The Blake Hotel, Sheffield

 

 

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53 Blake St, Sheffield S6 3JQ
  • 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 – 9/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  9/10

Be prepared for a climb up to this pub unless you’re approaching the pub from Crookesmoor (in which case you may have had a different climb of your own). Blake Street is steep enough there are handrails for assistance, which given Sheffield’s propensity to snow up on the hilltops, is probably a legal obligation of some sort. Your reward is on the corner at the top of the street, and during your ascent you’ll see the Blake Hotel sign sticking out on the corner, looming ever nearer, the proverbial dangling carrot.

Although the journey is more arduous than most pub visits, you will struggle to find a better reviewed drinking hole, even in Sheffield, a city packed full of brilliant pubs. The glowing reviews from the public are well-founded, as The Blake Hotel is a classic example of a neighbourhood pub designed and run by people who know what they’re doing. Resurrected from its boarded-up state in 2009, the cellar dug out, foundation  and floor replaced, this end terrace boozer is alive again and rewarded with a stream of loyal custom.

The recipe for success is so simple and pleasingly disinterested in all things gentrified. This is the case with the family of pubs in Sheffield run by James Birkett, including ,among others, the Wellington at Shalesmoor and Sheaf View in Heeley, the former I haven’t yet visited, the latter of which I highly recommend.

While The Blake Hotel may be in all respects a traditional pub, don’t expect it to be crowded with horse brasses or tarred black. Nor – while it has a history – is it obsessed with and trading off its own mythology. The décor is kept tastefully low-key and lounge-like, retaining a homely neighbourly pub feel and having an instantly appealing atmosphere upon entering the place.

The lounge room in the Blake – to your left – follows that reliable template of of dark green wallpaper, mid-brown furniture, cream walls and ceiling. There are a few large picture frames and the odd pot here and there to remind you you’re in a pub, lending it a hint of the pastoral/domestic. There is further seating opposite the bar and tucked up a couple of steps to the right, in comfortable down-to-earth surroundings. You may find a few board games to help you pass the time if you see fit. It’s what such a place should be, a living room with a bar attached.

The bar area is compact but with the aid of some partitions they have crowbarred some leaning space and put in a few bar stools which are pleasant enough to gather round.

The drinks offerings remain very good value at the time of writing. You’ll find several cask ales for sale well under £3.00 a pint – partly down to a connection with local Neepsend Brewery. There is plenty else to go at if that isn’t your thing – including some harder to find European lagers – though take a look behind the bar at the decent whisky selection which should turn a few heads.

Once you’re sorted for a drink have a sit down and a chat in the comfortable environment of the Blake. There won’t be any music playing or games machines whirring away, just the background hubbub of a friendly crowd, the classic sound of a harmonious pub, people having a laugh and a good time. Even their pub quiz has a rather old-school stentorian format: no microphone, just a man shouting 20 questions in fairly quick order.

The Blake will always remain a neighbourly, low-key place, so it’s for locals and those in-the-know. Staff and the customers seem to be all part of the same machine, with some local characters milling about, and a nice blend of different people who all seem to appreciate the surroundings.

It’s truly amusing to think of the lengths the likes of Greene King go to to attract as many demographics by making their pubs as bland and cookie-cutter generic as possible. Focus groups, marketing managers, surveyors, master craftsmen… when this alternative is so simple and effective. It never really died.

Blake is the kind of pub that has been boarded up/converted across the country – indeed for a short while it remained closed, possibly for good. You never know when the wind will change direction and threaten the Blake’s existence once again, so all the more reason for you to visit and pass the flame on.

The Blake Hotel does nearly all the important things really well. When it’s your turn to visit perhaps take a few photos or a video, send them on to the head offices of the various huge pubcos attaching a small note simply stating ‘Now this is a Pub.’

Edit: (14/06/18) I’ve been reliably informed the Blake’s beer garden is a nice spot with  views over the Don Valley.

Pivnica Mali Medo, Zagreb

 

Tkalčićeva 36 Street, 10000, Zagreb, Croatia

*BRONZE AWARD* *Good all-rounder*

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

The ‘Little Bear’ is located in the centre of Zagreb’s old town and offers by far the best example of a pub around these environs. Otherwise, your options are identikit café terraces or the odd raucous rakija bar. To be honest, a night out spent solely Zagreb’s old town would be pretty bland unless you dedicated yourself to drinking shots, or visited this place.

Mali Medo acts as brewery tap for Pivovara Medvedgrad (translates as Beartown), named after an old fortress in the hills North of the city which has undergone a rather appalling renovation, but is worth seeking out for the view over the city.

The brewery, operating since 1994 precedes the craft beer craze and concocts a range of different beers – including their own attempt at Kriek – highly peculiar by Croatian standards where anything outside Euro Lager seems to be regarded as otherworldly. Their beers aren’t unpleasant but they’re some way short of the wider standard these days and a bit ‘last generation’. Nevertheless, a couple of the more traditional styles are competent enough to put away a few of, and the extra flavour and freshness will come as a relief after drinking the likes of Karlovacko everywhere else.

They operate a number of pubs, but the best of the lot is, in my opinion Mali Medo in the centre of town.

The pub itself has a typical pivnica look, dropping down off the main cobbled street to a large half-basement area with a curved ceiling, and some partitioned niches with bench seating (one of my favourite pub features) along with the typical long tables you’d expect of a central European cellar pub.  Mostly, the décor is in-keeping with inn-keeping, wooden framed artwork on the wall, and traditional furniture, a step above bland. It’s suitably cavernous in order to cram in the many hundreds of people who flock to it daily – worth a reminder at this stage that it is the number one venue slap bang in the centre of town.

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As there is a beer terrace out front with much coming and going the atmosphere is very noisy and lively, sometimes pierced by live music performances. The upstairs area serves as a stage, with performers opening the windows to serenade people on the street. Very unusual and atmospheric. You  get the picture that this is one of the cultural hubs of the city. Be warned, if you’re after peace and quiet, this isn’t the place for you.

As with most pivnicas there is food available. Sometimes this can turn a place too much like a restaurant, but here it blends in with people turning up for a drink of beer better than some others, and as the evening progresses you can tell this is chiefly a drinking spot – good.

Considering the hustle and bustle, service is actually not too bad until it comes to the point of paying, where you almost have to grab the staff by the lapels and shove the money into their pockets. As per usual, table service slows up the whole arrangement. This is a very inefficient method when you compare it to those mega-brauhauses in Germany and Austria where a tapster and a token system means hundreds can be catered for by just a few people, or simply an English pub with a big bar where you can walk up to the bar staff and order – sort yourself out rather than relying on others to carry a glass for you. Unfortunately in Eastern Europe there appears to be an unwritten rule that one must never ever approach the person pouring the beer, or expect them to be able to operate a till.

