desperate to sit down then prepare to be patient or prepare to leave – it took us around half an hour last time.

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The musical offerings vary between folk and jazz, and my last visit involved a maudlin French folk duo which despite being in Spain seemed perfectly appropriate for the location. Rather than recoiling in disappointment by what we found, the sound of live music was just the ticket as we thrust ourselves inside, and leaned over a few bodies to order some drinks.

Although it is a pastis/absinthe bar, strictly speaking, you’ll find a beer/wine easily enough. These are perfunctory efforts, really, slight concessions to what the bar would really rather sell, and merely passable. In addition to the drinks expect to pay a little surcharge for when there’s music on, though this doesn’t run to much more than a few euro. It’s all done informally by way of your first drinks order, which providing you’re not scared yet and wanting to flee, will prove very good value when the music starts.

The owner Angél has a typical René type look, slick back balding hair, roman nose and paunch, and is very much master of his domain.

While the music is playing you’ll find yourself drifting off into the surroundings which are some of the most crusty, ramshackle and amazing I’ve ever visited. The crimson painted walls of this tiny drinking den ran out of space some time ago, taken up with an unmistakably gothic and ever darkening set of paintings, yellowing newspaper clippings and various cultural ephemera from decades past. There is a slight bordello theme with some vaguely erotic stockings gestures and the centre piece on the ceiling, almost certainly a remnant from a Mardi Gras type festival is a suitably macabre mascot for a bar of rich, unflinching, uncompromising character. None of these items appear counterfeit, but inherited, and as a consequence you feel smothered in its history and the gradual accumulation of its importance.

No matter how many tourists attempt a pilgrimage to Bar Pastis, there is always a core fanbase who could be clearly identified from the tourists, while the transient custom of couples and folk music aficionados is only fitting for a bar of its kind.

Although I could suggest a few changes to the drinks roster and seating situation, it seems almost rude in the circumstances to do so, when so much of the place lavishes you with new things to look at, new music and revelry to enjoy, or that bleary eyed soulful haze at the end of a night. The place has a tendency to stay open into the small hours. Rejoining the street and heading down the relative normalcy of La Rambla (2017 terror attack excepted) feels like you just stepped back from a window into another universe, both real and yet unreal. How many bars come close to this?

It is for this reason Bar Pastis gets such a thumbs up from me. One of those places where an average score on Google fails to tell the true story. It’s brilliant – even if you go there once just to say I was there, good on you. You were there.

Strefa Piwa, Kraków

Józefa 6, 31-056 Kraków, Poland
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks –10/10
  • Style and Decor – 7/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 8/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 6/10
  • Value for Money – 7/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  9/10

Any new bar venture in Kraków’s old Jewish quarter Kazimierz (unarguably the coolest district for nightlife in Poland) needs to work hard to wrench people away from the dozen other exceptional bar options in the vicinity. My first visit to Strefa Piwa in 2015 was enjoyable, but the venue was young looking with that fresh wood-shavings smell still lingering in the air, yet to develop character either as a place or with its own crowd. In just a short space of time, that has now changed.

Strefa Piwa translates to ‘Beer Zone’, a rather generic name if there ever was one, so I stick with the lingua franca when referring to it. The pub itself is quite small – a narrow room with a curved ceiling in the style of a Czech pivnice decorated with a rather striking chart painted across the expanse of the walls, linking a hundred beer styles with their parent families. This decoration gives a clear indication about their raison d’etre -it’s heavily beer orientated, which is of course a good start with any bar. I quite like the fact the interior is a nice cross between a simple cosy drinking den with some of the architectural features of a beer hall. It’s not a specific reason to visit, but adds to the genius loci. The mirror to the left hand side of the bar always suggests there’s a second room, but trust me, there isn’t.

Two years ago a visit to Strefa Piwa would have been largely one to seek out a quality beer, what with the venue being in its infancy and  atmosphere still being a little quiet. I’m pleased to say since that visit Strefa Piwa has developed a core audience of locals who share the space with clutches of young travellers and backpackers. It’s a friendly, hustle and bustle type place in the evening that isn’t overly bothered about competing with the faded antiquey style bars down the road in terms of décor, isn’t going to drown out conversation with pumping music either and does well in providing a slightly different offering for the area.

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Because the décor is simple, it is the kind of pub that needs a throng of people to lend it vitality, but now it has that, Strefa Piwa serves up a great combination of incredibly high quality beer and a chatty, vibrant venue, that is also down-to-earth enough to avoid the pitfalls of some pretentious multi-tap beard-stroking craft venues out there (we’ve all been to them).

To compliment the nod towards Czech pubs in the design, there are a few high quality Czech ales (such as Kout na Sumavy) along with rotating craft Polish beer. The range is wide enough that you can find something great along a range of styles, with 7/8 tap options and a large bottle selection. As per usual the pricing, while a tad expensive by Polish standards is among the cheapest for craft ale you are likely to find around Europe. They have also opened a beer shop next door, which qualifies as one of the least surprising business moves going. Fine, of course, avail yourself of that if you feel the need, but we are more interested in the pub, right?

Strefa Piwa succeeds by offering something different to the majority of Kazimierz bars (although Omerta is quite similar). The pointedly different style to the ruined antique chic typifying the style in other Kazimierz bars seems to appeal to a local crowd who are more interested in drinking good stuff and socialising than ‘being seen’. You can pop in, sit down, calm down, and find a corner your mates and you can have a chat – that’s a key appeal of a pub, after all. The reviews online don’t lie – 4.6 stars on Google after 250 reviews is a phenomenal mean average considering it’s a simple pub, and that speaks of a widely friendly and likeable place, not just a hipster venue, and it’s not the first time the pub has caught the affectionate praise of a bar blogger , nor I suspect will it be the last.

Strefa works well as a stop off in between the bars around Plac Nowy in the centre of Kazimierz and the old town in Krakow, or just to drop by in and of itself for a casual pint. It’s a strong option that’s improving every year.

Like many pubs courting a young crowd they must be careful to make plans for when the place is no longer flavour of the month. For now they’re safe, but it wouldn’t hurt them to introduce a few community events, or consider a small extension to create more space.

If you lived anywhere near Kazimierz, Strefa would be right up the list for a stop-off, very much your home away from home public house, as it were. It’s just a pity only Cracovians get to enjoy the pleasure more regularly, the jammy bastards. Even though Strefa is up against stiff competition, jot this one down in your notebook! You won’t regret it.

 

Papa Joe’s Biersalon, Cologne.

Alter Markt 50-52, 50667 Köln, Germany
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks –8/10
  • Style and Decor – 10/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 10/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 8/10
  • Value for Money – 6/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  9/10

Some forms of pub going occur entirely outside of the confines of English culture, and one of these is to be found in Cologne, where Papa Joe’s Biersalon has become a local favourite.

The traditional of socialising and even group singing alongside strangers is much more common in Germany, and during the height of the evening, the singalongs in Papa Joe’s constitute a proto-form of kareoke, except instead of one person singing, most of the pub joins in.

To make matters weirder, the songs are ‘performed’ hourly by a mechanical marionette by the bar, the range of tunes being a remorseless cast list of traditional German favourites with the typical organ, harpsichord and accordion ensemble. You’ll be gawping at first, through the sheer  eccentricity of a setup that by now locals know like the back of their hand.

