A Weekend in Brittany – Trip #1 of 2023


Day 1 – Paris to Rennes

What better to blow away the January blues than a Eurostar trip to Brittany? Well, I’m sure some of you could point to a nice tropical island or two. However, pastures new are pastures new. Despite many trips to France growing up there was a big gap until our trip to Lille back in March and as you can see from our map, lots of uncharted terrain in terms of bar going.

Brittany looked promising on the bar front, with its Celtic culture and vaguely secessionist vibes. Rennes itself is a university city which normally means busy nightlife, even in January.

Leg 1 of the journey involved a few hours layover in Paris where we visited Au Sauvignon for lunch, a typical Parisien café bar bistro. Extremely compact with an angular design personalised with Fin de siècle artwork and ephemera. The service was a Tasmanian devil whirlwind of half a dozen pirouetting waiting staff sashaying between the cramped seats. While foodie on our visit, there is all suggestion it slides into being a drinks focused evening wine bar, indeed a glance at the menu confirmed many of the dishes are little more than tapas bites. As a primer for the classic bistro experience however, it was a good start.

Rennes isn’t far on the TGV so we arrived and checked in reasonably quickly, heading out to the old town across the river, linked memorably by the shopping street Rue le Bastard. Grand civic and religious buildings transition into an ensemble of painted timberframe houses which culminates at Place Sainte Anne. On arrival a carousel was operating, the church lit up, and a series of cafés were serving customers outdoors despite the temperatures already plummeting to minus 1 degrees.

Our delve into Rennes’ nightlife began with a trip to L’atelier de l’artiste, a bar which manages to straddle the difficult balance between its artsier, bohemian intentions and the fact it is located in possibly the best place in the entire city to have a bar, so attracting all that comes with that prominence, positive and negative. While the bar doesn’t get rave write-ups online, we really liked it and returned later in the holiday. An outdoor fish tank, piano by the entrance, and the feel of a place enhanced by its own creations that has become more than the sum of its parts. 6 beers on tap took centre stage – none all that great – but were a hint of the emphasis on beer we would come to find in Brittany.


From the very well known to the obscure, our next stop was Cour des Miracles, a small, far more local feeling place with a younger crowd encompassing the alternative to the cosier end of bougie. Upstairs an eclectic but memorable arrangement of décor included cross stitch erotica in the toilets and local artwork that on arrival hadn’t yet been hung on the wall. After a while the place filled up, and we can say this is a good option for later night drinking or earlier musical hangouts. The small bar was staffed by some no-nonsense but friendly guys and drinks choices were very decent.


After dinner we ventured over the river into the very opposite of timber frame world, concrete blocks and arcades to the craft beer bar Amrok. This craft beer bar and bottleshop was an appropriate 1st spot to test Brittany’s approach to such a style of venue. On entry, a familiar industrial chic approach, but being in a retail unit in an arcade still felt down to earth and friendly, rather than the more angular city places you can find. Communal tables, a games machine and striking Amrok mural set the tone. Their beer selection cannily mixed local Brittanique craft with Belgian classics. It all went well.


It was time for a nightcap, so back to the centre of the action via Rue Saint-Michel. This street is the centre of the most raucous nightlife in Rennes. Happy hour pint offers, takeaways, booming music and absolutely sans f**ks given. We did try our best to find the likeliest decent bar among that row but they all appear different shades of the same thing. The right balance was struck though by Ty Anna Tavern. This Breton bar in a timber frame building manages to work in a shade of the energy of Rue Saint-Michel with its live music and drinking on the lean rather than sat down, but wasn’t anywhere near as tacky (admittedly, we did see a bowl of punch though) In fact, bonus points go to it for stocking Brittany products from the beers to spirits.


Day 2- St. Malo and more Rennes

Less than an hour by train up to the coast, it seemed inexcusable not to visit St. Malo. Not your average bucket and spade town, this former military town is ringed by a fortress wall, and its beach has a huge tidal range meaning at low tide you can walk across causeways to various forts and islands. The interior of the old town has a distinctive and intact ensemble of tall grey/brown buildings and side-streets you can briefly get lost in.