Any place, city, town or village automatically feels enhanced by a centrally located brewery and/or its taproom, and this is certainly the effect Mali Medo has had on Zagreb old town. There is some work to do on the beers themselves, and it would be nice to see a few more pub touches, just slightly, to add character. It wouldn’t be an 8/10 unless there was some constructive criticism to encourage improvements. Aside of this, it still remains an essential, indeed desperately vital place to go for a beer in Zagreb.

U Jelinku, Prague

Address: Charvátova 33/1, 110 00 Nové Město, Czechia
Nearest Square: Jungmannovo náměstí
Nearest Metro Stop: Národní třída on the B-line
Hours: 11:00 – 23:00, Saturday until 18:00, Sunday Closed
Reservations: +420 224 948 486
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks –9/10
  • Style and Decor – 9/10 
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 9/10 
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 6/10
  • Value for Money – 7/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  9/10

Even those of us committed to pub-going find it daunting (though enjoyable) to explore Prague’s enormous pub scene. Tearing oneself away from the high quality known favourites such as U Hrocha or U Cerneho Vola is difficult enough in itself; given a holiday may last only a few days, you could be forgiven for sticking to the known favourites.

However, several visits in, I am starting to chip away at the available drinking holes the city and can strongly recommend doing so for the many gems that exist outside of the most touristic areas.

However, Jelinkova Plzenska Pivnice or ‘U Jelinku’ as it is more colloquially known, was a bit of a blot on my copybook, a core old town pub I had known about since 2007 recommended in Prague Pubs as being an authentic Pilsner Urquell pub in the heart of the old town serving the stuff unpasteurised from a tank, but never visited.

By rights I ought to have paid a visit in the early days, but for one reason or another, things got in the way. This is partly down to the unconventional opening hours, quirkily being open only until 6pm on a Saturday and being closed altogether on a Sunday! Though inconvenient, it gives you a flavour already that this is a pub doing whatever it wants, to hell with the consequences.

Finally, after multiple occasions I ensured I paid a visit in December last year. Firstly, as with all the best Pilsner Urquell pubs, it is virtually impossible to leave after a single pint, the devil on your shoulder always telling you to go for one more, and the Czech tradition of inviting you for another the moment they spy you getting to the end of your glass.

Jelinku is a tiny pub and so when you visit don’t be surprised to find standing room only, if that. As you walk in you’ll find a square wood-panelled bar area and walls sparsely decorated with some classic Pilsner Urquell ephemera from decades past. There is an old fashioned open bar area with a sink where the tapster Bohumil Kundrt does his work.

It’s all about having a beer na stojaka, ‘on the stand’, so you greet the tapster, order the inevitable number of beers required, pay straight up (unusual for a Czech pub) and take your beer for a lean with your mates. Simplicity defined.

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It seems to be a family operation, and the main tapster’s appearance is appropriately a caricature of a pre-war central European maestro, a rotund, smartly-dressed fellow of borderline retirement age with white hair and a majestic and comically-curled moustache, helping transport you back in time to the good old days of Bohemia, which is very much where this pub would rather exist.

The site has been a pub since 1918, with the Pilsner Urquell contract drawn up 8 years later, remaining ever since.

One of the recurring features of these throwback places is treating tourists with a tolerance rather than an open arms embrace. If you can stand some-good natured jesting and accept you are in the domain of the tapster and his stamgasty, who are perched by the bar having a chat and a joke, you’re assured of a good time nevertheless.

Many of the regulars use their visit for conversation, so you may find one or two chirping up in English to get a conversation going. This is one of the hallmarks of a great pub and it is this unique environment, almost forcing people together at the bar area to drink and talk which acts as the ice-breaker, so vital for a sole travellers in a foreign country.

The Pilsner Urquell is as good as you’ll find it anywhere, and you may find the format of standing results in you drinking more of the stuff than usual – that and the nerves, I guess. At 46 crowns for a pint, it’s on the high side of pubs still catering for locals rather than tourists, but if I told you that equates to £1.50 a pint I’m sure you won’t quibble! Don’t even bother asking what else is on to drink, as there isn’t anything. You’re on Pilsner or spirits – that’s it.

There is a room around the back which receives table service (it will either be the rakishly thin lady or the more comely lady of the house who is in attendance). Access to these tables can depend on reservations and at a loss of that, good luck. Though I haven’t yet had the pleasure, it looks a truly pleasant place to be with seating facing in around the room creating that feel of conviviality you’re searching for when you try pubs like this. The format is simple and yet for other places make creating such genius loci seem like alchemy.

Though Prague is currently experiencing a wave in characterless craft beer bars, and has an almost bottomless trunk full of cheap but featureless macro-brewery branded drinking holes, you can’t walk far before a true pub hoves into view. The real job, as I’ve been finding, is being able to sort the wheat from the chaff, and knowing when is the best time to be there.

Jelinkova deserves a high score because it is so different from the usual, it rewards perseverance and the best time to be there is simple: when it’s open. If you’re up for a good time, not a long time, the pub is right up there as the best in the city.

The Dawson Lounge, Dublin

25 Dawson St, Dublin 2, Ireland
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks –7/10
  • Style and Decor – 9/10 
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 10/10 
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 6/10
  • Value for Money – 5/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  9/10

One common feature of pubs claiming to be the ‘longest’, ‘smallest’, ‘oldest’ etc, is the tendency for them to be over-visited tired old shite, but something about dimensions and longevity appeal nonetheless. Perhaps it’s the old saying that variety is the spice of life?

The Dawson Lounge trades on being on the small side – which is to understate it – in fact, I’ve seen snugs with more wriggle room than this place. From the promotional literature and signage you’d be thinking to steer well clear, what with the Carlsberg insignia and cartoon suggesting a descending of louts to the place. This impression is further emphasised when contrasting the alternative establishments on Dawson Street which are very much upscale and upmarket, leaving this looking like a pimple on an otherwise pristine visage. At least from the outside.

Relievingly, appearances are deceiving – so don’t be deterred. With only a doorway as an entrance, you could be forgiven for walking straight past. Perhaps that, along with the tacky branding has some effect on maintaining the capacity inside so it doesn’t get too overblown the whole time.