Sitting among the crowd, even if you aren’t joining in the singing (there is no obligation to) is to take in a heady experience of local life, a sample of German national expression even, if you want to take it further. The venue itself adds to all of this; is traditional in style but theatrical in shape with raised seating around the perimeter of the ‘pit’ area in front of the bar, and a corner stage to boot. With the bar’s history, it isn’t surprising the place is adorned with jazz instruments hanging from the beams and snippets of musical ephemera plastered to the walls. There’s plenty to look at.

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Drinks are best procured from the bar area as table service can be a little slow at peak times. The local beer Gaffel Kolsch is on tap and delicious, at a standard price for the city centre, and while that ought to do you just fine, there are some decent other options these days too (if you fancy a hefeweizen for example).

The traditional seating and cosy interior is about the only aspect of the experience I can think of that was akin to English pub going. Everything else was rather quaint, quirky and shameless in its kitsch ‘old-time’ quality. Expect to see a huddle of young folk bombastically belting out the standards by the bar, while the middle aged folk sit further back, rocking their heads and crooning along.

If it’s not the mechanical instruments it’s live jazz music, bawdy poetry recitals and all other sorts of 1920s-era throwbacks to keep everyone entertained. Concerts are free and it’s always busy. Unsurprisingly, given its location in the heart of Cologne (you could run there from the front door of the Dom in a minute flat) Papa Joe’s has become an institution, creating an atmosphere you can’t just bottle or duplicate at will.

If you’re a little anxious about forced jollity I can certainly understand a degree of reticence, but you have to be there to understand. Even if you’re still wary, you’ll be pleased to note there is some respite in-between the shows, and you can hang out perfectly as you would elsewhere, just in a lovely and lively pub.

After visiting in 2007 I kept a grainy video on my phone of our time there, and over the next few years, generally spent penniless and occasionally depressed, I would occasionally pop that video on and remind myself of the good times spent in here to cheer me up. That phone and video has now gone, but the memory lives on strongly.

It’s an essential place to drop by in Cologne, particularly as some of the brauhauses can tend to melt into one after a while. Papa Joe’s it offers something utterly different, strange, and yet pitted in the local tradition. Throw down a far jars of Gaffel Kolsch, gawp at the spectacle in front of you, and hey, even join in if you dare. After the festivities head around the corner to a kebab shop for a Turkisch pizza (making care to consume it before the alcohol wears off). Welcome to Cologne! In fact – welcome to Germany! This is the kind of pub you can almost justify a plane ticket for.

Bernard pri Lýceu, Bratislava

  • Quality and/or choice of drinks – 9/10
  • Style and Decor – 6/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 8/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 6/10
  • Value for Money – 10/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  8/10

The appeal of pure, unfettered going out to the pub, without extra bullshit or pretensions is something that grows on you the longer you spend time in Czechia or Slovakia, both countries that are strong on substance over style. Backing this philosophy up is their retinue of absolutely excellent world class beer kept to strict and exacting standards that is so singularly enjoyable you can find yourself in many scuzzy and otherwise unappealing dive bars still with something worth clinging onto (literally) . Not only that, but the sheer simplicity of the arrangement. A warm homely room with comfortable seating and good beer for a chat and a good time among your peers. Whatever gimmicks bars with throw at you, a million beers on tap, a sheet urinal with slices of orange in it, or drinks priced according to the stock exchange, it all eventually comes down to a room, a drink, and a good time. If you haven’t got that, you may as well be running a hardware store for all I care.

This Bernard Pivo insignia pub typifies working class drinking, set with only a car park between it and the dual carriageway out of town. It’s easy to reach if you’re near Bratislava old town, 15 minutes walk, so close you can still hear the trams exiting the tunnel under the castle (well worth a closer look in the dusky hours). The discount supermarket and sex shop next door certainly hammers home the gritty location, yet in spite of its grim view of the motorway and dubious neighbours the pub offers a surprisingly pleasant terrace area outside with covered bench seating that compliments the pub itself quite well.

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Don’t expect a warm welcome at the door, for this place is not about such fripperies. Czechoslovakian (in this sense I believe the defunct term still is applicable) service is almost routinely noted for being gruff and workmanlike at best and openly hostile at worst. The real welcome hug, if you were searching for one, is written on the blackboard stand by the pub, boasting nearly the full Bernard range, from the simple 10 degrees light lager or  ‘desitka‘, at barely a euro for a glass right up to the stronger special beers. Walk inside and find a very simple cosy room decorated like it hasn’t seen the fall of the Berlin wall, with a dinky bar area in the corner. There is a TV adjacent and some ice hockey memorabilia dotted around the place.

Don’t expect anything fancy – though I hardly telegraphed that it would be, did I? – it’s a classic local drinking hole with a vaguely nostalgic sporty theme. The staff won’t speak English (unless really, really pressed to) but neither do they utter any objection when you order a beer – they know why you are here and behind the stoic expressions they are pleased to serve, in that solemn Slavic way. The other patrons inside barely even turn around to acknowledge you, clouded in their haze of cigarette smoke and drunkenness, something which might give you peace of mind if you find the prospect of entering pajzls like this place intimidating.

There isn’t really space at the bar to have a beer na stojaka so if you’re going for a good time not a long time, your arse will need to make contact with some furniture. Not to worry, expect plenty of seats inside to go at. Hey, why not surprise them by choosing in Slovakian – desitka, jedenackta or dvanackta (3.8%, 4.5% or 5.0% Bernard lager) prosim – you might cause a flicker of an eyelid, which would be something of a successful extraction from a Slovakian tapster in my experience. Or they’ll just be annoyed you spoke Czech to them.

The terrace is a bit more communal, so even if you aren’t involved in any socialising directly and have arrived on your own there is a friendly feel to sit amongst the hubbub, and comes recommended over sitting indoors if the weather is fair. If you’re there in January dive inside the Dive! The pub crowd is an odd split between young couples and students who sit outside and typically grizzled old boozehounds who wander in and out between cigs and beer, but this crankily functional dynamic works in its favour and I quite like places like this that throw different groups of people together. That’s what a true pub should do.

The Bernard is excellent, disappearing down the hatch with alarming ease. Quite often you’ll arrive with the noble intention of staying for one, then ten minutes later, having found yourself dispatching a whole large beer, well and truly snared into staying for another, partly because you don’t want to move on so soon, partly because the beer is so fucking good. On both occasions I found myself dispatching several in short order, the price and quality proving irresistible. If you google the pub most of the photographs are simply pictures of glasses filled to varying levels, testifying to how well they keep their beer in this pub that anyone thinks someone would want to look at that.

While there are many humdrum aspects to Bernard pri Lyceu you could probably find in dozens of other hospodas in the city, I couldn’t think of a better example of a comfortable, strongly-supported working class venue, and the beer and value just tops it off.

When compared to the central brewery and pub Mestiansky Pivovar with its glass, chrome and corporate feel, Bernard pri Lyceu provides a stark contrast but equally, a welcome reminder of the more homely and simple values of pub going. I would include it on any night out in Bratislava. If you don’t believe me, check out what other people are saying.