Day-tripping is nice in its own right, but for bar going during the day it can be tricky, with so many venues opening later on. L’Aviso was one such place which will have to wait until another year – we can probably recommend that without needing to personally visit. Over the years we’ve graduated towards spending a night rather than going to and from somewhere in a day, but it wasn’t possible this time.

St. Malo hosts possibly one of the oddest and most striking café bars in Europe, which we must tell you about. It’s official name, Le Café du Coin d’en Bas de la Rue du Bout de la Ville d’en Face du Port – La Java (Maison Samoy-Coulon-Goupil) can be shortened to La Java Café if it pleases you.

A veritable institution, this place exudes charm and character, a reminder of the great lengths and labours of love that make great bars. 3000+ dolls line the walls alongside jaunty carnival ephemera, added to by a mechanical accordion, chain swing seats and a confession box acting as the door to the toilets.


The man of the house, Jean-Jacques Samoy, is a notorious ‘character’ who will not stand for rude photographers or disrespect, but will be no trouble to any civil or polite customers. The wares have plenty of Breton flair too with local beers and twists to popular cold and hot drinks referencing the local agriculture and Celtic customs. While I was there I enjoyed a dark beer Telenn Du brewed with Blé, Brittany black wheat. This was from Lancelot Brewery and superb. A Gruit beer of theirs (brewed with herbs and spices, without hops) was less successful but nonetheless interest.


Truly above the norm, and a must visit when in Brittany. It will feature in our Top 100 for 2023.

On return to Rennes, I visited an attractive looking bar Cité d’Ys which was on the corner from our hotel. This had always looked busy and the clientele gave off a strong indication it would be a friendly and cool place to go. This was where we found our first Breton cask beer, Coreff Ambrée, served from the handpump. As luck would have it, it was also Happy Hour so a pint cost only 4.50 euros (which we can confirm is about as low as you’ll find for a half litre of beer in central Rennes). This was only 1 of several good quality Brittany beers, the emphasis not too subtly accentuated by a large regional flag hanging next to the menu. As for the place, it had a faux-mythology theme with fake ruins , a staircase leading to nowhere and Knights of the Round table insignia upstairs. That makes it sound awful. Trust me, it was really very understated and somehow rather effective, with its warm hues of gold, brown and reds.


The evening was spent in the north end of the centre at La Maison, Origines Micro-Brewery and The Black Bear respectively. The focus of all three was beer, and this meant a deeper dive into Breton brewing and local beer culture.

The former wasn’t a venue my sister enjoyed greatly, though I believe it will have some mileage for beer fans. Despite flash black and gold décor on promotional literature, the venue is quite ‘lived-in’ shall we say? It is definitely a mildly alternative beer monster, craft beer fan hangout with its casual backrooms. Without a stock of customers the atmosphere is somewhat lacking. The beer selection was possibly the widest in Rennes however with over 12 taps and a good proportion offering local wares. I didn’t strike gold with La Ouache, a tripel from La Dilettente but that was simply bad luck.


The next venue was far more interesting overall, a former Hotel Dieu which has been converted on a budget into a vaguely countercultural hangout with a large front yard for spring and summer terrace drinking, games and hangouts, live event space inside and a brewery. Origines’ beers have a Franco-Belgian emphasis but not entirely, and it was enjoyable as well as reasonably priced. The overall space again feels like it comes alive in warmer months, but the central taproom still had a good atmosphere and entirely local crowd.


The last spot, The Black Bear was a friendly spot where the staff and customers were happy engaging us in conversation. The venue itself has some nice aspects such as a bowing timber ceiling and cargo netting, but the furniture and cabinets facing the bar weren’t comfortable or really producing much in the way of overall atmosphere. The beer options were again strong and the evening reinforced what a standout area this in in France for beer above wine and aperitives.


Day 3- Vitré & Cesson-Sévigné in Rennes’ suburbs

Vitré, one of those formerly important medieval towns that suddenly went to sleep, ‘found’ centuries later to be an open air museum. Its impressive chateau and churches speak to its former power and are well worth the 30 minutes train ride there and back from Rennes which goes reasonably regularly. Wandering the cobbled streets past timber-framed houses, finding little nooks and alleyways and pleasing vantage points is the whole point of a visit here. There isn’t anything notable in terms of its bar offerings though. Let’s admire, and move on…


After lunch and a ride back to Rennes we headed out to a peculiar trio of venues, each industrial units in the suburb of Cesson-Sévigné. Brasserie Skumenn, Rennes’ foremost craft beer brewery was unfortunately not open that day, however the other two, Cave à Flo, and Chope et Compagnie were.