As you open the door you’ll immediately step down into what feels like a bunker directly below street level. To give you an example of the proximity – if you approached the place from St. Stephen’s green and walked over the glass window insets on the street you’ll have been standing only centimetres away from someone’s head as they were positioned at the urinal. Interesting thought, eh? If you don’t believe me take a look directly above when you go to take a leak.

The creators of the pub have shown attention to detail in regards to the cramped space, as they’ve installed a leather cushion on the ceiling of the toilet cubicle so patrons don’t bang their heads on the wall!

Ron, pictured in the video above is the typical image of a Dublin publican, white-haired, broad-bodied and smartly dressed, the type of chap you’ll see asking for your order and offering good craic to the barflies all across the city.

The pub itself is merely a standing area directly ahead, and a seated area on your right, in front of the bar. Other than the ladies and gents, that’s your lot. With a low ceiling, wood-panels and framed artwork it’s like any other pub in that sense, but once that door closes behind you there’s no sense of claustrophobia, only the snug intimate feeling you’re hoping to get out of a visit. The carpets and décor help provide comfort rather than a feeling of being choked.

The guests are a mixture of local folk and tourists, but certainly no more touristy than this area of Dublin generally, and you may find a few locals bursting out into song later on at night if the mood takes them.

The main issue, as you’d expect from a pub with a capacity of 40 which has one row of seats and about 8 stools, is of obtaining seating room. The usual solution is to get there at opening time, although if you have bigger fish to fry and are inhabited of a little patience, wait a while and a stool or a position on the leather seats will become available.

It’s quite good all the same to choose a leaning post and a shelf – of which there are plenty – including a bespoke 30cm job above the bins by the bar – every inch of space is utilised.

Drinks-wise, expect the standard fare for Dublin, Guinness and much of the usual Guinness-owned alternatives, at a price neither exceptionally good nor terrible. It must be said the beer was very well kept when we visited and the temptation for a second pint proved irresistible, as I’m sure it will be for you.

What makes the pub stand out is it quirky, unique layout and intimacy – though there are more facets to it than that which all help make a truly outstanding experience.

Been there? Want to go there? Drop us a line!

El Bosc De Les Fades, Barcelona

Passatge de la Banca, 7, 08002 Barcelona, Spain
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks –7/10
  • Style and Decor – 10/10 
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 9/10 
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 7/10
  • Value for Money – 6/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  9/10

Translating to The Forest of the Fairies, this high concept bar is set down an alley entrance to a Wax Museum, and although it is listed as secret (how secret can a bar with over 1000 Google reviews really be?) you’ll find it signposted clearly enough on an arch set off La Rambla.

El Bosc definitely ranks highly for oddness – it is one of those special bars decorated with such care and attention that you can turn your head in any direction and see something new. The main area is quite a sight to behold when you enter in, with tree trunks shooting up and branches crawling along the ceiling to create an enclosed forested feel. Fairy lights make a prominent, predictable appearance, but it’s tastefully done. The central room is largely cleared of furniture to allow more people to congregate. As you’d expect with this décor and this location – it’s a popular spot, both with tourists and locals. No surprise – there’s nowhere else like it after all.

Luckily, there are plenty of other places in the bar to wander to, should you find the going a little bit congested. You will find a small area similar to a snug in a traditional pub (rather unexpected in such a place), a completely different back room with origami beetles in the window, a medieval style rocking bed to sit on, a table held forward by a toy soldier. Then another room, where suddenly the bar turns into a lush upholstered Victorian bedroom with pretty white furniture and billowing curtains – presumably the fairy’s bedroom? Who even knows anymore?! Then, follow through a corridor with huge machine like cogs on the wall and lampshades that look like bats, and a wall covered in backlit butterflies. I wasn’t high or anything, I can assure you. Wherever you turn, something new.

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The beers are the usual limited Spanish arrangement, and aren’t especially cheap (it’s La Rambla, so no surprise). Probably your best option is Voll-Damm, a double pilsner with just enough flavour and just clean-tasting enough to be inoffensive. But hey, at least it’s not Fosters. Voll-Damm services the visit well enough. Grab a bottle and get wandering down.

I visited El Bosc with my partner and we both felt the bar strikes a good tone, not too masculine or too twee, but occasionally fanciful and macabre, likely to appeal to both sexes and anything in between. It’s also pretty cosy if you get the right seat.

If you ever fancied combining a night out with the aesthetics of A Midsummer Night’s Dream this is your chance. No, this place doesn’t quite have have the raw power of an alternative bar, indeed it’s been lavished with money and attention to the extent it moves past a ruin-bar feel and there are some areas that verge on anodyne, but it’s so unusual, outstanding in its distinctiveness, so well-done in its execution, you can hardly walk past it without popping in for a drink and a nosey around. With any luck you’ll get a spot on the swing!

Although we always love obtuse and obscure selections on European Bar Guide, when the mainstream knuckles down and devotes some effort into making something fabulous, it can be well worth your time and attention. El Bosc goes way past the call of duty, pushing beyond the normal boundaries and expectations. When you leave, or perhaps even during your stay you may find yourself reassessing the question – what actually is a bar?

 

 

 

Yarborough Hunt, Brigg

49 Bridge St, Brigg DN20 8NS
  • 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
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  8/10

Some of you may have been wondering when I’m going to profile an English pub, so I’m pleased to keep you in suspense no longer. After all, England is going to feature heavily on this website one way or another given the quality and sheer number of good pubs (regardless of whether that number is going up or down) and given it’s where I happen to live, making these places much more accessible than, for example, the bar scene over in Belarus.

Brigg is a typical Lincolnshire market town, yet crowded with more pubs than you’d think would be viable for a place of its size. A 5 minute walk through its small centre will take you past a dozen pubs, each of which manage to remain open despite the recent appearance of a Wetherspoons and the ominous threat to local trade that represents.

My favourite in town by some distance is the Yarborough Hunt, based on a small back street over the river Ancholme, which implausibly has three pubs within a stone’s throw of each other, making for one of the easier pub crawls out there! There’s a bridge and a picturesque stretch of river lined with willow trees, often with a family of swans terrorising anyone trying to use the water for barging, rowing etc.

The pub building is one of those typical venerable townhouses you find across the East of England with weathered brickwork and an architectural style calling up stereotypes of rural life in the 18th Century.

While the buildings themselves go back a long way, the pub itself is a relatively new venture from 2003, making use of the old ‘Sargeant Brewery’ buildings and carefully designing a bar and pub rooms into the ground floor in a traditional rustic style.

