The Victoria, Durham

The Victoria, Durham

9/10

86 Hallgarth Street 
Durham
DH1 3AS 

On a cold or damp day (not uncommon in Durham), walking in from the main entrance of The Victoria will throw you straight into the heart of the action and the warmth of the room rushes to bid you welcome.

The Victoria hosts cheerful, very chatty locals who will seize any opportunity to engage in a bit of banter, ask you how you’re doing and what you’re up to, and altogether give the sense that they never really leave the pub, other than on some onerous errand or other. It’s a down-to-earth community greeting that may take aback those used to more a reserved, private experience. There is no forced jollity however, don’t worry about that. On a weekday evening or Saturday afternoon especially don’t be surprised to encounter a bar area thronged with people.

The longstanding publican Michael Webster will give you a straightforward and honest North East greeting and absolutely has your interests at heart. On a busy day you may be offered a seat in the back – unusually this can be accessed via the bar hatch, but also via a couple of sets of doors at the back of the bar.

Pubs of this sort were conceived with an understanding of the concept of genius loci, a harmonious use of space to create a genial special atmosphere. The local architect Joseph Oswald who designed the hotel prior to its construction in 1899 appears to have fundamentally grasped what layout would produce a special venue. Since then, what changes there have been to its appearance have been kept to a minimum. This is now protected by Grade II listed status.

The layout, fixtures and fittings have been well preserved, including some genuine curios such as their vintage coin till, and the service bells fixed in the frames of the bench seats. Some of you may have seen in traditional pubs and know they are nearly always found to be out of action. Well, they have rigged up a new call bell and it’ll be nae botha (within reason) if you use it to attract the attention of the bar staff. Victoriana at its finest, as WhatPub splendidly describes.

However distinctive the venue may be, a pub its nothing without the atmosphere created by its patrons. While the décor in the Victoria is rightly prized for its distinctive and well-preserved quality – almost a museum in fact – the customers, along with the enthusiasm and commitment of the staff (an impression which is imparted by everything they do) give the place a vibrancy that others pubs don’t match, for all the wax and varnish they may apply. In my opinion these folks are as integral a part of the pub’s character as the marble fireplace, quirky side rooms or any eccentric array of chintzy royal memorabilia.


So what’s to drink?

For many years The Victoria has offered as its permanent ale ‘Big Lamp Bitter’, a full-flavoured and now rather old fashioned brown bitter of a sort which fits in with the experience of visiting The Victoria very well. You will find other local ales on rotation, for prices which are a little higher than most in the area, not that this deters the locals.

On the Saturday we visited, their kitchen had put on a spread of what can only be described as Durham tapas, traditional North Eastern grub mixed in with the kind of tuck you’d expect to fill the Famous Five’s hampers. You’ll be warmly invited to help yourself and get stuck in. They don’t much stand on ceremony around this area, and all the better for it in my view. Outside of tapas days, food may limited to toasties. Factoring in the hospitality here, their prices become far fairer.

The venue still operates as a hotel and you may see visitors hustled through the back with their suitcases and up the stairs to the guest rooms. In the morning they will enjoy a full English breakfast rustled up by local legend Maureen, reportedly well worth a try.

We spent most of our time in the small lounge at the back of the bar, a beautiful and cosy room with dark red detailed wallpaper, coal fires and hosting domino games. In the warmth and intimacy, you can kiss goodbye to the dreak and the damp of the outside and settle in for the evening. It’s the kind of comfort and enjoyment that’s been regrettably overlooked when attempts to modernise pubs have been made.

One of the great aspects of Victoriana (if we put aside some of the horrendous inequalities and hardships for working people) was the real concept of craft. That mass production was not incompatible with creating something special. That a venue ordinary people could visit could be lavish and a treat to visit rather than looking cookie-cutter and off-the-shelf, and on a human level, as Dr Johnson famously put it:

“As soon as I enter the door of a tavern, I experience oblivion of care, and a freedom from solicitude. when I am seated, I find the master courteous, and the servants obsequious to my call; anxious to know and ready to supply my wants. The more good things you call for, the more welcome you are. Alcohol exhilarates my spirits, and prompts me to free conversation and an interchange of discourse with those whom I most love : I dogmatise and am contradicted, and in this conflict of opinion and sentiments I find delight. There is nothing which has yet been contrived by man, by which so much happiness is produced as by a capital tavern or inn.”

This is borne out by the fact so many of these historic venues have endured any number of fashion trends, changes of property ownership and economic disasters. Not nearly enough of them, to be sure, but there is something intrinsically appealling that keeps people coming back. And these people, as in all good pubs, belong to different walks of life.

A lot of pub owners and managers could learn a lot by spending a day seated and observant in a place like this.

Tilt, Mechelen

…back to Belgium

The Lowdown…

Address: Vrijgeweidestraat 62, 2800 Mechelen, Belgium
Hours: 10am to Midnight (Closed Wednesdays)
Phone: +32 15 41 58 99

Serving Mechelen, Belgium since 1906, Den Tilt is a true survivor tucked away in a pleasant residential suburb, even then only 15 minutes walk from the train station or the old centre. It seemed only fair, given the proximity, to attempt a visit on our first trip to the city.

Google can only tell you so much, but the gathering impression from the comments was one of authenticity and local life, which appeals to us far more than 50 different beer taps or vintage-effect light bulbs. While many towns have their ‘local institution’, we had no idea just how famous the place was.

It was a pleasant day and a pleasant walk, crossing past the enormous stone medieval gate, over the grand canal (which dissects the rivers La Senne & Den Dijle, the second running through Mechelen centre) and a short zig-zag through quiet suburbs. We had previously stopped in at Café Hanekeef near the central square, itself an interesting venue, and thoroughly enjoyed both the pub and the sights of the town centre. Mechelen really is an excellent city that remains overlooked by tourists despite its beauty and historic interest.

Upon arrival, we spotted familiar Maes Pils signage (one of the most common Belgian lagers), Palm emblems (same) and a whitewashed shop front with an interesting old ‘Brigand’ sign attached to what was once a first floor window.

The sign for Café Tilt “Lokaal W.T.C” itself seems to our eyes a bit unfashionable, the kind of thing you expect from community pubs. This is a good sign actually, as it duly indicates what’s to be found inside.

