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

 

Insomnia, Cluj-Napoca

back to Romania

Strada Universității 2, Cluj-Napoca 400091, Romania
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks –6/10
  • 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

Insomnia in the Romanian city of Cluj-Napoca claims the title of the longest continuing pub in town.

22 years (23 in May this year) doesn’t seem to me a long time in the life of a pub, so perhaps this has something to do with the turbulence of the revolution at the turn of the ‘90s, and/or a change in cultural trends? I am from a country where so many pubs have remained open over a hundred years or more, so this strikes me as peculiar.

Cluj-Napoca is a university town and so the nightlife reflects the demands of young people. You’ll struggle to find anywhere (deserving of the label ‘pub’ at least) where young and old people mix as they would in England, or indeed many other countries in Mainland Europe. In fact it was difficult to find the sort of old-man’s drinking hole you’d expect to see everywhere. Another surprise.

Insomnia is very much geared towards a younger crowd – if not young then young at heart – with bright, psychedelic décor, paint thrown up the wall Jackson Pollock style and giant lampshades covered in stretched Insomnia-logo t-shirts. About that logo – a not particularly discreet drawing of two animals humping. That aside, the place is funky and seems to have survived 15 years without looking overly dated.

You will notice from their website a rather esoteric mission statement (some of which might be lost in translation) which is reflected in the bar itself. It is the perigee between taking themselves too seriously and not taking themselves seriously at all. This must come from its early days as an art gallery. While the venue is now predominantly a bar, they still host events of varying flavours – book launches, poetry readings, the odd festival here and there.

 

The bar, as with most you’ll find in Cluj, is set up for sitting rather than standing, which means dealing with table service – not my favourite thing in the world. In Romania I noticed some people become rather upset when they have to order at the bar. Not sure why – getting drinks that way is quicker, direct and you can settle the bill there and then, saving everyone time and effort.

Insomnia also has a slightly different format in that they expect you to settle the bill upon the drinks being served, which took a little getting used to when most table service involves you settling the bill at the end of the evening. I can only imagine they have had some trouble with people leaving without paying – which again could be solved by switching to bar service!

The other gripe is that, quite alike other central European countries, it is possible to reserve tables in advance. Is this a good thing? In practice this hardly ever works well in a pub, as it deters people who haven’t got a reservation sitting in that spot until the reservation starts, costing the bar money and making the arrangement feel off-putting. Also, when the bar is really busy, save for two or three empty tables, simply because of a couple of reservations that may last for only one round of drinks, where is the logic there?

In Cluj, all beers seem to have arrived on the same lorry, so you can expect the local brew Ursus and its variants (which are okay at best), and other SABMiller-owned brands including some English beers. The choice here is neither great nor terrible – they have covered several bases, but after a couple of days in the city, seeing the identical drinks everywhere becomes a little dull.

Draft beer is also served in 400ml glasses, a cynical way of gaining 20% on every drink, and quite pointless given the bottle sizes are 500ml and often cheaper. It’s difficult to criticise Insomnia over any other Cluj pub for this, as it is unfortunately commonplace. The upshot is that most people order bottles, not draft beer as they are better value for money – given the expense involved in setting up a bar, this seems hideously counter-productive.

Insomnia also offer what they call “long draft”, 2.5l of beer arriving in an enormous trophy-like stand with its own tap which I saw a few people taking ‘advantage’ of.  You know you are in student land when gimmicks like this pop up.

Anyway, moving back to the positives, Insomnia’s atmosphere inside is lively and well-paced, while the surrounding décor certainly helps keep things upbeat.

Insomnia is also based on the first floor of a historic building, which I often like as bars of that sort always feel quite bohemian. Outside the bar you will step out onto the balcony walkway of an inner courtyard, the typical sort of atrium you get in ex-Hapsburg cities (especially those with Hungarian history). This situation is appealling and adds to the experience.

Insomnia can be found just a few seconds walk from the main square, which is also handy as the main squares of European cities are generally host to far more corporate venues than this. Insomnia, more than others, underlines the all-encompassing young feel of the city, not to mention a European city centre that yet hasn’t been ruined by corporatising everything.

Maybe Insomnia will continue for another 23 years to come – and onwards – or perhaps the economic tides will sweep it away. I certainly hope to find it is going strong when I return, and hope it doesn’t take me 23 years to do so!