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“The Yarbrough” manages to be a country pub in a slightly different way to some, with some touches which give the place a preserved character, and eschewing a lot of modern pub features – music, cooked food and fruit machines for a start. The main sound you’ll hear is the chatter of conversation and perhaps the occasional dog barking. The sense of calm is often missing from pubs these days whereas there are times, especially during the afternoon, when that’s precisely what you want.

This place isn’t ‘Inn’ by any stretch, it isn’t large or homely enough for that. It’s a workmanlike barn type pub, and before you think I intend that as a criticism, I don’t! I mean that in a very good way.

You will notice the exposed beams and tiled floor when you walk in. Take a few steps to your left to enter the bar area where the ceiling has been removed to expose the rafters which gives it a characterful feel. The central area of the pub is mainly tiled but there are comfortable carpeted areas in the sides rooms to your left and right with huge sturdy wooden bench seats.

Almost a pre-requisite, the fire is kept going for months on end which adds a warm cosy feel to the otherwise upright sturdy main pub area.

Despite being a pub, the place does more like café-style trade during the day, as young families, old fogies and retirees potter down here to drink coffee and read the paper. However, there are some reliable intransigents propping up the bar drinking cask ale, and when you look at the range of options it’s clear these chaps have the right idea over everyone else.

Rather unusually, the Yarborough has a multitap keg ale panel behind the bar in addition to several cask pumps in front. It’s a curiosity in an otherwise old fashioned place, but the joy is that there are several unusual beers to try. Unfortunately they have ceased to do the line of beer from Brauhaus Riegele which is a great shame as that is barely available anywhere in the UK, and knocks a point off, but the range still extends beyond what you’d expect for the place. Without the specialist beers on offer you’d still be right at home with a pint of thick brown cask bitter, kept as well as you would hope and expect.

On Saturdays the pub often plays host to friendly away fans travelling to football matches in Lincoln, Grimsby, Scunthorpe and the pace certainly livelies up a touch when they arrive. The Ancholme can be good for rowing and often rowers head over for a pint after their exertions.

During the evening the Yarborough escapes first gear, with a different crowd gathering and a hubbub developing. I would recommend sitting towards the end of the bar area for the most atmosphere as the fairy lights around the beams and general ambience around the bar is pleasant and jovial. The high ceiling in the main room betrays what is otherwise a ‘nook-and-cranny’ type pub.

They have made some strange design decisions in some of the smaller side rooms which are wholly regrettable and not in keeping with inn-keeping (bdum tish), but hopefully soon someone will see sense and consolidate the whole pub back to its core and stop trying to use it as a canvas for dodgy amateur interior design.

The same extends to the beer garden where they have seen fit to create heated beach huts, presumably to try and keep smokers satisfied. Odd to say the least.

There were also some wranglings in the last few years with the owner Tom Woods whose brewery’s mediocre ales (in my opinion) were being outsold, unsurprisingly, by the other, superior options. It seems that this has now been resolved by the sheer variety on offer.

However, despite the usual provincial quirks that stop the Yarborough reaching its potential, the pub is managed by Lucy, a very enterprising woman and a core of committed employees that are clearly proud and determined to keep the pub in good shape. This shows in nearly everything the pub does, and despite the healthy competition for bums on seats in Brigg, they enjoy committed repeat custom, quite rightly, and the strongest reputation as the reviews on Google will attest to.

You’ll find the staff up front and welcoming; it’s one of those places where groups of people know each other very well. The essence of being there is the simplicity and the ritual a social tradition untouched by centuries, which is the genius loci of this place. Given that’s the case, I’d strongly advise them to concentrate on preserving that and trying not to turn it into something it isn’t.

I have no hesitation in recommending paying a visit if you’re anywhere near Brigg.

Leopold’s Delicatessen, Split

Ujevićeva poljana 3, 21000, Split, Croatia
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks –8/10
  • Style and Decor – 8/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 8/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 7/10
  • Value for Money – 6/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  8/10

Although I am about to praise this bar and urge you to visit, I should firstly state that I really hate its name. Yes, Leopold is a nice guy who knows his stuff, and that’s a cool name but ‘Delicatessen’ seems sickly sweet for a beer bar. The quicker it is reduced to Leopold‘s or even Leo’s the better! Get in touch with Leo and tell him yourself!

There have been some comments made online that alternative beer is now mainstream in Split, which may be well-intentioned to promote the place, but I can tell you from first-hand experience that isn’t the case at all. Most of the time you’ll be stuck drinking Croatia’s terrible trio of crap lagers or Staropramen if you’re lucky. Yes, Split remains by far the best city for drinking good beer in Croatia, but even then, you could count the number of good bars also selling good beer in the old town itself on one hand, and some of those are not especially good value, leading to a loss of local custom – the net result is they become touristy and lose their charm. Those that manage to retain local custom and offer something worth visiting rather than a generic Caffe Bar experience are thin on the ground in Split, and pretty much non-existent across most of Croatia.

Leopold’s is certainly one of the standout bars in the city centre, not just for beer but for atmosphere and somewhere you must bookmark to visit while in Split. This place is a beer bar, first and foremost – you’ll see some ad hoc meat and cheese slicing going on at the bar, sure, but the reason everyone is here is to try Croatian craft beer, perhaps taking a dip into the fridge for a reasonable interesting array of bottle offerings.

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On tap are some really beautiful tasting Croatian beer which will seem like you stepped into a parallel universe after spending your days in Croatia drinking their depressingly bad mainstream brands Karlovacko, Pan and Ozujsko.

There are 4 taps on rotation, all with Croatian beer from small breweries across the country, (though they also sold the way over-exposed mainstream beer Punk IPA too, which may pass for interesting in Croatia but not for a British traveller).

Thankfully the Croatian beer I tried was pretty good, one by Nova Runda and a single hop version of L.A.B’s Barba the standouts. They have brewed these beers carefully so as to not scare the locals, not over-hopped, but with enough punch and unfiltered flavour to be comfortably superior to all the mainstream Croatian beers. Good for a session, you might say, that milder drinkability that suits Mediterranean summer drinking. Thanks for not going the Polish/US craft route of slamming as many bitter hops in there as possible. The place is also interested in scotch whisky and bourbon if you are too.

The bar itself is pretty interesting to look at, with some nice mosaic-tiled patio furniture and vinyl records stuck to the ceiling. There’s also a swing seat in the middle of the bar which is a bit of a novelty, and a classic ‘dive’ bar layout that will instantly appeal. Leopold’s also seems to have a slightly annexed looking terrace which was well-appointed but the surroundings feel featureless (like a parking lot) – not the best from the options available.