The wording ‘Lokaal’ is colloquial for pub, but not so often displayed outside in that manner – perhaps a throwback in itself. The W.T.C is a reference to its other purpose: a ‘cycling tourist club’!

https://www.wtc-tilt.be

As its homepage proudly boasts, “Storms, hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, genocides, gulf wars, the fall of the wall, the word trade centre, bird flu: WTC-Tilt survives everything!”

While we don’t want to spend this review talking about cycling, this club helps sustain interest in the pub and keep it at the heart of the community, and a lot of their events naturally drag back to a beer or three in the pub – that deserves enormous credit.

Furthermore, football club KV Mechelen compete with the cycling club for wall space and seating space, with Tilt being a designated ‘club house’.

Sporting allegiance is a very common theme for Belgian cafes and all the more important when economic conditions and fashions make life tougher. There is a fabulous blog article here which was very helpful when writing this piece.

Tilt is special, but also run by a special human being. Owner Rozeke Raymaekers is now well into her 80s, having stood at the tap for 40 years. It should go without saying that she, cycling or no cycling, is the stuff of national legend, even featuring on a TV testimonial for the cleaning product Feem!

There is always much interest in any longstanding characters who are masters of their art, and this article here provides a small portrait of Rozeke the person: http://thewordmagazine.com/the-hundreds/rozeke-raymaekers

I arrived at Tilt as an outsider of course, and, as you would expect from any pub was treated with an assured and friendly welcome by Rozeke, someone who has seen it all before but become no poorer for the experience.

The rhythm of the pub, with its simple one roomed front of house layout, in the early afternoon suits her, they fit like hand in glove. Sedate, friendly, and calm with the occasional burst of laughter or exclamation. While of course it may be unusual to an outsider to see someone of her advanced years on her feet all day long, there is nothing upon inspection of the facts which would lead that to be inappropriate. If she feels strong and willing, all power to her!

The pub itself is defined by a lack of pretension, right down to the outside toilets. You will find real life of all kinds mixing together, a true democracy, while the decoration itself is more of a collection of memoirs and sporting achievements than a genuine attempt towards any sort of stylistic angle (though it would seem the café did previously resemble more of a brown café ). There are some nice touches such as the pot-stove which remains in use, and old-fashioned savings cupboard, common but nostalgic items.

….Very well, but what’s to drink?

Drinks are simple and affordable. It isn’t all about a cheap 25cl of lager either, you will find some stronger bottles, mostly from the classic Belgian range, reliable and high quality. However sometimes, in straightforward pubs like Tilt, it makes sense to order something simple from the taps, which, you will often hear claimed as being “the best poured in the city”, however much trust you place in such hyperbole.

While you may walk past, or poke your head through the door and see something ordinary, the people around you are the true indicators. The glint in everyone’s eye betrays they know they are lucky to have a place like Tilt in their lives.

Before we go, please enjoy this nostalgia trip into Mechelen’s cafés of the past.

I sincerely hope they have a continuity plan for when the inevitable happens. After all, “WTC Tilt survives everything.

As for Rozeke’s take on the future?

I will keep this way until the very end”. “Life is celebrated here, and nobody is looked at here by its colour, age or gender. Having fun, that’s what counts here. Yes, I mean it: I will fall dead here after my counter.

Amen.

Opus Pistorium, Bari

…back to Italy

Opus Pistorium, Bari

8.7/10

Where is Opus Pistorium?

The best bar in Bari is located in the tight twisty environs of Bari old town! Here you can enjoy an atmosphere which – at the time of writing – has survived the effects of major tourism that has so drastically affected the likes of Dubrovnik and Venice, destroying the local life in the centre of its city.

Such local life, in all unfettered glory can be found in the heart of Bari, what many other hollowed-out cities would simply call their ‘cultural centre’ (with the tacit acknowledgement that the city’s residents are surplus to requirements), but what in Bari constitutes a genuine living city.

The air is heavy with fresh laundry as residents drape their newly washed bed linens over the balcony to dry, families gather in dining room cum kitchens to dine and converse, their loud exclamations echoing along the alleys and passageways. Children play football and bar owners trundle the latest batch of beer on trolleys around the uneven flagstones with careworn expressions. Traffic noise appears distant, with only the occasional revving of a Piaggio piercing the background echoes of human life cleanly bouncing off the flat surfaces and crooked streets.

Don’t be fooled, Bari is no backwater, indeed the old town is simply 1 of several distinct constituent parts of what is a busy and vibrant place. The city simply features a little further down most travellers to-do lists. Yet, what Bari may lack in self-opportunities, quirky features and bucket-list icons, it compensates for through its authenticity. Outside of the summer in particular, the lack of tourism will feel like a breath of fresh air. This experience is now absent from the places which have welcomed cruises, AirBnB and backpackers all year round.

Bari old town’s nightlight is crowned by 2 very atmospheric brooding bars situated within 30 seconds of each other just off the old town square Piazza Mercantile, the first being Chat Noir (also featuring on our guide), and this one, Opus Pistorium.

The name, which sounds uncannily like a disgraced amputee, is actually a reference to a Henry Miller novel. OP (as we will refer to it from now on) is the best bar we have found in any district of Bari. What made the discovery even more fun was finding it on a whim, not after any studious research, and it being the last bar we visited in Bari on our stay!

What’s it like?

On arrival from the exterior, the contents within will not appear screamingly obvious, with a small discreet entrance, but venture in, and you will be greeted with a spectacularly stylish bar.

OP is based in a tall long room with a curved brick ceiling nearly 15 metres up. I would not be surprised if the room had a specific different use in the past (a water tank perhaps, like Azimut in Sibenik?) but the effect on the bar is endowing it with acres of wall space.

Most bars would not attempt to rise to the challenge, but instead OP carefully accepts it, with a tall long bar area decorated with plants, rather than simply bottles, and artwork of an exotic, occasionally oriental leaning. The colour scheme is crimson – combined with fairylights and candles, this creates a brooding effect that lends itself wonderfully to an intimate late night drink.