 

 

À la Mort Subite

alamortsubite
Rue Montagne aux Herbes Potagères 7, 1000 Bruxelles, Belgium

There is sometimes a premium to be paid on a special occasion, so on my annual visit to A La Mort Subite I breathe in deeply and dive more deeply still into my wallet, on account of the luxurious overall experience of visiting this splendid Bruxelles bar.

Distinctly Parisien in format, this opulent faded-grandeur art nouveau venue (translation: At The Sudden Death) is one of Brussels and Belgiums most famous bars, so no surprises or left-field picks from me this time. A la Mort Subite might count as a brown café for the bench seating up the sides of the long room, if it wasn’t for the lack of brown elsewhere. Cream walls and pillars, the elegant ornamental décor stacked with studded crenullations, mirror panels and a stately, out of time design. You have a venue somewhere in between a café and a salon, originally built as a place for socialites to be seen in, yet, being Belgian, still focused predominantly on beer. The décor has such an authentic and preserved quality (no change since 1928, save for the occasional running repair) so it’s difficult to think of too many other places that are alike.

Mort Subite supplies the draft beer, and this brewery serves fruit beers and lambic effect rather than the real wild yeast sour lambics McCoy. They are still rich in flavour and sweetness, and a tad sour, but lacking any sort of dryness and depth that might indicate the traditional lambic brewing process. A small serving of their kriek for example, which would be a good choice, will set you back five euros on its own. Some of the other options are fairly astronomical considering the price one can drink for elsewhere in excellent surroundings. Mort Subite beer may as well be drunk here as much as anywhere on the globe. With this being Brussels you can expect a small food menu with cheese, charcuterie options and the usual pub food like croque monsieur to help your beer go down (as if anyone should need help finishing a Belgian beer!)

 

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The bar clearly feel they are unique to set such a high price, and annoyingly, they are right. An afternoon drink in A la Mort Subite can feel rather like a drink in a grand café, nice enough in itself, but the bar character starts to come alive in the early evening time as the crowd changes, and you can suddenly start to absorb some of the atmosphere and understand the underlying reasons for the endurance of this place. A special bleary eyed feel starts to develop, the sharp lines and corners blurring into the cream colours, like dropping into a dreamworld. That’ll also be the strong beer…

The grandeur and glamour of socialising in the inter-war era is yet to be recreated around Europe on any identifiable level, save for the odd outstanding example, partly because of the lack of venues who have committed to investing the kind of money to pull it off well, and also because the eventual crowd it attracts tend to have little to no appreciation of their surroundings anyway.

Service is almost classically continental, with wide stomached balding René type characters smoothly dissecting the venue with assurance and steady hands under the drinks trays. They are immaculately professional and patient considering conveyor belt of foreign tourists and the format of table service requiring more work than is strictly necessary. These characters add further to the sense of intransigent and reliability that lend a place a certain charm, that A la Mort Subite certainly possesses.

Although the evening and night crowd appeals to a few nostalgic locals who insist bars like these used to be abundant, a large volume tourists of venture in during the daytime, and because of the heritage of the place, often an aged crowd at that. The only sudden death that occurs in this bar is from pneumonia and cardiac arrest, I suspect.

Changing the venue in anyway seems to be verboten, and I wouldn’t approve major adjustments either ,however it seems to me there is nothing to stop the place rejigging the drinks choices and doing some marketing from the outside, as this venue is not designed for middle aged obese American sat in Burghaus jackets, it is designed for the young, the stylish and the vibrant. The way to really bring back the good old days isn’t just to leave the décor and service meticulously unchanged and hope for the best. The good old days were good because they were vital, vibrant and inhabited a nascent social scene. The place could do more in that regard by hosting more events, perhaps some understated live music, and so on.

In order for A La Mort Subite to take the next step, they need to be brave enough to recapture the zeitgeist in a way that doesn’t upset the period features, rather than settling for being a museum.

A La Mort Subite is a preserved remnant of a particular era and a great opportunity for anyone with a real passion in the rich and diverse history of socialising, beer drinking and recreational culture to step out of the every day experience and soak in the special character of the place. There are scarcely grander or more historical venues to recline and get merry with some astoundingly good beer. It may be so well known as to be passé, and it isn’t the pinnacle itself of pub going, but that doesn’t stop it being one of the best bars in Europe.

  • Quality and/or choice of drinks – 7/10
  • Style and Decor – 9/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 8/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 5/10
  • Value for Money – 4/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  8/10

Gostilna Pri Planincu, Bled

gostilnapriplanincu

Grajska cesta 8, 4260 Bled, Slovenia

The offerings and special experience of the Slovenian ‘Gostilna’ have in recent years become the subject of sentimental revival in the country, partly due to a period of national reflection, but also in acknowledgement of their slow and gradual disappearance as international restaurants took their place and globalisation promoted chains over independent character. As a response the Slovenian government, with the aid of the EU have now trademarked the ‘Gostilna Slovenija’ in their ongoing attempt to promote and rationalise what is an important and distinct offering in an otherwise dinky and Slavic-influenced country.

The Gostilna is the nearest place you can think of to an English country inn, a large but very homely venue, predominantly serving food but also offering rustic pub-like elements that invite a longer stay or an evening visit purely for a pint or two. Originally these began through landlords inviting guests around to taste their local food and wine. In the countryside these venues offer a home away from home, roaring fires, hearty food and shelter from harsh weather. In addition to that Slovenia takes a break from the usual sullen Slavic service and in a Gostilna you can expect to be treated like a host treats a guest at their house.

As a small town in the foothills of the Julian Alps, Bled is well placed to offer a good Gostilna, and there are a few worthy venues in town. The greatest of all is Gostilna Pri Planincu, both a cracking country restaurant of true history (continually serving since 1903)  authenticity, and a to all intents a characterful local pub.

The service was efficient, ruthlessly polite and cheerful, and the food arrived in suitably mountainous portions, after a reassuringly lengthy wait. Our whole table were in approval at the flavour of the food and the way it seemed to tower over us at our seats. The dining occurs in evocative country surroundings that feel real, aged with time and use rather than kitsch and plastic. Little oddities such as the stuffed witch character hanging from the ceiling are precisely the sort of oddity you wouldn’t find in a chain or modern bar (perhaps a very affectatious one).

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Slovenia’s own beer options are still limited at the time of writing but Lasko Zlatorog is a bearable lager for the first pint, so long as you get it on tap, and you may find some Austrian and German offerings if that doesn’t float your boat. There are Primator parasols in the beer garden of late, so if they’ve brought along Primator for the ride, that will increase the rating above it’s current level.

The pub area is saloon bar style, typically countrified and has an obsession with car registration plates and bike ephemera that cover more of the walls and ceilings than you’d first expect. There is also a showpiece ceramic heater giving central heating of the kind you usually see in high medieval mansions which takes up a quarter of the room itself.

On a trip out into the countryside it would be difficult to create a venue more desirable to visit than this excellent Gostilna. A hike in the beautiful surroundings of Bled followed by a portion of hearty home cooking in a wonderful welcoming pub. The only improvements I can think of would be longer opening hours for the bar area and a physical extension to it, which would elevate the place to a 10/10. As it is, the place is well worth your while.