However, the splicani prefer to congregate outside (this is common practise in the country and probably why there are so few Croatian bars with interest interior décor), and at some point as the evening progresses you will probably find yourself sharing space with some annoying American backpackers. Leopold seems to arrange tastings in advance with large groups – unfortunately halfway through my visit 20 Americans darkened their doors and the staff immediately began catering for them, seemingly exclusively. Perhaps that was bad timing but being moved from my seat and then having to listen to them droning on left a sour note, and not the good kind you get from a quality lambic.

They organise events such as live music on the terrace, barbecues (don’t miss out on these if you get the chance!) and seasonal beer like Oktoberfest, another excuse to skip past the bad macro lager in Croatia.

I have every confidence if you can dodge the worst excesses of the passing tourist trade Leopold’s is one of the best, certainly in the top 3 bars in the old town of Split. Agree? Disagree? Join the chat on facebook

Gorila, Cesky Krumlov

Linecká 46, Plešivec, 381 01 Český Krumlov, Czechia
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks –7/10
  • Style and Decor – 7/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 9/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 6/10
  • Value for Money – 9/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  8/10

When you have a pub with so little online presence it barely registers on Google, the apparent repository of all the world’s knowledge, you already get an indication of the nature of the venue.

Likely a locals drinking hole, likely without such fripperies as wi-fi connections, fresh air, clean toilets, likely with the sort of limited amenities and word-of-mouth presence locally that make having any such online presence pointless. Situate it in a country like Czechia, not exactly fussed about airs and graces, and a clear picture starts to form of a backwater boozer.

Nestled in a side-street of the amazing medieval town Cesky Krumlov, Rock Pub Gorila (to give the full title) , provides the kind of underground pub experience Google probably thought it had eradicated through the many million 4 star reviews gathered of sterile chain pubs. If I and a few friends visited Gorila this weekend coming and reported back I could probably triple the online coverage single-handedly. It feels almost perverse to write about it now, in fact.

If you can wrench your eyes away from the spectacular scenery (especially the river and castle tower ahead) look out for the dinky Gorila sign on black awning with a funky yellow Gorila, and a Kozel emblem next to it. Kozel just about sums the place up, the everyman’s go to drink in Czechia.

I bet you can partly imagine what it’s like before I even get started, but yes, expect smoking (we’ll see whether that’s remained the case since the ban), quality rock music of various eras, basement level prices for beer, and a committed throng of regulars hanging around in cliques, some of whom belong to a slightly friendlier Czech equivalent to the biker fraternity but these guys don’t own the place.

The decoration is modest rather than being outstanding but involves a succession of framed photos of classic rock and memorabilia giving the place a clear, if not exactly original identity. I’m also pleased to report there are actually some comfortable seats, something which will be a blessed relief after the generally not upholstered hardwood bench and chairs in most Czech pubs which must produce quite some discomfort for piles-sufferers out there. It’s scruffy around the edges and dog-eared, which is good because it feels lived-in, a bit like a sixth form common room. I still think that’s a decent thing for a pub.

Gorila has a strong community feel. Even though the centre of Cesky Krumlov is fairly touristy the locals in the surrounding areas descend into the beautiful city centre for some cheap drinking and social time – which by the way extends long into the night – don’t worry about being kicked out early here. Most tourists appear to steer well clear – unsurprising because Czech pubs like this really do not scream ‘come on in’ and it takes a degree of gumption to enter on your own, as I should know, because I did it.

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You’ll certainly encounter some lively characters, be they raucous alternative types or simply drunken buffoons, but the range of patrons gives away that the bar is generally a jovial place.  If you go looking for trouble you’ll probably find it, but if you keep yourself to yourself, or tag along with the youngsters having a laugh and a joke, you’ll have a great time.

It sort of reminded me of a few places I used to visit in my home town growing up – full of all kinds of people, unpretentious and lively, a community of people who didn’t necessarily all like each other but were determined to get out on the piss nevertheless.

Don’t bother even going here if you are intolerant to bad smells or spooked by odd characters. I wouldn’t imagine speaking English would do you too many favours either. Do go if you’re into finding out where the locals are drinking and wanting to sample a bit of their lives – in this case raw and unpretentious, a smidgen edgy but friendly enough.

As is the growing trend, there are more than a couple of beer options on offer here, and you’ll tend to find 2 resident beers with another 2 on rotation. Although Pilsner Urquell, Kozel and Gambrinus are predictable appearances look out for lesser lights like Svijany and Bakalar too – even an unvarnished boozer like this is joining in the fun.

Drinking here remains joyously inexpensive, not pushing much above 28 crowns for a normal beer, and of course that’s why people are here. An honest price for an honest place.

Cesky Krumlov doesn’t have the most obvious pub scene in the centre of town (though there are some spots such as Traveller’s Pub and some hospoda/pivnice type places for food and a beer, which makes Gorila the number 1 choice in town for an old fashion drop in for a pint with your mates, and it does a damn good job of it.

 

Klub Invalida, Kotor

Ulica 1 (istok-zapad), Kotor, Montenegro
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks –7/10
  • Style and Decor – 7/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 9/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 6/10
  • Value for Money – 9/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  8/10

“Come on guys, let’s head down Klub Udruzenja Za Sport I Rekreaciju Invalida Kotor this evening”

In one of Kotor’s tiny charming squares you’ll see a sign in Cyrillic displaying this unwieldy name, a townhouse facing onto the square with a few plain patio seats parked out in front. There’s a typical Niksicko pivo awning but the showy frivolities start and end there.

On the square you’ll also see another modern swanky bar adjacent, called Bokun. That one looks quite Western-friendly and approachable doesn’t it? Please try to ignore that, and head here instead if you are seeking a local down-to-earth experience.

You may already have deciphered from the information above, but Klub Invalida is a very informal hang out, smoke and drink spot for retired sportsmen. It is still a Caffe Bar, in the Dalmatian tradition, just with the generic attempts at modernity removed. Instead, all the great aspects of a good bar: the local character, good value and commitment to unvarnished beer drinking are amplified, perhaps solely due to the absence of effort gone into the place. This is why there are hardly any reviews online and only a few photos available. They don’t care whether you or I know about the place.

Instead of paying 3 euros for a large Niksicko, as is nearly standard elsewhere in town, grab a table out front or in the bar itself and order a bottle of Niksicko for half that price. Old geezers won’t charge you what they don’t want to pay themselves.

It’s very pleasant sitting outside on the square in the sunshine watching Kotor’s many cats skulking about, and doing some people watching. but there’s a slice of local life to be enjoyed by diving indoors during the evening, with a crappy old telly perched at the front of the room displaying the evening’s football, and a grand old trophy cabinet by the door displaying the club members’ various sporting exploits in the 60s and 70s.