Casting your eyes around the room will also reveal a careful decoration of antique furnishings and ephemera, although this isn’t an out-and-out antique bar like the half dozen we have documented in our Days Out feature at Kazimierz, Krakow. The end effect at OP is somewhere in between. Modern artwork and lighting but with a strong nod to the past in other aspects. It is effective and impresses as being tasteful and distinctive – extremely important for becoming eligible for the European Bar Guide.

…come on, tell me about the drinks!

Of course be interested to know what drinks are on offer. Wine strongly features on any menu in a non-specialist Italian bar, and OP is no different, but the beer and cocktail choices are similarly very strong, the emphasis being on quality, not quantity in terms of options. The cocktails we tried were carefully but promptly made, beautifully mixed and presented at a fair price, certainly one which makes you raise an eyebrow in comparison to the cost of beer (which after all, takes rather less effort for bar staff to prepare and serve). Local ingredients make up a strong feature. Normally a sprig in a cocktail in any old bar would be largely presentational, but the rosemary was so fresh and full of scent it added to the flavour and sensation of drinking (what in my case was a Penicillin).

OP is a late bar, so don’t attempt to visit before 7pm, indeed you may be advised to pop by later on if you are seeking a faster-pace. While it was sedate on our visit, many other reviews reference how busy it can get, so it may be advisable to reserve a table, which is possible between 7 and 9.30pm.

Combining a drink here with one in the longer standing and slightly more bohemian Chat Noir will delight anyone who enjoys drinking in those deep red boudoir aesthetics.

One of the risks of a bar of this kind is drowning in its own pretentiousness, risking a lack of openness and a stuffy feel, producing a crowd of customers that behave accordingly. Neither of these bars fall into that category, as while they may not be down to earth either, the decoration, atmosphere and staff will put you at ease.

Both are worth visiting, indeed both belong among the best bars in Europe but Opus Pistorium stands out even further, offering better drinks and value for money, with a style that is original in places. We highly recommend taking time to drink at this superb moody bar on your visit to Bari!

…back to Italy

Chata Pod Rysmi, Mt. Rysy

Chata Pod Rysmi




When is a pub not a pub?

…back to Slovakia

“Address”: Rysy Vrch Štrbské Pleso Štrbské Pleso, 059 85, Slovakia

Quality + Choice of Drinks: 6/10

Style + Décor: 8/10

Character + Atmosphere: 10/10

Amenities: 7/10

Value For Money: 8/10

When is a pub not a pub? When there’s no electricity or plumbing? When you can’t get there without clambering up chains and ladders? You’d think so, but you’d be wrong.

Chata Pod Rysmi stretches the whole concept to breaking point, yet its offerings resemble an Inn so near as damn it, that who would quibble? It bloody well is one.

2250 metres above sea level, inaccessible by car and 2 hour’s hard climb up from the fringe of civilisation at Popradske Pleso, Chata Pod Rysmi is the highest mountain refuge in Europe. Through sheer commitment, sacrifice and bloody-mindedness, a hut which most people would expect to offer – at most-  a basic place to escape bad weather, provides cooked meals, beds and beer on tap.

Open from 15th June until 31st October (due to being impassable at other times of year), the hut primarily provides a safe haven – and, if necessary – lodgings to those wishing to climb and pass the summit of Rysy, the peak of the High Tatras and border between Slovakia and Poland.

The idea to build a mountain hut came up at the end of the 19th century, but it was only in 1933 that the first Chata Pod Rysmi was realised. Lasting an impressive 20 years before sustaining severe avalanche damage in the mid-1950s, it was rebuilt and then extended in 1977. In modern times, a further avalanche in 2000 virtually destroyed the hut. Since 2013, following a lot of unnecessarily wrangling the venue has been fully reconstructed with a new design. Read more here:

http://www.mountainhuts.info/rysy

The fixtures are impressive and solidly built – and they have to be. The weather at this altitude is unpredictable and at times severe; it is situated at a point where humans are not designed to be.

Arriving via Slovakia: The walk from Popradske Pleso to Chata Pod Rysmi is beautiful and dramatic, with pine forests and mountain waterfalls giving way to jagged granite peaks, via an otherworldly tarn, before a short series of chains and ladders gains you access to the final climb, a rocky hard slog to the hut.

Weather permitting, it is up to you whether you want to scale the summit on arrival or sleep over and save that for the morning.

Arriving via Poland: A very steep slog from the easily accessed lake Morskie Oko, albeit up a well marked and well travelled route up sets of chains and ladders. Pack cautiously, move cautiously and attempt this in clear summer weather.

By all accounts, the interior of the new Chata Pod Rysmi has preserved the original atmosphere. Upon arrival you will note a few jokes, such as the ‘bus stop’ located outside, and inside some nooses handily labelled “2 places for vegetarians”. Hilarious… depending on your sense of humour.

The hut’s tenant Viktor Beránek has been taking care of the hut for 36 years and is a living legend. Not only for the length but nature of the commitment he has made – in his prime carrying 100kg of stores up to the hut on his back. Yes, this is not a hut that benefits from airdrops: all the day-to-day supplies are provided by porters, sherpas if you like. Each day they supply on average 60kg worth of supplies. On your hike you may see drop off points, where the porters have left gas canisters midway up for their colleagues nearer the top to collect.

You can imagine, given the variable weather and tough terrain that this is requires an almost missionary level commitment. While your first beer (on our arrival it was Litovel Maestro) arrives, trust me when I say it slips down with as much guilt as pleasure when thinking about the poor sods lugging the kegs up the mountain! But after a while you have to get used to it, you have paid for it after all.

If you feel too guilty to partake, then make contact with the Poprad Lake Mountain Hotel who will be delighted to offer you a range of packages to take to the hut (weighing you down further on your ascent) which you can exchange for a free tea or soup at the hut by way of thanks. This way you can personally experience a fraction of the sacrifices they make every year.

They also have contracted their own label beer, courtesy of Pivovar Nymburk in Czechia, which you can buy in cans at the hut itself, testament to its iconic status in the region.

The food here is simple – warming and hot – and definitely Slovakian. Cabbage, dumplings, soup, goulash. Prices are as fair as you can expect given the supplies have been delivered on foot up a mountain. When you are up here, nearly everything they offer feels somewhat of a charity, even when you are paying for it.