Cave à Flo is reachable on the 67 bus which sets off in the centre of Rennes by the river. A simple 15-20 minute journey, the nearest stop is only 3 or 4 minutes walk away. You are dumped in a row of large out of town retail units in something approaching liminal space. The warehouse has exterior signage but it is all unprepossessing. This was worrying, however I reassured myself the images that had drawn me here would be realised on entry. This was, satisfyingly, correct.

This bar has turned a huge, difficult to harness space into a distinctive, personalised venue. Not unlike some US roadside taprooms in layout, but with a dollop of European flavour. Brewing signage and flags decorate the walls and ceiling and large communal tables are set out in rows, drawing you to a taproom at the far end of the room. Rows of beer bottles line the wall with a modest selection of wines and spirits. It is a takeaway bottle shop as well as a bar and pub. Service was friendly and they also had cask beer, Coreff Ambrée again available via handpump. This one was better overall, in excellent shape and really producing a lingering head. Were they to raise the temperature by a couple of degrees, it would have been even better.


Despite the odd location we found a core of regulars, possibly friends of the staff as well as a pizza hatch (which, from the aroma, was clearly in use) which showed this is a known about venue. Reviews on line stretch back years and are overwhelmingly positive. As well as the main room a large terrace and games area shows this is a place that will get seriously busy in summer.

The next stop, Chope et Compagnie was a modern, craft-leaning version of the same thing, with much more generic decor and wider exposure of its warehouse space. They appear to be a chain. It wasn’t all from a template, with some arcade machines and a hang glider fixed to the ceiling catching the eye, and a decent range of beers from the tap. While it wouldn’t be somewhere we’d singularly rush off to, it is only around the corner from Cave a Flo, so it makes sense to visit both.


Later on, being our final night in Rennes we returned to L’atelier de l’artiste and Cite d’Yes, those being the most enjoyable, and attempted to return to Ty Anna Tavern for Breton shots to finish off. Damn! It had closed for a staff party at 7.30. We made do with a final stop at Penny Lane. Despite the name, there was mercifully few signs of tacky ex-pat themes on show. This was set in the vaults under the opera house. Tasteful lighting brought out the brickwork, and a balance of cocktails, beer and whiskies showed that drinks were its strong suit. The venue is a little more ‘see and be seen’ but not so much as to be off-putting. Service was prompt and friendly, and despite being almost sniffy by default about such places, it was genuinely difficult to find much to fault it.


Day 4 – Paris then Home

The trip was marred by both my sister and I having our debit cards munched by two separate ATMs on different days. This left us with only a small handful of cash left on the final for Paris which had to be used judiciously – ie – not as much boozing. With a few hours to kill, I was shown some of the central sights before we headed to a couple of bars, L’imprevu and L’Art Brut.

The former was a colourful friendly spot but unfortunately rather cold, not allowing us to really feel comfortable while there. It is also extremely expensive with the happy hour deals only bringing prices down to barely scraping acceptable.


L’Art Brut was much more like what we had hoped to find. A slight steampunk feel to the exterior, with the interior managing to blend old wood with a sort of rusting patina to good effect alongside macabre/sinister artwork distorting human bodies.


A tiny bar, it was easy to imagine how thronged this must get in an area not exactly studded with such places. It offered a surprisingly decent beer range considering it could easily survive without one, and I had the first ever Belgian Tripel from a pint glass. It soothed the anxiety over whether we’d get home safe with a few euros left in our wallets – glad to report we did, aside some of the usual delays at Kings Cross.

Kings Cross generally gets people recommending The Scottish Stores. While not a bad bar – particularly for its literary history, we’d recommend a 2 minute walk up the road to King Charles I, which is like an Amsterdam brown café has landed in London. At the minute it is still popular for those in the know, perhaps it ought to stay that way. From Kings Cross you can get there in 5 minutes and back, making it super convenient as a time killer, with plenty of real ales available.