This may not sound like everyone’s idea of fun, but the gnarled elderly couple (probably 50 years old but looking worse for it) are friendly in their own gruff Slavic way. Ordering a beer will produce a metronomically identical process. The Master of the house, in his leather jacket and tatty grey sweater ceases whatever he is doing (smoking, usually), rather slowly assembles the bottles on a tray, and opens them in front of you one by one, in each case barking ‘Zvolite’ which appears to be Montenegrin for ‘voila’ or ‘cheers’, or a bit of both. There is a pedestrian kindness that falls somewhere in between Eastern European gruffness and rustic hospitality.

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The crowd inside are how you can imagine Kotor being if you extracted all the tourists. Some elderly folk clinging on to their spot in the old town, some labourers popping in for a morning/lunch/evening/last thing at night drink, the odd official and even the local constabulary made a late arrival to shake a few hands (which certainly raised a few eyebrows from where we were sitting). Don’t expect them to speak much English or have much to do with you personally. They are happy you’re there seemingly; there is an understated appreciation about it all, but this is really their place for which you are a tolerated intruder. As with all these types of places, the busier the place is, the better the atmosphere.

So, the drinks offerings. Niksicko is far from the worst lager in the region, and stands up reasonably for 3-4 pints, unlike some Croatian lager, but pleasingly they have brought out an unfiltered version recently which boosts the flavour, and stands up as a genuinely pleasant lager, albeit one that may become sickly after 5 or 6. The pleasure of paying a little over a pound for one of these (especially if you have arrived up the coast from Dubrovnik, where value goes to die) will boost the experience further. Wine and rakija is sold (the rakija is stored en masse in a big chest freezer) for pennies as well. Generally, finding a fairly specialist offering in such a gruff traditional place was a nice surprise.

There are some amusing eccentricities and oddities. For example, over Easter each table had a saucer containing bright purple-coloured hard-boiled eggs for your enjoyment, that appeared to have been boiled in beetroot juice. There is an element of unabashed and unapologetic naffness about the way they make nearly no effort to market their existence, actively disinterested in trying to compete on that level. I try to avoid using the word as it sounds so patronising, but it’s quaint to find a bar like this in such a popular spot, one that isn’t primarily interested in making money but wants to provide an honest place to hang out.

Kotor experiences frequent and dramatic afternoon thunderstorms, as I witnessed during our stay, but being ‘stuck’ in a pub like this while the square temporarily becomes a lake for two hours is no great shame, indeed it just gives you an excuse to turn around yet again and ask for another ‘beer. There are some nice spots in the centre of Kotor, but this is the only one with a genuine local atmosphere, local prices and authenticity the Caffe Bars of Croatia and Montenegro seem largely incapable of and disinterested in creating. Anyone going out for a beer and a chat in Kotor should be basing their evening around a long stay in here. As with our visit the owner may lose count of how many beers you’ve put away and undercharge you!

 

De Pilsener Club (De Engelse Reet), Amsterdam

Begijnensteeg 4, 1012 PN Amsterdam, Netherlands
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks –9/10
  • Style and Decor – 9/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 9/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 5/10
  • Value for Money – 6/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  9/10

Brown cafés warrant the name because of their shared characteristics, but the term is best served as a general guide to indicate a few of their recurring themes rather prescribing a precise template. Exploration of these pubs across Belgium and Netherlands will reveal a surprising diversity in décor and atmosphere.

Some emerged from a jazz/blues tradition and are decorated accordingly, even hosting live acts as a revival or preservation of that. There are some upscale brown cafes which take their cues from the roaring twenties: high society, art nouveau and all that. There are English/French style taverns which blend vaulted beams and thick wood with the bric-a-brac décor and beer ephemera you’d expect in a brown café. There there are working class venues with a simple format: rickety furniture, dusty floors, yellowed walls and good booze.

It seems though, whichever angle the owner deigns to take, the fundamental basics of what constitute a great pub are inherent in the DNA of a brown café which put them at a distinct advantage. Whether it’s the fantastic Belgian beer, their aforementioned styling choices, their character and atmosphere that evolves over the course of a day and remains as appealing whether you’re sat there on your own or among a tangle of people, you have to go pretty far to mess this concept up.

The rather crappily-named De Pilsener Club goes by another far better name ‘De Engelse Reet’, or ‘English Arse’. This place is one of Amsterdam’s core historic brown cafes dating back to 1893, and this place is content to be down-to-earth and working class.

There is a no-bullshit attitude to the entire arrangement: it’s brown alright, from the walls to the tables and chairs, and the floor has that aged spit-and-sawdust type look to it that probably has been cleaned daily but has been around so long it has received stains and wear that won’t rub out. Characterful, basically. A notable quirk is that there is no bar at all, all drinks are prepared in a backroom and then brought out.

Drinking is done across a set of communal tables along a small rectangular room with a fairly high ceiling, so you get a cosy surrounding but a woozy sense of space if you look up. The lighting and ambience gives that sense that it could be virtually any time of day and feel the same.

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Drinking pilsener isn’t even half of the point of being here. The purpose of your visit is to drink some high quality, and invariably strong Belgian and specialist Dutch ale in these surroundings. Trappiste, abbey, lambics, micro-brewery stuff. These are proudly displayed above the head of the bar. Alternatively (or potentially in addition to) you can try their decent enough range of jenevers or order a cocktail (I’m not sure why you would feel the need to do the latter in a place such as this, but alcohol is a strange master at times).

There is a nice range of clientele in the place that give it a nice community feel. Old men sipping their beer over a newspaper, groups of youngster sharing conversation, couples diving in from the bad weather (in our case), business folk holding-forth over the worn-through tables. It is the kind of place which manages to be inclusive without turning itself into a safety first bland chain pub, and maintains what it wants to be without discriminating in the ageist and stylist fashion many craft beer pubs do. Of course, being in central Amsterdam will help, but natural advantages still count.

Beer isn’t cheap in Western Europe these days, and it’s no exception in here. Expect to pay 5 euros and upwards for a 0.25l pouring or a 0.33l bottle, although keep content in the knowledge the quality is among the best you’re likely to get. Given the savings to be made elsewhere in the city centre are 20 cents here and there at most, and that a pint of Heineken regularly clocks in at 5.50+ these days, it seems churlish to complain about paying 5 euros for a Rochefort 8. You certainly pay more in England.