Once you are fed and watered, there may be an occasion where nature calls, and here, the fun really starts. Clamber 150 metres along a rocky slope to visit Chata Pod Rysmi’s ‘Panorama Toilet’!

This outhouse boasts a full perspex window on the valley below, as you are seated on the throne. Anyone feeling constipated will soon find their digestive passage easing. During the night, this trip can be annoying as it is outright dangerous in bad weather to be visiting the toilet, and yet they are fairly strict about ensuring the gentlemen staying over don’t simply relieve themselves nearby. There are rodents around, you see…

The experience of visiting a clifftop outhouse at 2 am with a weather system drawing in up the valley is certainly ‘one to tell the grandkids’.

So, onto the “pub itself”, you will note the communal area looks to all intents and purposes like a Slovakian pub. Communal wooden tables, rustic and simple decoration, and a bar area. Whether you’re drinking spirits or beer, you take your seats in the same way you would a pub, drink in the same way you would a pub, and chat in the same way you would a pub. It’s a pub. A pub with an enormous green ceramic heater, for good measure.

As the light fades, the staff bring out oil lamps, where the atmosphere increases even further. Lit by lamp and the occasional glint of moonlight, sit and enjoy your warm food and your beer in good company, a one off unique experience yet one that feels like a familiar throwback to simpler times, especially as there is no music unless someone picks up the guitar or sits at the piano which has also, extraordinarily made its way up here. There is no electricity (for the guests at least), no wifi, no phone signal.


If you get up in the middle of the night to answer the call of nature (requiring, for safety and good health that you get fully clothed and booted each time) you can see the staff jovially drinking and chatting among themselves in their breakout area, something which reminded me that after all, pubs are about socialising and human contact. With the usual trappings of modernity out of action it puts you in touch with the simple pleasures – with a side helping of bracing outdoor toilet usage for good measure.

All the same, without internet for 12 hours, I was gagging to find out the cricket score in the Ashes when we got off that mountain….

You can’t find somewhere like this place just anywhere, it goes down as not only one of my best pub experiences but best life experiences.

Au Delft, Liège

Review
Ratings
Gallery
Find It!

There is a certain delight in finding a diamond in the rough, not least when it’s a brown café. Liège’s careworn and ramshackle districts provide plenty of rough – this is not a city that has enjoyed the most tasteful town planning, nor preservation of its heritage. There are quirky features and surprising beauty spots if you are determined to find them. Impasses, a giant staircase, quiet side streets, timber framed buildings sprinkled across the city, and upon arrival a dramatically different (if annoyingly distant) ultra-modern railway station.

This city is certainly not one to write-off, but on a grey weekend, the place seems overburdened with regret about its numerous ill-maintained architectural mistakes, not to mention the inevitable results that come from relatively pauce economic circumstances.

Wallonia is not the well-to-do side of Belgium these days, and hasn’t been for a long time. While it is breathtakingly beautiful in its rural areas and some small towns, a visit to its cities (the likes of Charleroi or Liège) is more than a tad reminiscent of the atmosphere you’ll find visiting dour towns in Northern France, especially in comparison to the well-financed Flemish cities of Ghent and Antwerp.

However, a reliable general rule is: the more hard-nosed a city, the worse its climate, the more likely it will be crammed full of drinking holes. Liège proves this quite adequately, as a cursory search will reveal, you can barely turn a corner in the centre without bumping into some bar or other, while certain streets have a local notoriety.

Some bars, such as Taverne St. Paul, Café Lequet and Le Pot Au Lait are, for their own differing reasons, Liégeois institutions, the bright lights that draw everyone in (those with good taste, anyway). However, today we are going to focus on a more understated city centre venue, Au Delft.

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Au Delft is a corner bar situated in an art deco influenced grey-brown brick city building with a quarter-circle frontage and circular windows running down each storey. The structure is non-committal and the materials used are unattractive in colour, so the impression lands in an uncanny valley between noticeably funky and downright ugly.

It doesn’t seem as though this would contain anything preserved except perhaps the embryonic ego of a reckless architect, but one look at the Jupiler signage, and the ground floor bar indicates that something interesting may be inside – or at the absolute very least, somewhere to buy a beer.

Step inside under a large dark green awning to discover a well-preserved bar blending stylish décor (appearing to span from the early ’50s to ’70s to my eye), with features and fittings that regularly appear in brown cafés, one of my absolute favourite styles of bar. Their name itself references a medieval town in Western Netherlands, a heartland of the brown café or bruine kroege.

That Au Delft now feels frozen in time is no accident – they knew they were onto a winner with this place and haven’t altered the format. Unlike the thousands of idiots who have vandalised amazing pubs and bars over the years, the owners have chosen to retain what made it special and ignored the nearly irrepressible human instinct to follow trends.

The bar area itself is magnificent. Faded with age but handsomely redeemed by its character. This scene is juxtaposed with a chess board tiled floor, which wouldn’t be my preferred choice usually, but works brilliantly for this place.

Some small details set this place apart, without adding clutter. The newspaper clips, the beautiful painted lettering on the mirrors which are installed in the partitions above crimson leather-backed seats. Indications of present tradition and ritual mixed with a melancholy legacy of days that are long gone, never to return.

Some of this reminded me of Au Daringman, in Brussels, another out-of-time venue,  that exudes confidence and contentment in what it is.

If you are used to paying 4 euros 50 for a quarter litre of beer in Brussels bars then you will scarcely believe your eyes when you discover the prices. Yes, pleasingly these are pitched to attract the custom locals rather than fleece tourists, but when allowing for Au Delft’s city centre location it comfortably beats some of the local competition too.

del8

Au Delft are not competing with those bars that are trying to start their own seed bank of beer for when the human race faces extinction, but they carefully tick off most of the main traditional Belgian beer styles and none of these could be said to be poor value: far from it.

There is actually something relieving about being spared the task of rifling through a Bible to choose between hundreds of beers and dozens of styles each time you desire a drink.

With my limited French I struggled a little to get my point across (there’s nothing more confidence-sapping than delivering a sentence which you are fairly confident is grammatically correct and well-pronounced only to receive a reaction of complete opacity and confusion) but thankfully the service was more than kind enough to offer patience in that regard. Any beer you select will be served to your table along with a small tray of nuts, which is a little token of mutual back-scratching I always like. After all, once the salt gets to work, further liquid is required.