  • Quality and/or choice of drinks – 6/10
  • Style and Decor – 9/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 9/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 7/10
  • Value for Money – 6/10
  • F: The Pub-Going Factor –  8/10

 

Jazz Kocsma, Szeged

jazzkocsma

Kálmány Lajos u. 14, 6721 Hungary

One of the pleasures of travelling is the sense of inevitability of unearthing a gem, something even more rewarding when it has involved some level of adventure. That was certainly the case when discovering Jazz Kocsma in Szeged, a fascinating and typically Hungarian university town bordering Serbia, which I wrote about recently in my sister blog Undiscovered Europe. Being in Szeged was alone, rather off the touristic beaten path, and even for a well-seasoned traveller there was a certain sense of the mystic about it with its enormous twin spires brick cathedral with volleys of bats swooping around it, a similarly enormous synagogue and the whole Vojvodina region being largely unknown to me.

There are bars in Szeged city centre, as you’d well expect, although we found fairly few for a city of its size. Unfortunately due to being out of term time, it was also sheepishly quiet at times. The central pub scene seems to divide itself between student drinking and old man drinking, without too many crossover places (which were tacky and/or corporate in any event). It was quite difficult to find any drinking holes that looked like they’d made any efforts to be homely, characterful or different. After a couple of hours of mediocre boozing we decided to call it a night, with the option of a venue called Jazz Kocsma, which we would drop by on the off-chance it was still open in the early hours.

On an unlit back street 20 minutes out of the centre, in a spookily quiet backstreet (to the point of feeling abandoned), Jazz Kocsma hoved into view. When we approached the bar, its old wooden doors were shut, the ancient lettering above the door frame several decades old at least – from there it seemed impossible to think the place had opened to anyone for years. Remarkably its inception was in 1992, so one can only assume they were going for a 1930s speakeasy vibe from the word go.

However, desperate to find somewhere before heading back to our awful hotel (the Tisza Sport, if you’re interested, though please don’t stay there) we tried the doors and to our surprise and relief found light downstairs, the place alive and accepting guests. There was a short break of silence as we walked in (the entrance of four Englishmen at a late hour most likely unexpected), and while surveying the scene we discovered this very ramshackle ancient jazz club, with a corner bar area on the right and small stage on the left, with resident piano and giant old rug lending the place a somewhat homely feel – that is, if the home had been left vacant and squat in periodically for a decade – however that isn’t intended to be a criticism in this case.

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The beer options are perfunctory Hungarian stuff, unspectacular, with the risible Borsodi at least being cheap, and a dark lager option that will almost certainly prove a better bet. The bar staff were neutral and as impassive as ever for Hungary (it remains to be seen what actually surprises Hungarian middle aged men) and the bar area was a very typical example with lots of pinewood giving it an almost cabin type quality versus the look of the place as a whole.

However, while we were in search of a good beer in a good pub the primary quality of Jazz Kocsma is not beer but atmosphere. Being very late at night, events were slowing in pace, with groups huddling quietly around ramshackle tables and vintage furniture and paintings in the candlelight. The mood lighting and gentle murmur of the groups in each area of the room set the tone nicely, as does the homely, yet dilapidated décor.

Yes, the Jazz part of their title does actually mean something, and although there was no music playing at our late time of arrival, their events calendar shows their live music performances remain in full swing with 5/6 official events a month, and more if you count the open mic stuff. It was easy to see from the interior how a Jazz band would elevate the experience. Make sure to check before you go as you may find that your woozy late evening pint is interrupted by some energetic live music performances (or alternatively visit in search of those performances to find one man and his dog at the bar trying to dissolve into the scenery).

This venue is a historical slice of local life that seems determined never to redecorate or change. Impossible to tell whether it was always this ad hoc, old and crusty or it has been happy to become so worn down. Regardless, the end effect is a powerful and distinct experience that will elevate your evening out in Szeged and prove that sometimes the best pub experiences aren’t always going on in the centre of town. It’s telling that the place is still going strong despite the lack of marketing and obscure location, largely from word of mouth. Such institutions are rarely bad places to visit. This is one of those encounters that rewards curiosity and comes highly recommended.

  • Quality and/or choice of drinks – 4/10
  • Style and Decor – 7/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 10/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 7/10
  • Value for Money – 8/10
  • F: The Pub-Going Factor –  9/10

 

Špunka, Vilnius

spunka

Užupio g. 9-1, Vilnius 01203, Lithuania

This boldly-named drop in bar is well located at the epicentre of the republic of Uzupis in Vilnius (or attached to depending on your opinion), meaning it’s a short walk for anyone heading there from the old town, as well as pulling in people from the suburbs.

It’s initially surprising that they chose such a modest sized venue; it really is a small place, with the bar occupying almost half the surface area of its one main room. All the evidence suggests there’s enough footfall and interest for them to have made a pub three times as big and made a success out of it. However, this appears to have been a deliberate decision to make a ‘drop in’ type bar.

At times, crowding around the bar is the only real option, but for much of the evening you should be able to grab a stool either at or opposite the bar and drink on the ledge or you may get lucky and find a table by the window.

 

 

 

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The bar is only interested in serving Lithuanian ales from small/medium-sized breweries – quite rightly so – meaning there are some exciting options on tap, including a couple of dark lagers, farmhouse ales and the region’s showstopper, Baltic porter, essential on any trip to Lithuania. You will find their own attempts at US craft beer styles, such as Dundulis Humulupu IPA which tend to be well made but nothing outstanding. Any obscurist will be in hog’s heaven peering at the taps and decent bottle selection.

The beer is a little more expensive than your average Vilnius pub, however not pushing towards any really offensive levels for Westerners. Beer aside, the best thing is the local, cosy feel to the place. It’s designed to feel pub-like rather than stark and modern, and treads a fine line between that typical ‘craft beer pub look’ and a venue seeking its own traditional character. We’ve all been passed those drop in dives in Europe where old men have tried to turn what looks like a corridor into a pub. Spunka is a successful experiment in making that idea more widely appealing while still capturing that ‘drop in’ feel.

You’ll find a nice range of people in here, the odd tourist, grumpy old men sharing space with excitable youngsters, sharing space with a business crowd, sharing space with couples having an intimate drink together. This makes it a must-visit when you go to Vilnius.

The main downside is there is nowhere to sit down and relax, so although you may want to hang around, the stool seating just isn’t comfortable enough to want to spend your whole evening there. Essentially drop by, socialise or hang at the bar for one or two and move on. For some places that feels just right. In Uzupis, never mind Vilnius in general, there are several quality options to choose from.

My favourite part of the visit to this bar in late November was watching the snow start to fall outside as I sipped my glass of porter. It’s something you rarely get to experience in England but there is suddenly an elevation in atmosphere a pub takes on when the snow falls outside, like a collective spontaneous agreement to stick two fingers up to the weather and get merry,  wrapped up in a warm cosy and friendly place, drawing you further and further into its thrall.

There are apparently sister pubs, one in elsewhere in Vilnius and a few further afield which if they stick to this fine balance, the genius loci I suppose, will be worth your while. With a name like this, you’re going to find it quite difficult to forget about. A fine establishment and a memorable pub.