I strongly recommend Insomnia for your visit to Cluj, primarily as a fun alternative venue, and a strong all-rounder that does a lot of what it takes to be a good bar well, or really well.

Lastly, be aware Insomnia closes at 1AM, so if you are having trouble sleeping, you’ll need to move elsewhere!

Roncsbár, Debrecen

back to Hungary

Csapó u. 27, 4024 Hungary
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks –5/10
  • Style and Decor – 10/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 10/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 9/10
  • Value for Money – 8/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  10/10

While ruin bars may be synonymous with Budapest, other cities in Hungary quickly taken inspiration from the design and ethos – it was inevitable they would create their own version. Gázfröccs in Sopron and Csillag EzPresszó in Győr both prove that the bar has been raised. Roncsbár in Hungary’s 2nd city Debrecen, is the most convincing example yet that it’s worth leaving Hungary’s megacity to explore the nightlife in the provinces.

While I love an old boozer, such as Wichmann’s in Budapest, it must be said the standards of décor, atmosphere and amenities in Hungarian pubs have shot up dramatically since Szimpla et al arrived on the scene. Roncsbár (Roncs, meaning Wreck) immediately showed that its up to the task.

Established 2013, Roncs is both a cosy pub, a concert hall, a garden terrace and a arty streetfood courtyard, delivering the alluring appeal we love about ruin bars – a combination of rooms to explore as well as cosy areas to congregate. Unlike unsuccessful attempts to export these to the West, it doesn’t feel the least bit corporate, even when you add bouncers and plastic cups (we’ll get to that in a minute).

There is no shortage of ways to spend your evening here, whether that be for a quiet drink, for food, for music and partying, or games. What’s better, the bar is designed in such a way that it never feels like those people are clashing with each other.

While not as enormous as the likes of the Fogas Ház ‘party complex’ or the ruined mansion of Szimpla, there is a fair expanse of space, and just like those it’s exciting to walk through it all for the first time.

Entering via the front door of the pub, you could be fooled for thinking that’s all there is. It is very pleasant – nothing negative to report – the area is focused on drinks and socialising rather than food – fine by me. You’ll find exposed brick and slightly ramshackle wooden tables. The ceiling appears to be studded with cymbals from drum kits (or was I wrong?). There’s a lively atmosphere and if that was it, then Roncsbár would probably warrant inclusion on our website as an 8/10 pub.

But after you’ve taken in the indoors, have a wander around and look for a side door – this will take you into the entrance way for the ruin-pub aspect proper. The design suddenly explodes into an eclectic whirlwind of bric-a-brac and, if you pay attention, some finely-crafted artwork. The cherry on top of the cake is, in this case, a wrecked (get it?!) aeroplane which looks like it has been hung, interior contents an all, to the inside of the roof.

What’s better, is this is heated in the icy winter and well-ventilated, keeping the place comfortable at all times.

Carry on past the stalls to find a courtyard seating area which will appeal to anyone wanting to watch some sport (big screen, of course) and a terrace garden area – closed on my visit due to the snowy weather – but definitely a further area to spread out in spring and summer. Barbecue? Yes please.

Drinks are about on standard with most Hungarian bars, however their website boasts they have their own-label beer from Rendelkezik (Reindeer?) which I must admit I didn’t see. It’s still possible to get a standard lager for a fair price and nothing here, be it beer, wine or spirits will offend most local or foreign wallets. If you’re outside you will be made to drink it in a plastic cup – on the upside no-one has to worry about broken glass.

Service can be a bit rushed and impersonal in that way all popular places end up being, but that isn’t a reason to mark this place down.

Unlike Budapest, there really is only one place like this in Debrecen, certainly making it stand out. There will always be one or two people of a contrary or conservative nature who take a dislike to these bars. You can’t please all of the people all of the time, but Roncsbár comes pretty damn close.

I love being able to dip in and out of events that are happening, be able to get some fresh air, or have a sit down, and still be in the same place, and still have something interesting to look at.

Please note that Debrecen has a very lively, albeit dispersed nightlife and there are several pubs of a very different style that are also worth visiting. Please see HERE.

There are only a few bars that have earned our 10/10 score, and so congratulations goes to Roncsbár. Long live the Wreck!