The crowd in Au Delft is a mixture of loyal older regulars who have instant recognition and are well cared for by the staff. You will also find couples wanting a quiet drink and the occasional group of young friends.

IMG_20190302_193325

Au Delft has a nice convivial atmosphere whether quiet or busy, partly down to the carefully preserved décor and sense of refuge. It is both an excellent place for quiet contemplation or jovial conversation.

I was on limited time and so could only stay for a couple of beers, but I could have easily remained in Au Delft all evening. The impossible prospect of turning a place into my local, to get to know the other staff and become part of the fixtures of the bar are often one of the melancholy aspects of travelling. Often I am happy just to have found the venue and spent a night there, but Au Delft is one of those places I suspect you can only truly ‘find’ when you have visited for many years.

While Au Delft may not be the first name on everyone’s lips when it comes to nightlife in Liège, their quietly confident style, preserved features, genuine local life, friendly service and great value mean that it can’t be missed out and it comfortably earns a place on our guide as being one of the best pubs in Europe.

Our Rating:  8/10

Quality and/or choice of drinks8/10

Style and Decor8/10

Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life8/10

Amenities, Events & Community – 7/10

Value for Money8/10

The Pub-Going Factor8/10

Location
https://goo.gl/maps/vYzrgmhtpQ8cixuw7
Address
Place Cockerill 22, 4000 Liège, Belgium
Website
N/A
Telephone
+32 4 221 45 70

…back to Belgium

 

 

 

Domkeller, Aachen

back to Germany

  • Quality and/or choice of drinks – 8/10
  • Style and Decor – 8/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 10/10
  • Amenities & Events – 7/10
  • Value for Money – 7/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  9/10
Hof 1, 52062 Aachen, Germany

Although it shouldn’t, it comes as a surprise to me, as much as a relief to have located a cosy, non-corporate pub slap-bang in the middle of a European city centre.

However, Belgium and Netherlands make a habit of it, and these nations just so happen to be Aachen’s closest neighbours.

This German border city and the Low Countries (either of which can be reached in an hour walk from Aachen centre) share a host of cultural cues, with the city itself having initial importance as a Roman spa town before the cult of Imperial Rome spawned Charlemagne and the crowning of 31 Holy Roman Emperors in the subsequent centuries. Aachen also enjoyed a position as a major trading point between nations, goods and wares shipped from the North Sea ports, which may help explain the cultural overlap.

Don’t be under the impression Aachen is any less German for it – believe me, Aachen is a firm fixture of Nord-Rhein Westphalia, and this mixture today results in interesting blends of buildings as you walk around town. Its town hall and surrounding Gothic buildings in the Altstadt could as easily appear as far away as Ghent or Nijmegen without raising any suspicion, but similarly, the remnants of the city wall and the post-war reconstruction are as German as it comes. The cultural centre of Aachen isn’t a large ensemble of buildings when compared to some places, but they are nonetheless impressive and occupy a bigger portion of the city than Cologne or Dusseldorf’s old towns, for example. Aachen is easy to get to from virtually anywhere nearby, and its attractions justify you spending a night here.

Domkeller is situated in the heart of town in an attractive brick townhouse on the small Hof square (you know you’re somewhere central when Hof appears). The scene is made all the more picturesque by a ruined arch halfway along and the distinctive houses that line the square, all fitted with huge grid windows of the kind you normally expect to see on Burgher houses.

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The risk is that Domkeller could so easily be one of those common tourist traps and a let-down given its advantageous situation. Instead, you will find the opposite is true.

Domkeller is neither based at the cathedral, or in fact a cellar venue (that ceased to be true in the 1980s, apparently, due to safety regulations), however its proximity and age, dating back at least until the 1950s justifies a name of such significance.

This pub enjoys a handsome trade of local people both young and old who are happy to sit and socialise among the odd tourist (such as myself) or group of businessmen that are passing through.

It’s a place that invites interactions with other people; that magic chemistry where strangers who would otherwise be ignoring each other feel they can cross the divide. That alone would be a good reason to include Domkeller on our guide. Aside of that – the antifascist sign near the entrance is proof that many of these elements go hand-in-hand.

Be assured, the appeal doesn’t stop there. As you walk in through a corner door you will find a cosy room with bar area to your right and communal bench seating with fixed small tables. To your left is some chunkier furniture and further benches. Beyond the bar area is the second part of the room, which again is based around bench seating by the walls and has the effect that most of the time you are spent in an enclosed space where you are looking at and interacting with what’s inside rather than what’s outside.

Domkeller accepts orders at the bar but keeps table service operating and prefers that – it is quick, attentive and polite without being too formal. You’ll be needing a drink of course, and here is where Domkeller comes into its own.

The choices of beer are certainly quality over quantity, but even this selection is encyclopaedic when compared to most German venues. Here at Domkeller, several bases are covered. They have various styles of German beer on tap covering Kolsch, Altbier, Landbier, Pils and Hefeweissbier – most of which are from medium-sized, not corporate breweries – and a suite of Belgian bottles which are mostly the familiar Trappist and Abbey ales, but nonetheless hugely welcome in a nation that is not fond of selling beer brewed by anyone except themselves. Believe me, travel east from Domkeller, stop in each pub you find and it will be a long time before you see as many Belgium beers again.

The atmosphere is also quite fitting for drinking whisky, something which the management appear to have recognised a long time ago – take a look at the drinks menu for a few interesting options.

Prices are along the typical level for this part of the world – perhaps cheaper than Maastricht up the road, a little cheaper than Cologne too, though perhaps a little more expensive than Liege and the rest of Wallonia, which is after all a poorer region of Belgium than Flanders. For a city centre venue, it’s fair value.

Domkeller’s website claims their Weinstube (the upper floor, accessed via a central staircase by the end of the bar) is converted into a small concert hall every Monday night, which I can imagine drumming up even more atmosphere in this place. These start at 8PM, and the pub won’t accept new entrants after 7.30PM.

The upper floor is a lighter shade than the downstairs with a surprisingly high ceiling, though still decorated in a simple, traditional style. There is a gently sloping roof at one side of the room which adds a bit of character. I would rather be downstairs, but would certainly accept a seat upstairs if that was what remained.