  • Quality and/or choice of drinks – 8/10
  • Style and Decor – 8/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 8/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 5/10
  • Value for Money – 7/10
  • F: The Pub-Going Factor –  8/10

 

Känguruh, Vienna

kanguruh
Bürgerspitalgasse 20, 1060 Wien, Austria

It’s a slightly off-kilter situation for Vienna’s best bar to specialise in Belgian beer and be called Kangaroo, but there you are.

Känguruh is apparently a reference to the frequent confusion between Austria and Australia, although why it then goes to offer a large menu of bottled Belgian beer is anyone’s guess. So stylistic consistency…not really this place’s strong suit. However, it’s all good things from here.

The beers are nearly all 4 euros 50, which in certain cases is extraordinarily good value, meaning you can try rare small batch brews, quadrupel strength beers, lambic, etc for less than you would pay in Brussels city centre. As anyone who has tried Belgian beer can expect, the quality is terrific (though the staff will weary a little if you keep making them leave the bar area to dig out their rarer items from the archives at the back). However, the bar also have 6 taps on rotation, largely German and Czech beer if you require lighter high-volume refreshment and there’s barely a crap beer in sight.

Aside from the beers being exceptionally good, the venue itself is cracking. Although the pub is street-facing, they have made a conscious choice to cut off the light filtering through from outside world (it faces a bland street so there isn’t much of a view anyway), so it is one of those places where the transition from outside to inside and vice versa is quite dramatic. I find these sorts of places great at engendering a sense of community – perhaps it’s their ability to make you feel like you’ve left real life temporarily, meaning that while you sit there and continue your drinks and chat, all must be well.

 

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In summer you may find the street-facing terrace area outside open but that really defeats the object of the visit. It’s all about diving into the bowels of a shady, cosy pub.

There is a round bar area and the main room offers largely stool seating, which isn’t ideal, however does reflect the general popularity. The room in the back offers a little more lounge comfort. The atmosphere is shady, candlelit and dramatic, the crowd a mixture of ruminating solo drinkers (referred to as “einslers” in German), couples and friendly youngsters enjoying the close feel and the candle-lit gloom.

Such a place is very appropriate for knocking back Belgian ale, and before long all the outlines of your sight will start to become a little fuzzy. There is a reasonable turnover of patrons so if you don’t strike up a conversation at first, hang around and see what happens. Känguruh stays open til 2am, so let that Belgian ale loosen your lips and you may find just about anything seems able to happen – make a new friend, get punched in the face – the roulette wheel of inebriation spins pretty fast in this place.

Känguruh is a well-known about local legend, one not likely to change in any way any time soon, and an essential visit while in Vienna. One of those places when after your first visit you’ve already decided, ‘if I lived here, this would be my local’.

  • Quality and/or choice of drinks – 10/10
  • Style and Decor – 9/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 9/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 6/10
  • Value for Money – 6/10
  • F: The Pub-Going Factor –  9/10

 

K.K.C (Kaņepes Kultūras centrs), Riga

kkc

Skolas iela 15, Centra rajons, Rīga,

After being exposed to the ruin bar scene in Budapest, any other venue elsewhere that aims to achieve a similar thing becomes immediately of interest.

Riga’s basket case old town makes for an uneven and at times quite hollow night out, as the centre is overpriced and caters for stag tourism with the effect that it virtually eradicates locals. This is not to say there are no bars worthy of note, but after a while you begin to wonder where the young Rigans are actually hanging out.

K.K.C is one of the answers to that question, set in a large building which looks somewhere between a mansion house or an old municipal building. It is located north of the old town in ‘Centrs’ a fascinating district full of grandiose pre-war and inter-war buildings, a hodgepodge of interesting styles, and yet slightly sad and neglected, a mini Gotham City, if you like. The area feels like it has a lot of potential to be refurbished and preserved, but whether there is enough money to bring that about is another matter.

K.K.C has an attractive courtyard area which the building wraps around, and upon arriving (providing it’s Spring or summer) you’ll notice lots of people are happy sitting around on ledges with a beer and socialising.

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Indoors there is a mixture of art space and more conventional bar-like rooms, with friendly service, cheap decent beers and a refreshing DIY approach. The good reviews of the place are well deserved as it provides a much needed break from the norm, and in the summer especially it would be the ideal spot to hang out outside of the old town. It does have that slightly thrilling lawless feel of a squat a la Metelkova mixed with an atmospheric bohemian ruin bar – reinforced when you remind yourself K.K.C translates to Cannabis Cultural Centre – though don’t get your hopes up – Kanepe (or Hemp in Latvian) is simply the surname of the owner.

The mixture of faint dilapidation, art space and bric-a-brac creates a nice atmosphere. In some of the rooms the wooden construction of the house, choice of hung artwork and items like pianos definitely give it a feel of the lunatics taking over the asylum, which adds something on top of your usual bar going experience. Make sure you explore as there are far more rooms than initially meets the eye!

The venue has even more potential than they seem to realise, and it will be interesting to see whether they ever truly get to work on the décor, but for the time bring you can come along for its exhibitions, concerts, or more likely just for a beer and a chat to hang out. Don’t despair of the offerings in the old town – real Riga is alive and well, only a short walk away!

  • Quality and/or choice of drinks – 7/10
  • Style and Decor – 8/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 8/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 8/10
  • Value for Money – 8/10
  • F: The Pub-Going Factor –  9/10

Lórien, Palma di Mallorca

lorien
Carrer de les Caputxines, 5A, 07003 Palma, Illes Balears, Spain
In a city geared up for café culture, tapas, pintxos and wine, the pastime of drinking beer and pub-going currently plays a definite bit-part role in Palma. Going for a night out here generally revolves around visiting various tapas bars on an evening, which are often lively and buzzing but lacking any standout décor and character to distinguish themselves. Indeed, the crowds in those places, the endless snacking and paucity of good beer options become a drawback after a time.
Thankfully Lorien has stepped into the breach, a superb genuine beer pub with a Lord of The Rings theme. This whole notion hangs loosely around the frame of the pub though, think tasteful artwork, motifs and patterns rather than role play and costumes! It isn’t like The Prancing Pony either, although few places are.
The pub tailors itself for an audience who have been starved of choice and quality of beer, stocking a range of Spanish and Mallorcan craft ales on tap along with a healthy supply of beers from more traditional parts of the world. This will come as a refreshing change of speed from the relentlessly uniform options of Estrella or Mahou everywhere else in the city. You’ll be surprised at the length and breadth of the beer menu.
There is a corresponding uptick in price which is hardly surprising given the sheer lack of competition, but given the alternative option is standing around food-munching Mallorcans in corporate tapas bars, or drinking wine in inappropriately intimate cellar bars, it’s worth it.
Furthermore, Lorien succeeds by being a real pub. You will find corner bench seating arranged in a communal, inwardly facing main room – a pub, in essence – and unsurprisingly a rather different crowd of young people than the dress-to-impress crowd in the tapas bars, going for a drink and a chat in a cosy and informal setting.