As the evening progresses and the alcohol takes effect, the browns and off-whites of the room form a rather comforting hue, and the hubbub of conversation adds to that great calming melange where you really wouldn’t rather be anywhere else. And that’s great because it stays open until 2am.

In most towns and cities this place would be the best pub by a country mile. Up against seriously stiff competition in Amsterdam, De Pilsener Club eschews all gimmickery, sell-out concessions, and, if you excuse the waiter’s rather formal attire, modernisation of any kind, and does a good trade being what it is, a thoroughly likable, characterful place for a drink and a good time. Google reviews are almost uniformly positive about the place and after a visit it’s easy to see why. Mark my words, their words and place it firmly on your hitlist.

 

U Rotundy, Prague

Karoliny Světlé 1035/17, 110 00 Staré Město, Czechia
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks –7/10
  • Style and Decor – 7/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 9/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 7/10
  • Value for Money – 10/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  8/10

If you read travel blogs or even mainstream travel journalism, then you may have read about why the time of paying ‘a pound a pint’ abroad is dead, this referring to an era from the mid-90’s to around 2009 when the enormous disparity in earnings and currencies between West and East meant that Western Tourists could turn up in Prague and Budapest and feel like they were taking the piss even when, by the standards of the local economy, they were actually being ripped off.

The travel writers are true in identifying that the general trend over this last decade has been a paring back of those obscene financial advantages due to a steady increase in wealth, prosperity, earning power and the touristification (if that is a word) of Eastern European capitals, which has had a considerably restricting effect on the bargains to be had abroad, albeit in very specific conditions. Spend a day in Dubrovnik or Riga old town and tell me if you feel like you’re surfing on a wave of great value!

Prague too, has its tourist traps, and while there is far too much competition across what is a large and well-connected city for a rot to have set in like those honeypots I’ve listed above (as is also the case in large cities like Kraków and Budapest), it is certainly true that a normal beer, Kozel 11, for example, is sold in Prague old town and across the river Mala Strana for a price 40-50% more expensive than the going rate in most of the rest of the country. At the start of 2018, with Pound Sterling (£) in a slump, that puts you well over £1 for a half litre. For a Czech person visiting Prague from a small town, this would be a mild concern, but not, I doubt, much of a concern for you. Drinking great lager for so little, even if it is above the average for the nation isn’t exactly the kind of issue a British tourist spends much time worrying about. However, I am quite determined to demonstrate there are still breathtaking bargains to be found in Europe for beer.

Of course, I could drag you to a revolting dive bar in the middle of nowhere to prove my point (and in the process, kind of disprove it at the same time and make me seem like a petty idiot). However, the real satisfaction is finding the cheap beer in a good pub. I think the best approach to the old ‘pound a pint’ question is to find out: can you visit a good pub in the old town of Prague (Prague 1, Stare Mesto, whatever you want to call it) and get a half litre of beer outside of happy-hour for less than a pound?

Yes, of course you can!

During the socialist era, businesses such as cafés, diners and pubs were graded, the cheapest generally being ‘Fourth Grade’ or čtvrtý, the grading allowing goods and services to be distributed and tailored according to their central planning. This term has survived in Czech parlance to this day, as serves partly a useful metric if you are interested in finding some of the best value places for a drink (though be aware it can be used disparagingly about some rough and ready places too).

These ‘Fours’ have nearly died out in Prague old town, partly because there is little need for them in an affluent touristic, commercial district, but also due to capitalism’s inevitable march of progress in claiming the land from underneath people and its hostility towards partly-socialised enterprise (just witness the lamentable decline of the Milk Bar in Poland since their government stopped subsidizing virtually any seasoning that would help their food taste of something. What private enterprise is so pathetic and helpless that they need to winnow the offerings in a Milk Bar?).

Hostinec U Rotundy is not the last place standing in the old town where you can get a pint for considerably less than the usual going rate, but it is the most venerable, best quality, and I must confess, slightly alien and fascinating. It is by all reputable accounts, a ‘Four’ in form and function, and as I’ve been multiple times and had fun time and on one occasion surprisingly good food, it deserves a spot on European Bar Guide.

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U Rotundy gets its name from the rotunda a 100 metres up the road (which is an interesting little oddity that kind of blends into the background among the jawdropping other sights) and is so close to some of the main streets and sights in Prague old town that you can tack it on to any of the usual pub crawls without it feeling like a special detour. Yes, U Rotundy is on a less quiet street but it’s a spit from the river, Charles Bridge and an idle wander from the tourist crush on Karlova to remarkably peaceful old streets like Betlemska and Konviktska.

In some of the classic Pilsner Urquell pubs, such as U Pinkasu or Jelinkova Plzenska Pivnice you can experience what Prague was, or may have been like before the war, but U Rotundy is where to go if you want to experience an unvarnished socialist-era drinking hole, something which now, I think, is becoming a curiosity.

One ardent Czech pub tradition which has bitten the dust for good, whatever your personal view on it, is smoking, so although U Rotundy looks like the kind of place where after 11pm you’d be lucky if you could make out the people from the other side of the room, that particular atmosphere (I was always dubious about as to whether smoke added as much atmosphere as people though) is gone, and won’t be returning, and that goes for the country as a whole.

One threat to banning smoking indoors, as happened in the UK, is that old men will simply retire from pub-going and fill their apartments with stale fog instead. However, unlike the UK, Czechia benefits from ludicrously cheap beer which isn’t going up by the same rate beer prices were in the mid-00s. For now at least, the cast of regulars at U Rotundy remains firmly in place, which is all for the good, as they are the ones keeping the place in business.

As with all cheap pubs, you find a coalition of old men and students enjoying the good value and occasionally having a ‘forthright exchange of cultural values’. One of the more pleasant aspects to Czechia is a healthy down-to-earth attitude and understanding of a communal pub-going mentality where people are less reserved than England. I wouldn’t say U Rotundy was full of women, exactly, as it’s not but neither is it so much of a man-pit that Czech women are afraid to venture in.

U Rotundy typifies the simplicity of those olden days. Don’t worry about deciding what beer you’re going to have. It’s Staropramen and you’re having it. Right? That’s settled then.

I posted a good article from Beer Advocate about this on our Facebook page (which I recommend you join for extra goodies and comments) where an American so used to multi-tap places got choice fatigue between his DIPA’s, barrel-aged sours and hibiscus goses and loved the culture in Prague where the stress of each decision was alleviated by the glasses being continually refreshed with the same beer, freeing your mind to concentrate on the important things about going out, like being with your mates and having a good time!