Domkeller have a relaxed attitude towards bringing food into eat, which is a refreshing change and shows the sort of pragmatism that people who know pubs recognise but accountants do not. Clearly any food is going to make a person thirsty for more of their fine beers – who loses?

Have I mentioned the opening hours yet? Bloody brilliant! How many cities have I been to that practically shut up shop by midnight? A lot. Too many. Expect Domkeller to serve your needs well into the early hours of the morning, in fair weather or foul, throughout the week.  This, along with the friendly company and Belgian ales explained why I found it very difficult to leave and go to bed!

Speaking of weather, the place throws itself open as the weather improves, with outside seating on the square. This is of course a pleasant place to sit back and enjoy the sun, but the true character of the place is indoors in my opinion, a wonderful refuge from the bitter winter weather – the core creation should be at the core of the appeal.

Across Europe, places like Domkeller, based so close to the centre of the city, have ceased to be cult venues long ago and sold out to middle aged tourists to become a generic café.

It’s great to see that the real character of Aachen endures and therefore we say, ‘long live Domkeller’ – and hopefully see you again very soon!

 

Bar Marsella, Barcelona

Carrer de Sant Pau, 65, 08001 Barcelona, Spain

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

Being a cult venue, Marsella isn’t exactly a secret. Any basic search will reveal lurid tales from this bar’s often sordid 200-year history, but just because Barça residents know all about it doesn’t make the experience passé for a newcomer. Every first visit is by definition a novel one and besides, there are good reasons why it has become an institution, as I will now reveal:

You’ll need to walk to the Raval district just a short walk west of La Rambla. This has been a notoriously edgy red-light district in the past, but they seem to have cleaned it up a touch lately. From my experience it isn’t any more or less edgy than most major European city centre districts, including those on the Med. While there may be some drunkards around late in the evening, and destitute migrants trying to sell you ambient temperature beer from crates, all this stuff can be swerved without encountering any real trouble.  Perhaps my tolerance comes through growing up in Northern cities in the UK, where you’re never far away from confrontation of some sort. The only thing I would watch out for is being corned by any groups down any narrow lanes – they will know the rat runs better than you (being rats and all).

After a short walk the faded and stained net curtains and  geriatric frontage of Marsella comes into view, set directly off the street. You might need to do a double-take to confirm which of the various panels is the door – and don’t yank the door off its hinges! The fixtures look so delicate and aged that any mistreatment might cause the whole edifice to crumble.

 

 

This theme continues once you’re inside. You’ll find a single-room marble bar with a wide open space at the front doubling as old-time  dance-floor and bar area. Though they do occasionally organise events, there probably won’t be any dancing going on and you’ll see most people gathered along the seating areas to the left as you enter.

Take a moment to inspect the cracked plaster everywhere, the decrepit wood panelling and former grandeur, which brings to mind a Havana cocktail bar. There are shelves and bookcases along the far wall with bottles that look untouched for several decades, if not longer.

Among many items of interest are Franco-era signs prohibiting singing, spitting, loitering and amassing in large groups (fun not being one of the hallmarks of living in Catalonia during his dictatorship). It was known at the time that the establishment was a hangout of dissidents and revolutionaries.

As with most Spanish bars, you can expect to find it open until the late hours. If Google is correct, opening at 6pm would make Marsella is somewhat of an early riser. 10pm is not uncommon time for some bars to open in Spain, and given I have read varying reports about its opening hours I would recommend you try this place later on in the evening to give you the best chance.

Marsella is well-known for its Absinthe, a rarity in the city until the last few decades. You may find some brave souls partaking in the rather studied ritual as you scan the room.

There is certainly a time and place for Absinthe – and where better than here? However, even with that factored in, a more astute decision in my view would be to order one of their enormous boozy cocktails that are made with panache but presented plainly and simply (contrast that with any cocktail bar in England where the added value is all about the artifice and presentation). While I love a beer, some bars just don’t feel quite right to drink it in, and this is one of them.

The current operation is a fascinating double team of Master and Apprentice. His teacher, a scholarly old soul who tends the bar, chips in here and there, and a young scholar who does the table service and most of the hard yards.

The atmosphere is powerful, particular once the booze gets to work. I’d recommend plonking yourself on a table where you can see the bar area on your left and the seating area on your right, as this gives you the full panorama. There is a hell of a lot to look at in the bar, but take a moment to ease back in your chair and appreciate the general scene itself, where at points you will feel as if you’re fading into the history of the place. Perhaps it’s the glow of the lights against the walnut-coloured wooden panels, or that undefinable ‘vibe’ that makes it an unforgettable destination, but the short of it is, they’ve created something simply by doing nothing. Since 1820 they’ve opened their doors and just let it gradually age (and in some senses rot) around them. Is the place ever cleaned? Glasses, seats, floor and table-tops, perhaps. The rest? Don’t bet on it.

You can read the anecdotes about Hemingway, Picasso, Dali if you like, but I preferred to sit there and considering the wider churn of people that must have frequented the place over time, mostly to enjoy the absinth and heady surroundings.

I read here that Marsella was previously threatened with closure due to the wishes of the building owner (something this 2013 website appears to mourn), until the city itself stepped into save it, purchasing the building itself to insure against it. This article (in Spanish) confirms it.

“The bar Marseille, whose future was uncertain during the last two years due to disagreements between Lamiel and the former owners of the premises, has just become the property of the City Council, which has bought the building on Sant Ramon Street, 1, Sant Pau corner. for 1,093,000 euros.”

Extraordinary. How many bars could you possibly say that about?

So many new bars try to be all things to all people, with the end result being a bland beige mush no-one will ever remember – let alone try and save from closure. By contrast, this bar knows itself, isn’t afraid to be loved or hated and is never going to change until the building itself collapses into rubble on top of it. Until that day comes, Viva el Marsella! – Places like this don’t come along every day.

B.O Baras, Kaunas

back to Lithuania

Muitinės g. 9, Kaunas 44280, Lithuania

Website: www.blueorange.lt

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

Blue Orange, or B.O for short (…lol!) is undoubtedly Kaunas’ foremost long-standing social drinking institution for students and young folk, taking on an unofficial Student Union bar feel, with a few bells and whistles that entice a post-Uni crowd  as well.