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The bar staff are almost textbook beer monsters: bald, big beards and big beer guts, and are more than happy to chew over your drinking options. You’ll find English is commonly spoken, as is often a big plus of craft beer places abroad when you’re trying to decipher what to drink, or just to have a friendly conversation.
However, this is more than just a venue for craft beer, there is a real effort made to engender a local drinking spot and community. Thankfully Lorien strikes the balance right between the studious beer contemplation and a friendly community.
Anyone frustrated by the other options and angling for a good beer and a communal pub in Palma must start by making a pilgrimage to Lorien, perhaps meeting your own Lady Galadriel along the way!
There are no two ways about it – if I lived in Palma, Lorien would be my local of choice.
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks – 8/10
  • Style and Decor – 8/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 9/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 7/10
  • Value for Money – 6/10
  • F: The Pub-Going Factor –  9/10

Sarajevska Pivara, Sarajevo

sarajevskapivara

Franjevačka 15, Sarajevo 71000

The best traditional brewery in the Balkans, a visit to Sarajevska Pivara for a beer and a nosy around is essential, almost regardless of the externalities.

Sarajevsko lager would be fairly anonymous were it sold in England or Germany but it just shows the paucity of real options in the former Yugoslav states that such a beer manages to stand out.

There’s no point being too sniffy about it though, they aren’t bad beers brewed here by any means, especially if you can drink the tank stuff which gets sent across the city, or if you visit the brewery itself, where the best tasting Sarajevsko can be found.

The brewery is located close to the centre, so can be joined on to any pub crawl near the old town fairly easily. The building sticks out like a sore thumb, as it was a concern of the Austro-Hungarian empire, constructed in 1864, so you won’t have any trouble finding it among the apartment blocks and ottoman buildings of the old town. Even if you have a poor sense of direction, don’t worry, the enormous backlit sign against the frontage will guide you there.

Although anything Austrian was a target of hatred for the Bosnians, over time the locals have grown an attachment to this place, having gradually appreciated it to be an asset and a source of jobs rather than grumbling about it being some imperial vestige. Astonishingly some people still hold a grudge despite the Empire ceasing to exist over a century ago.

Once you arrive, keep heading through the doors in order to find another shock, as the pivnica inside is a grand beer hall with a theatrical shape, a central area surrounded by balcony levels. This isn’t some modest or unconvincing imitation of another country’s style, it would be as impressive were it in Munich or Vienna. Opulent would be the word – it’s certainly there to make a statement. Take a seat and before long one of their ambling rotund servers will approach to take your order. Splutter ‘Pivo molim’ if you’re on your own, ‘piva molim’ if you’re in a group.

Gender politics are perhaps not quite as progressive in Bosnia as they are in the UK, and you can still expect the marketing of their beer to feature a sizeable bosom, often with a plate of meaty food. If you meet any Bosnians aged over 30, the strategy will hardly surprise you. See below:

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The beers are served in sturdy dimpled mugs and are fresh as you’re ever likely to get. The ‘tamno’ dark larger is much more generic, and probably best avoided out of winter unless you’re trying to increase your check-in count on Untappd. Sources reveal they have brought out an unfiltered lager since my visit, which will almost certainly be an improvement and is something I’d encourage anyone to try straight away.

It’s such a large venue, large groups are required to build the atmosphere inside. As it is rarely busier than ‘ticking over’, there is an unexploited potential here, however neither does it feel particularly abandoned. There’s a pleasant atmosphere as the disparate conversations bounce across the room. Take a minute or two to explore the bar area and the upstairs, as it really is a grand place.

A beer won’t set you back more a few Bosnian marks, so there’s no impediment to staying here for the duration and getting sloshed. Keep an eye out for the museum and lunch deal, if you’re coming during the day, which at 12 euros 50 represents pretty good value.

It’s always interesting seeing attempts to transplant one culture into another, and this pivnica/pivara allows you to experience this AND go to the pub. A slight improvement to the beer and the atmosphere aside, this place is fascinating, good fun and comes highly recommended.

  • Quality and/or choice of drinks – 7/10
  • Style and Decor – 9/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 8/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 7/10
  • Value for Money – 7/10
  • F: The Pub-Going Factor –  8/10

Spiż, Wrocław

Spiz

Ratusz 2, 50-106 Wrocław, Poland

The history of the ‘Ratskeller’ in central Europe is rich and fascinating, not least because the concept of the main social meeting place being in the epicentre of the town was the signature of medieval towns. Yet for various reasons this has become lost, even countries famed for such traditions, not least Germany. The cities expanded, the places became victims of their own success? Who knows.

Wroclaw has a great deal of crossover culture with Germany, being known as ‘Breslau’ by their neighbours, and along with that, the drinking culture centred in traditional fashion on the city’s extremely large and impressive Rynek. Today, the Ratskeller ‘Spiz’ delivers to modern Poland such an correct feeling representation of the style, it acts as traditional cultural anchor in the city’s otherwise modern and often alternative-edged social scene. Despite having only existed since 1992, it has basically revived a periodically forgotten historical purpose and in a short space of time picked up quite a bit of character to boot.

Upon entering the Spiz cellar, you will discover a Germanic, Gothic and stately subterranean beer hall with its impressive mash tuns, giant barrels, cloistered ceiling and interesting display cabinets, acting as a mini-museum. You can order these straight from the bar which makes a nice change from having to wait for table service. The bar area is a fairly amusingly disorganised affair with servers handling money slightly grouchily and seemingly not fully comfortable with the concept of direct interaction with the general public. Alternatively you can wait for the waiting staff to make an appearance, and these matronly sorts are not to be messed around with. Apparently carrying heavy beers around all day gives you muscles!

Importantly too, Spiz brews what it sells, and yet freakishly it competes with two other breweries also on the square itself – talk about keeping a tradition alive! All Spiz beers are unfiltered and unpasteurised giving them a hard-to-match freshness, and their whole range from the light lagers, yeast beer and honey mead fall somewhere between okay, good and very good.

They are geared towards either hearty winter drinking or refreshing high volume summer drinking and although you may quibble here and there about not hitting a certain level of finesse, their drinks hit a good mark consistently. None of their beers will come close to breaking the bank, even by Polish standards although with it being central it’s not the cheapest place either.

 

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Conversely, there is a huge seating area outside, including an outside bar which on a sunny day becomes the ultimate drinking spot in the city, as one can recline with a beverage and enjoy the sights and sounds of a buzzing and vibrant Rynek. On my last visit the weather was gloriously sunny and although I’m not hugely taken by terrace drinking usually (as often you may as well be anywhere), it hardly gets any better than this. To your left, glance upward to the clock tower of the Ratusz, then straight ahead a line of magnificently restored and individually painted burgher houses, then to your right the join onto the Maly Rynek, which, through depth of field provides a fleeting illusion that this beauty and artistry stretches throughout the city. If you just keep sat there chugging away at the lovely beer, you can convince yourself it does.

A passion for preserved historical features isn’t just borne of an interest and preference in historical architecture, also a yearning for the atmosphere and simplicity of the time. Sat outside spectating on the various forms of life passing by does on a temporal level transport you to a previous era. The Rynek in Wroclaw is terrific and Spiz has the number one location for enjoying it.

If there wasn’t anything else to do in Wroclaw it would be enjoyable in itself to spend your entire time at Spiz. As can be seen by the various reviews, the positive experiences are well founded. However, Wroclaw is a terrific city as I highlighted here on my sister site Undiscovered Europe.