I must admit privately smirking at the thought of a few people I know or have met on my travels venturing into U Rotundy and being prescribed their drink. It’s not what I would want life to always be like but I have some serious admiration for the mentality behind it, in a world where choice must always equal better. Surely the fact stuff like this even exists is evidence of diversity in itself, right?

Anyway, the Staropramen 10 is as good as it’s ever going to get (ie. alright) and you can switch between light or dark if you really want to go crazy. At the time of writing 27czk weighs in snugly under a pound a pint, even at the lowest rate for sterling in years. Back in 2015 when it was 38czk to £1, this pint of beer would have been just over 80 pence a pint.

Even in Prague, these prices turn heads, and U Rotundy is busy most evenings as a result. The pub itself is relatively spacious, with a communal main room, and some dining tables up the corridor and anteroom to the back. One enjoyable aspect is that the tap faces you as you walk through the entrance, leaving you with a beer virtually before you’ve had a chance to wipe your feet!

There isn’t much going on musically other than the sound of geriatric grumbling and twenty-something conviviality, but they have a new TV (beginning of the end for this place, mate) and tend to throw on ice hockey and football. I wouldn’t call it a sport pub, but it’s got a casual interest, and that’s an amenity you won’t find in many of the more traditional pubs in the city.

Food-wise, U Rotundy does something of a surprising turn. If I was visiting a pub that looked like this in England I’d go hungry rather than attempt to eat anything emerging from the kitchen, and yet, after reading the largely positive reviews I gave it a go, and what do you know? Big portions of no-nonsense, fresh Czech cuisine at fair prices – not quite as fair as the beer price but at a corresponding standard to match what you’re paying for, and food you would pay over double for down the road without that home-cooked feel. That aspect of the place really counts in its favour, and although I wouldn’t usually bang on about food too much, it’s a nice feather in its cap.

Lastly, for flavour, I refer you to Max Bahnson of Pivni Filosof-fame, who said of U Rotundy in his funny and ever-useful book Prague: A Pisshead’s Pub Guide, “It’s dingy, dirt cheap and I doubt much has changed in the last 25 years, if not more. It’s like a bulldog, so ugly it’s beautiful. Proof that what really makes a pub special is not the stuff that comes out of the taps”.

Amen to that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Café Vlissinghe, Brugge

Blekersstraat 2, 8000 Brugge, Belgium
  • 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 –  10/10

Every town deserves at least one historic place in which nothing ever seems to change. Being able to link aspects of our own lives to the past (as futile as that endeavour may seem at times) helps to provide our own existence with a sense of place and purpose, in the knowledge that we have retained and respected at least some things of value along the way, and by frequenting these places we contribute to their survival.

Café Vlissinghe takes this idea and extends it beyond all usual historical parameters, and the news gets better still – it’s a pub! Even in Brugge, a place not short of preserved architecture and institutions, it can reasonably claim to be one of the most evocative links to their past, the business traceable for centuries and thankfully keen to preserve the format for centuries to come. Once you have a good thing you don’t easily let that go.

The earliest record of the pub dates back to 1515, extraordinary in and of itself and it claims to have been running continuously from then until the present. This earns Vlissinghe a place on the list of oldest companies in the world. The look of the place may be redolent of a late Medieval inn, however it appears some of the appearance was lovingly and coherently retrofitted in the mid-1800s (an era steeped in fascination and nostalgia for all things Medieval), with the installation of contemporaneous artworks and paintings and furniture that are consistent with the period. It’s all very brown, black, tarred, burnt caramel and crusty textures. Precisely the sort of thing you want with an old pub.

Vlissinghe is located mercifully outside of the main tourist drag, down a typical Brugge alley: cobbled street, whitewashed walls, ancient brickwork, and a bicycle propped up outside that’s so old you wonder whether it’s become an ornament (until a man in a flat cap emerges from the door, tucks his newspaper under his coat and rides off on it). It must be no more than 50 metres long, but the amble down the lane, with the pub entrance coming closer with your every stride has become somewhat of a ritual for me, just long enough to build a sense of anticipation for what’s to come…

Vlissinghe’s gothic lettering is painted above the entrance, so dive straight in and turn left and head down a long corridor entrance with a series of side rooms. This may lead you to believe it is a large venue, but the pub itself is really just a central room, up a couple of steps at the end. You will note it is appointed with large, sturdy, venerable furniture, cushioned with studded leather upholstery, warped floorboards that creak underfoot, faded oil paintings hung on the wall which you have to swivel to and fro between the sheen of the lighting to properly discern, and an impressive and unusual centrepiece: a cast iron steam heater kicking out warmth into the room, most welcome on those days when the cold is piercing and the wind is rushing down the North Sea through the canals and arteries off Zeebrugge.

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There is a pub dog, for good measure who is unobtrusive and content with its existence, pottering around, sniffing and having naps.

The main room overlooks a garden and terrace area used as a bowling green in the summer and has outhouse toilets, which gives the place a friendly and ad hoc feel. These toilets are modern, which I will concede is the one part of a pub which should keep up with the times (though, rather incongruously, they also ‘have’ an APP!)

The kitchen is in an adjoining building and focuses on winter fuel – soups, toasties, meat and cheese platters, miscellaneous bar snacks, which are all done Belgian-style, reliably homespun, the purpose being to warm you up and soak up the drinking. Service is friendly (occasionally disorganised and a little slow, which comes with the territory) and the prices are par for the course, with a few cheaper options.

Nevertheless, there are other things going on here than a pocket sized ethnographic museum, Café Vlissinghe stocks a local beer, the delicious tripel Fort Lapin brewed in a garage five minutes up the road by a new brewer. As this is part-fermented in the bottle and unfiltered, as you pour in the last part of the bottle you will note the colour change from bright amber to a cloudy, yeasty colour! Even with this beer choice, you get the sense of sentimentality and heritage at wanting to promote a city project, even with the hundreds of other Belgian beers they could have chosen to sell. The total range of beers available is modest (most Belgian cafés feel obliged to offer at least 60 bottles and 8-10 taps these days, which does showcase their extraordinary brewing very well, but is often unnecessary) but it is well chosen, with at least one of each main style, and with local options.

The main appeal of frequenting Vlissinghe is the sheer sense of relaxation. Whether it is 11.30 in the morning or last thing at night, I doubt anything about the feel of the pub changes hugely. Hunker down for an afternoon of supremely enjoyable beer drinking, hearty soups and toast, or head down in the evening and sit amongst the throng, frozen- in-time but warmed through with merriment and the satisfaction of your own quiet contribution to keeping the whole thing going. Cheers!

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!

 

 

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.

 

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

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