The name was inspired by the poem The World Is Blue As An Orange by the French Surrealist poet Paul Éluard, yet this little pretentious flourish couldn’t be further apart from the uncomplicated down-to-earth and friendly bar you’re about to visit.

Unusually for a student bar, Blue Orange is a family operation, opened by the current manager’s father and uncle, now run by mother and son. This is a nice fact in an increasingly corporate world.

Enter off a quiet side street in Kaunas’ pretty, though low-key old town and you’ll see a long room tunneling off to your left, and the bar straight in front of you. Décor is down to a earth, a little offbeat but generally plain, going on ramshackle, but in that cosy lived-in way that gives places like these some charm.

B.O (yep, this is still funny) offers a range of the usual pub amenities in addition to the beer: board games, beer pong, foosball, rudimentary pub food, events nights etc, and is without doubt focused on gathering and maintaining a community around it as best as it can. It succeeds. Football championships, “Guitar Hero” nights etc., you name it.

At the minute the second floor is being renovated so don’t count on any DJing or dancing up there for now. We shall keep a close watch on what they do with the space.

Everyone likes a late bar (What, you don’t? See me after class!) and Blue Orange provides a stalwart service in that regard, opening way past midnight into the early hours, all nights of the week. Be aware though that the place doesn’t actually open until 5pm, so don’t rely on it for an afternoon pint.

The furnishings and the bar concept may be growing a little dog-eared, but among a friendly crowd, that doesn’t seem to matter. And it’s an easy place to make friends, with space being at a premium you may find a group or individuals offer you a friendly – if drunken – introduction.

As far as the beers go, you can fill your glass for a very decent price, and there are 6-7 decent taps with Lithuanian beer on offer, along with a correspondingly well stocked fridge full of bottles. It is, after reflection, a pretty good range for the type of bar it is, and reasonable quality. Unfortunately you might find as with a lot of small time operations in mainland Europe that the beer comes out of the taps far too lively and it takes three pint glasses of foam before finally enough beer is produced to fill your glass. This can cause holdups but thankfully the drink at the end is worth it.

Staff are surly in the usual Baltic manner (perhaps they are fed up by the bar taps) but at least it’s service at the bar and not having to wait for table service – a dreaded custom across many venues in Eastern Europe.

BO has a central location near a number of good transport connections, but isn’t situated on a main thoroughfare that gets passing trade. This means it is visited by a loyal crowd of those in the know. It remains a really good option if you want to sample what the young but not so preening Kaunasii are up to with their free time or make it your local.

Going from some comments, Blue Orange  isn’t quite as zeitgeisty as it’s heyday, though you can’t help wonder whether these critics are just resentful thirty somethings trying and failing to relive their glory days. It must have been some heyday if they’re correct, as during my visit the bar was rammed full of young people who all looked like they were having a great time, also with the feel that it was their regular hangout spot. I’ll be back next time I’m in Kaunas, that’s for sure.

If Blue Orange doesn’t suit your mature post-grad mentality, then check out their new bar B20 on Gedminas gatve 30, which is similarly well reviewed but has a more modern and generic décor to my eyes. All the same, it breaks up the long, long walk between the train station and the old town quite nicely.

Have you been to Blue Orange? Agree or disagree with this review? Join in the discussion on Facebook or leave a review below!

Het Galgenhuis, Ghent

back to Belgium

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

Galgenhuis, ‘The Gallows House’ is Ghent’s most central and historical pub, occupying a small but nevertheless fascinating and lurid position in the city’s heritage. Set on a corner by the Kleine Vismarkt bridge, and strapped onto the  striking Groot Vleeshuis, the uneconomically modest size never gives the impression of being a likely pub venue.

It’s name stems from a medieval pillory based on the rear of the roof, used in those days to shame criminals. A former fish stall, tripe house, then schandstraffen, Galgenhuis has seen its fair share of fishy doings, both before and following its conversion into a pub during the 1700s. There is some terrific writing about the history of the building to be found here and here.

All the same, it’s 2019, so what’s the place like now? Well, you enter via steps down off the street, past a small patio area. Upon entering you’re greeted with a one room bar with arched ceiling, barely larger than a shed. They believe it is one of, if not the smallest pubs in Ghent.

 

The bar room fits a row of bench seats on each side, and just enough space in the middle to congregate if they are full. There is also a very cosy little mezzanine area up steps behind the bar. The terrace area on the square is very probably bigger than the standing area in pub itself. You will enjoy a great view of the square, sure, but you’ll be getting that the moment you leave anyway – it isn’t really the same as being in a pub, is it?

Despite the limited space in the main room, Galgenhuis boasts ample space in the cellars by virtue of the tunnels built under the Groot Vleeshuis for fishermen and greengrocers back in t’ day. There were, by some accounts, historical problems with the moisture, restricting its usage, but these days they boast of a refurbishment and as you may notice, the cellar can now be rented out for parties and suchlike.

Galgenhuis counts in my book as a ‘brown café’ due to the traditional furnishings and genteel down-to-earth atmosphere in the main room; very much a Flemish pub, but the history of the venue means it has been bestowed with additional historical features that predate the style. Cast your eyes over the impressive painted tiled walls and beamed ceiling painted with some rather threatening gallows-appropriate slogans in gothic lettering. This in my view takes it to another level. Our level.

However, while I love all of that, unfortunately the whitewashed exterior and the splashing of an – in my view – rather bland logo across the wall of the building sticks out a mile in front of some grand stepped-gable houses by the water front. I’m afraid the signage is not really in keeping with the tradition or the interior making the place look far more bland than it actually is. That’s disappointing, as they previously had Gothic signage, but it’s a matter of personal opinion.

This isn’t a concern once you’re inside however, as it can’t be seen. Believe me, if you’re lucky enough to find a seat in here you’ll feel like remaining for the duration. Perhaps it’s the modest size that makes it feel like the centre of the action, being so close to the water nearby and the goings-on in the street, it really does feel like being inside a capsule, one that might even detach itself from the town and leave you up to your neck in the Leie.