Yes, it’s entirely obvious as a destination and about as alternative as the use of the letter E in the word sentence. The service may not be all that, and it can be very busy at peak hours. Similarly, the TV screens downstairs in the beer hall garishly advertising info about its horrendous looking disco nights do detract from the experience. It needs to be very very good to overcome these – and it is.

Very few pubs will ever take such a short time to embed themselves in the landscape and cultural of such a big city, and they’ve done, by heavens they’ve done it.

  • Quality and/or choice of drinks – 8/10
  • Style and Decor – 8/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 9/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 8/10
  • Value for Money – 7/10
  • F: The Pub-Going Factor –  9/10

Schlenkerla, Bamberg

schlenkerla

Dominikanerstraße 6, 96049 Bamberg, Germany

The number one purveyor of rauchbier‘, Schlenkerla are a big international brand and export their strange smokey ale across the world. Bamberg’s tradition for beer brewing is well known about in Germany with nine active breweries in the centre itself, all of which existed long before this decade’s revival of small scale brewing. You might expect Schlenkerla’s brewery tap to be along the lines of many other German breweries, a vast beer hall serving high volumes to the masses, as the place certainly fulfils one of Bamberg’s central tourist functions.

It comes as a very pleasant surprise then to visit Schlenkerla and find  a small-to-medium sized pub, connected to a cloistered medieval banqueting hall, which while rather impressive to look at isn’t enormous either.

This certainly isn’t a criticism, quite the opposite. In comparison to many other breweries who go in for a far more corporate business-like approach to style and service, hard to hate but at the same time difficult to love, at Schlenkerla the preservation of the tradition, and a determined low-key approach seems to be the modus operandi. For whatever reason, outside of the peak weeks of summer, maintaining this normal scale pub seems to meet demand and work just fine.

There is a luxury to be had bathing in stereotypes from time to time, and you will find the unabashed gothic agricultural charms of Schlenkerla’s tap house so distinct and powerful, encompassing a stereotype of the traditional Germanic identity, (the Middle Ages in particular), as to make a lasting impression.

The exterior of the pub is a beautiful traditional fachwerk house (as could be expected) with the classic Schlenkerla motif on the lantern outside, the name loosely translating to ‘limping man’ (though I believe the direct translation is slightly less politically correct). The location of the pub could hardly be more central, almost at the epicentre of operations in Bamberg’s Altstadt and just a short walk from the absurd and brilliant Altes Rathaus perched halfway across a bridge over a fast-flowing river. You can read more about that in my general review of this modest yet spectacular city here.

Turn left as you walk in to enter the pub room, and notice the Schlenkerla beer served gravity pulled direct from the barrel at the bar. The interior is black beamed, previously having been washed in ox blood, presumably for some superstitious reasons. Bamberg was one of the centres of witch trials in the middle ages and like a few corners of Germany, does enjoy trading on a rather gruesome history. The room itself feels like it could have existed hundreds of years ago, and save perhaps for certain added sounds and smells that would take you there it is remarkably transporting all the same.

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The pub offers communal seating, and was so appealing to dive into on a winter’s day none of my inherently reserved Britishness about sharing communal space came into play. Find any space going and place yourself there – perhaps be polite to ask first, but it’s unlikely anyone will decline – it is the done thing. The serving wench (I do use that term advisedly) is stodgy and middle aged, which suits the place perfectly, being after all, a stout and venerable operation. With her level of dour scrutiny over proceedings, your beer will arrive in short order and be replaced just as swiftly when you’ve finished drinking. Keep the bar mat handy as she will be keeping tabs via pencil marks and you’ll settle up at the end.

Schlenkerla’s rauchbier overwhelms your mouth at first with smoke and bacon flavour, but once it has laid the flavour there, that recedes to the background, or at least becomes the ‘medium’ if you like. From there, drinking the rauchbier becomes milder, with their Marzen being similar to a sweetish nut brown ale, with that background smoke and a refreshing hoppy finish to boot. Similar to trying your first pint of Guinness or other stout, once you overcome the initially strange flavour there is a fantastic drink to be had and one you can put away volumes of in one sitting. The guy I sat next to assured me it takes three full pints before you appreciate the virtues of a rauchbier.  And check out the value as well! Germany has generally offered a large beer for 3 euros 50 cents for a while now, but in Schlenkerla it’s well under that for a glass, meaning you can have a whole session in here without worrying about rapidly draining your funds. Good value is hardly a common feature of any sizeable brewery tap I’ve been to, so here’s another feather to its bow.

The pub room is really cosy and friendly, with many traditional pub staples, including even a serving hatch with a stained glass window, and a door leading to a courtyard of high medieval design where one can get fresh air and nosy around at the general environment at this terrific venue. At the time of my visit it was even snowing in the courtyard heightening the atmosphere further. Diving back inside I spent a good few hours alongside a Brazilian family who were being introduced to Bamberg by their daughter’s husband. Even though I was suffering from a bad sore throat at this point it still counted as one of the highlights of the stay. You know there will be little stories and vignettes shared every day by people who bumped into some stranger or other in Schlenkerla and for a brief moment in their lives because well-acquainted. Such socialising cuts to the heart of a pub’s function.

Although they serve food in the pub area, the best place to be for that sort of thing is their banqueting hall through the other side of the building. The styling inches even further towards medievalism without going over the top as with some themed-restaurants. Schlenkerla serve food built to withstand the power of a smoked beer, and the offerings are intensely flavoured, stodgy and agricultural. The Bamberger sausage is charred black, comes on a spartan metal plate and will make your breath stink for weeks. It’s delicious. The Bamberg Zwiebel is a giant onion stuffed with mince. You’re probably getting the idea. You can even push the boat out and order Schlenkerla’s doppelbock beer. The combination of a complex strong beer and smoked effect on top pushes the boundaries of what a tongue can cope with, and it’s a specialist kind of brew.

All venues that see a high volume of traffic such as this one can suffer from the service being a little jaded and that also applies to Schlenkerla if you’re doing any more than drinking. I got the impression the majority are well meaning but they certainly seem to tire as the day goes along. Most of the negative comments online also pertain to this, and I think they have little patience for the more ignorant tourists, finding their other tasks quite challenging enough as it is. However, that’s a rather mild criticism in what otherwise is a richly enjoyable experience.

As a pub I would recommend this all day long – it is one of the finest drinking spots I’ve ever been to and I wince with regret that we haven’t developed matter transporters so I can press a button and visit every week with impunity. In many ways Schlenkerla sums up what pub going is all about and takes several of those aspects to the very highest level of enjoyment. Stunning.

  • A: Quality and/or choice of drinks – 9/10
  • B: Style and Decor – 10/10
  • C: Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 10/10
  • D: Amenities, Events & Community – 8/10
  • E: Value for Money – 9/10
  • F: The Pub-Going Factor –  10/10

U Černého vola, Prague

ucernehovola

Loretánské nám. 107/1, 118 00 Praha 1, Czechia

A gem of a pub, U Černého vola (the Black Ox) is a place you could walk past a hundred times without knowing it was there. Granted, you’d have to be a bit stupid and not like drinking beer at all, but there are billions alive that fit that description. This boozer shares streets with typically touristy, overpriced restaurants and souvenir shops due to its proximity to Prague’s castle. You can watch the changing of the guard and have a cheap tasty beer sat in front of you while sat among locals in the space of ten minutes. You’d hardly believe it, but it’s true.