Perhaps this is because the bar area is set a half-level down from the street, and so with plenty of windows facing at ground level, it gives the impression of a grotto. In actuality this was to assist bargemen unload their wares – today it is merely an attractive quirk.

If you strip back the numerous eccentricities that add to the charm of Galgenhuis, you will still find a fundamentally sound pub that does the simple stuff well. A cosy room, jovial atmosphere, and during the evening that classic golden glow that emerges from time spent in a well-decorated friendly pub room and careful application of beer.

Speaking of beer, there is a small but decent selection of Belgian ales on tap, from Tongerlo (an excellent though not always common option) down to Primus lager, while hardly Pilsner Urquell in lager stakes, nevertheless preferable to Jupiler and is an acceptable fallback option if the dubbels, tripels and quadrupels are getting on top of you. Prices are as you’d expect for a pub in the middle of an affluent city centre in Northern Europe (ie. belt up), but the manager reminds me that a glass of Primus costs €2.20, in itself a very reasonable price for the city centre.

The bar staff carry out their job with pride, clearly in the knowledge they are playing their small part in the continuation of Galgenhuis. I also felt they were among the more friendly Ghent servers, while considering the places I visited. By contrast, the forgivably wonderful Den Turk (follow the link for our full review) boasts about its ‘Ghent arrogance’: impressive in print, but reflected in fairly charmless service in person. Thankfully  basic pleasantries are still deemed fashionable here at Galgenhuis.

The central location means you can shoot off from here to half a dozen other bars and pubs within minutes, making it suitable for a pub crawl, but the high demand for seating puts the experience itself at a premium. If you are lucky enough to grab a table, why not bed in for a full afternoon session and get drinking?

Have you been to Galgenhuis? Agree or disagree with our take on it? We’d love to find out what you think – please drop us a line in the comments below or join the discussion in our Facebook group!

 

Café Mulder, Amsterdam

back to Netherlands

Weteringschans 163, 1017 XD Amsterdam, Netherlands
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks –7/10
  • 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

Picture the scene: Amsterdam in winter, one of those dire evenings when gales blow in off the North Sea all the way up De Pijp, whipping sleet in your face. Meanwhile, the going underfoot lurches from ice rink to quagmire with each step. Checking to your right for the cyclist that probably isn’t there (but inevitably will break your arm the one time you don’t bother checking) – and then left to see if any motorists fancy testing how well their airbags work. Each movement of your leg invites a splash of freezing sludge and fresh test of your balance.

Across the roundabout we spot a window glowing like a beacon, heat from the room condensing on the glass, the silhouette of drinkers and the sound of good cheer – it’s a pub – rarely has there been a more fine or  welcome sight.

Shuffling precariously across the ice I spot the sign above the bar confirming the establishment and nothing can stop us now. While there isn’t video evidence to prove otherwise, you may take my word for it, I’ve never homed in on an Amstel sign with such vigour and enthusiasm.

Amsterdam is well-used to this appallingly unpleasant weather and therefore well-prepared in its provision of shelter and booze. In late spring and summer Café Mulder flings open its doors and spreads out into the street front, but on a night like tonight this traditional brasserie turns into a refuge.

Being hugged, wrapped in a fresh towel and ushered inside would be the ideal welcome, but the blast of warmth and prospect of a stiff drink ably substitutes.

The pub was as busy as it looked from the outside, full of folk relieved indeed to be anywhere except outside. Now, ensconced among a mixture of regulars and tourists, a drink and a chat will do the trick very nicely.

Seeing an Amstel sign would normally be a bad omen, but their sickly dross is ubiquitous in the city and it’s genuinely more difficult to find such a place that doesn’t also serve other, better beer. So, here you can choose between a pint of that insipid liquid or a smaller portion of something far nicer for the same price.

Outside of craft beer enthusiasts perhaps, it’s difficult to think that beer drinkers could be too upset by the selections here, especially as the place isn’t wholly beer-focused. The likes of Brugse Zot and De Koninck on tap, and at least 7 or 8 genuinely good bottles provide a stock that, while it could be better in variation and sizes, covers several bases well and isn’t going to let too many people down.

It’s nice to see that the place provides a small selection of food rather than turning itself into a dining room, so if you fancy wolfing down some soup, toasties or bitterballen (I wouldn’t blame you in weather like this) get involved. You can even get a hot boiled egg – very old fashioned and it doesn’t take away from the pub feel.

There’s a bit of extra character too with a pub cat and you’ll note it claims to be the most authentic pub in Amsterdam“. A bold claim (not one it backs up in any way) but this is really for you to explore and see for yourself.

Ronald Pattinson of European Beer Guide fame – a man worth listening to about Dutch brown cafés – commented:

“I’m still regularly pleasantly surprised by Amsterdam’s pub scene. While simple, unpretentious cafés like this survive in such numbers, I’ll pass on the razor blades.”

Mulder fits into the brown café aesthetic beloved of the Low Countries but has a hint of the French brasserie to my eyes, with enormous windows and a more classically corner bar layout.  The pub-like elements come from an impressively ornate bar area and shelf unit, the stylish old décor, rustic furniture and the type of socialising going on within, which certainly on a bitter night swings towards the communal. The sense of history helps too, with a lot of features looking turn of the 20th century.

London is blessed to have a huge number of pubs in the same way Amsterdam does, of a variety as-good-as-duplicated many times over. However, with a few exceptions, many of these London pubs have been made more generic by unimaginative owners or pub-companies, the scourge of character and identity. In London, I suspect this place would have gone the way of Nicholsons or Taylor Walker in the last decade and had its soul expunged, but pleasingly, one of the nicest things to say about Café Mulder is that it is not unique, it is not an oasis surrounded by a desert, but it’s common, frequent to find and that’s what makes Amsterdam still so thoroughly enjoyable. We should celebrate the fact that a place this good is only a notch above the mean average for a brown café in Amsterdam. Is this the inverse of damning with faint praise? I hope so.

Anyway, to boil it down, Mulder is a great place to go for a drink, and you know what? I managed to write all that without a single X-Files joke. Cheers!

For further reading – right hit and click Translate to enjoy this superb article by Josh Wolf, which goes into the rich history of Café Mulder: https://josh-wolf.blogspot.com/2013/11/cafe-mulder-te-amsterdam-weteringschans.html