Diving through the plain doors outside (albeit with a rather impressive facade above the doorway, if you stop to look at it) offers you immediate refuge from the hustle and bustle of the crowds outside, with a very unprepossessing entrance area that looks a bit more like the front of a mechanic’s garage than a pub. It’s almost as though they’re actively trying to keep the crowds at arms length. Head right on into the taproom through the door to your right. You may already spy a few fellows milling about in the standing areas having a quick drink and a smoke.

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More inconspicuous than you may think….

The pub operates a similar tapster/server set up to many busy Czech pubs, a reliable system involving in this case a mute, middle-aged bearded man silently dispensing light and dark Kozel, while an amiable enough server trots around doing the necessary interaction. The understated pride and commitment with which they carry out their jobs may be easily overlooked but it is worth acknowledging and all adds to the overall feel of the place. As with many of these places, once you get started on your pint, your near empty glass is replenished with military efficiency, and only your beer mat on your glass and a wave of your wallet will cease the pouring of your next beer. These pubs hug you and grip you in their boozy welcome and it’s extremely tempting to let entire afternoons go by in them. And mmm, that black Kozel is absolutely delicious.

When the tourists disappear from Castle Hill, the locals emerge (along with nearby backpackers) and seek out U Cerneho Vola for a few jars, transforming the venue’s fairly sedate afternoon atmosphere into a vibrant, sometimes rambunctious destination. Getting a seat is essential to fully enjoying your time here, but be aware space can be in high demand. Don’t be shy – if it means sitting shoulder to shoulder with a stranger, so be it. You never know what conversations or chance meetings might be in store. Don’t be too British about it either – the tapster will lose patience with any loitering and shout at you (in Czech of course) to sit down with the rest of the crowd and stop being such a wallflower. You will notice the seat by the taps is permanently reserved, a necessary evil in this case to ensure the pub retains its purpose and isn’t consumed by tourists. If you ever want to incur the wrath of the staff, just try going anywhere near it!

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Yours truly on a recent jaunt…

The venue is largely set up for communal pubgoing, with bench seats filling up quite quickly around lunch hours. Except for a slightl lull in the afternoon, the pub becomes fairly busy from early evening onwards until chucking out time (still a sadly old fashioned 23:00 hours). No music though, the sounds to enjoy are that of the conversation going on around you, the clink of glasses, the occasional plate of pub grub (fried cheese, smoked sausage etc) emerging from the kitchen. Grab the food menu – nothing on there pushes 100czk. It’s that kind of place. It’s all basic as hell – salty, bland and piping hot – enough to work up a hankering for more beer.

In terms of the décor, there are some attractive stained glass windows which temper the light to an almost constant ‘early evening’ type feel. You’ll note medieval insignia painted above the dark wooden bench seats, otherwise it’s the typical curved Czech pivnice/hospudka type ceiling with walls stained yellow from smoke. There is a rather kitsch bulls head with red lights for eyes which I’m not sure quite works, but at least proves it’s a living pub and not a museum. Otherwise, U Cerneho Vola is pubgoing stripped back to its core and none the poorer for it.

Additionally, Max Bahnson of Pivni Filosof has advised that U Cerneho Vola are run essentially non-for-profit and the money they make goes towards social projects. The place was due to become one of those Pilsner Urquell Original type places until the intervention of a benevolent bureaucrat. While such altruism might not be foremost in your mind as to where to go for a pint, it’s good to know in the background a pub has its heart in the right place, especially if the gruff Czech service ever puts your nose out of joint! Even if they bark their dissatisfaction with you for your foreign indiscretions, it’s only because they want you to sit down, eat their food and drink their beer. Suck it up! Happily: a thousand times over.

  • A: Quality and/or choice of drinks – 9/10
  • B: Style and Decor – 9/10
  • C: Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 10/10
  • D: Amenities, Events & Community – 7/10 (mainly for the social projects and the cheap food)
  • E: Value for Money – 10/10
  • F: The Pub-Going Factor –  10/10

t’Brugse Beertje, Brugge

tbrugsebeertje

t’Brugse Beertje, Kemelstraat 5, 8000 Brugge, Belgium

The alchemy of what constitutes a good pub is worthy of considerable study, and partly why this site was created.  The Little Bruges Bear is an excellent place to begin.

While there are so very many hundreds of bars and pubs across Europe missing essential ingredients, scrambling in the dark in their search to attract patrons, despite having a reliable formula almost laid out for them, this pub serves to illustrate how simple the task is.

t’Brugse Beertje is a cosy communal venue with the dimensions and confines of a snug brown café/pub decorated with wood panelled walls and adorned well selected and stylish bar ephemera. There is a choice of simple wooden seating or slightly more comfortable bench seating if you’re lucky enough to swoop in and claim it. Ask to peruse their enormous menu of Belgian beer, presented in the form of an almanac that takes a good 20 minutes to look through properly and consider a selection of typical Belgian snack options (gouda, biscuits, meat platters, croque monsieur etc) to go with. Just thinking about this while writing is salivating.

Hanging above the bar is a gleaming selection of the various beer glasses each tailored to their specific beer, every single flavour journey mapped out by their brewers right down to the way the beer sits in a glass, tempered to the point of maximising every single potential for an improvement of the experience, telling of a country utterly obsessed with the art of brewing and the pleasure of drinking. There will be a beer for you in this pub, or I’m afraid there is no beer for you.

Service is efficient and attentive, while the prices are 20-30 cents higher than other nearby places, but not punishingly so. This can be offset by choosing a rare beer you’re unlikely to get anywhere else (my suggestion would be to try an Oud Bruin/Flemish Red style, which apart from Rodenbach are less commonly exported to the UK, while curiously, the style hasn’t yet caught on as a craft brewing style despite the proliferation of red ales and sours).

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The enormous popularity of the place has unfortunately driven locals away apart from a few quiet months in the New Year before Easter. Normally it would earn a mark down for that, as it’s important for a pub to have an original community element, but the place must be given a free pass. The ideal would be for it to contain a healthy mixture of both locals and a few tourists, but the world has taken over Bruges in the last 10 years. In lieu of local life, the shining qualities of the pub, that seem to epitomise everything good about traditional beer drinking in Belgium, compensate adequately.

The pub opens at 5pm and by 5.30 nearly every seat is taken. After that it’s a case of waiting politely at the door and taking your chance to swoop to a seat. Once seated, it’s unlikely you’ll see a reason to leave any time soon. It’s a rare example of a place where I would actually wait for 10-15 minutes to be seated.

The main room has a terrific atmosphere, watching folk come and go, but if that’s not available, the backroom has a lovely down-to-earth feel, like a rambler’s pub full of strangers thrown together in the tangle of a boozy evening. This compensates well for the lack of local characters. Only the matter of being on holiday, in Bruges of all places could distract a visitor from staying there all night, returning at opening time the next day and doing the same. It is the best pub in Bruges and there’s no doubt that this is pub going at its very best.

  • A: Quality and/or choice of drinks – 10/10
  • B: Style and Decor – 10/10
  • C: Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 9/10
  • D: Amenities, Events & Community – 5/10
  • E: Value for Money – 6/10
  • F: The Pub-Going Factor –  10/10