Final reflections….

If you can find cheap tickets from the Eurostar, then this is a doable weekend break even as far away as Leeds without needing to fly. Of course, should you decide to fly there are nearby airports to Rennes such as Dinard which will work as a connection. Rennes itself is, without any embellishment nor intent to insult, a middling French city with middling sights. The timber frame architecture is a highlight and will stand out, particularly for the uninitiated, and the central monuments are diverting. Rennes nightlife is pretty buzzing with a clearly marked studenty area, some alternative venues dotted around (several of which we didn’t get to) and a strong beer culture with most places offering not only a good selection of beer but some local beers too (including on cask, which is incredible), which speaks very positively to its lack of any overarching corporate/globalised feel. Many reading will get a lot out of that. Rennes is also nearby many towns of interest such as St. Malo and Vitré above, but also Dinan, Dinard and a host of towns and cities further West in Brittany. The regional influence is about as strong as Cornish, including some attempts at bilingualism on signage. This further creates a distinctive and memorable trip.

Le Pot Au Lait, Liège

9.5/10

Le Pot Au Lait: A surrealist masterpiece and rite of passage.

Address: Rue Soeurs-de-Hasque 9, 4000 Liège, Belgium
Nearest Station: Liège-Carré , 10 mins walk
Opening Hours: 11am-4am Monday-Saturday, 2pm-2am Sunday (Due to Coronavirus restrictions this may change, so check with the bar directly for any latest info)

History
Le Pot au Lait is located on Soeurs de Hasque in the heart of Liege. Number 9 is a magnificent house from the 19th century built over an ancient convent which held, from the end of the 15th century, sisters from another convent from Hasselt, a Flemish city, being often called “Haske” in Liege, “The Sisters from Haske” gave their name to the street. Here is how the bar was founded:

“In 1973 a group of students created a place that until then had never existed in Liège where they could organise films, concerts, debates, theme days, free of any official politics. They found what they were looking for at No 9 Soeurs de Hasque Street and it opened as “Trou Perrette”.

In 1979, it became obvious that a second bar was needed next to the “Trou Perrette”. So we needed a name and after a brain storming session came up with “Pot au Lait” in reference to a fable from a french poet, Jean de La Fontaine (1621-1695) called “The Dairywoman and the Pot of milk”.

In 1981, the Trou Perrette closed its doors for the last time. But now you know why the Pot-au-Lait became the Pot-au-Lait


The Pub

These days, Le Pot Au Lait continues its historic function, being the beating heart of nightlife and social affairs in the city. It would be untrue to say that this is a student venue either, more a youthful rite of passage that stays with you afterwards, one of those rare things, a pub you keep returning to over and over long after the early years.

Set off the main street, you will enter through a narrow courtyard, already spying the decorations festooned left and right. Some people will be hanging out on the terrace. The place gives off good vibes straight away.

Then, enter through to what at first appears to be a greenhouse, with uneven flooring. The ethos is akin to Hundertwasserhaus in Vienna, with a commitment to uneven surfaces, and heterodox approach. To call it distinctive is underselling it. Cartoon gorillas, carnival scenes, macabre taxidermy, graffiti, tall plants and more that would take too long to describe. Le Pot Au Lait is the funfair that got lost one day and decided to lay down roots.

Like some of the best bars in Europe: Szimpla Kert, ‘t Brugse Beertje, Zlatna Ribica, to name but a few, the place has an immediate draw that comes from sensing that everyone is having a great time, the excitement of being in the place to be.

It’s pretty cool too that Le Pot Au Lait is located somewhere like Liége. No, not somewhere fashionable for the nightlife like Brussels or Hamberg or Copenhagen, but this down-at-heel working class city in Wallonia.

Anyway, it’s time for a drink, don’t you think? You’re very well served here with several tap options and a suite of bottles covering a reasonably broad range of Belgium’s better beers. Perhaps they could serve a few more specialist options for the sniffier customers, but there is something here for most beer drinkers. Being popular with a younger crowd, there is also a reasonable selection of alternatives. You’d think this might be one of the more expensive venues too, but some choices appear genuinely cheap, and will certainly come across that way after a few days in the much more expensive end of Belgium.

Once served, plonk yourself among the communal niches surrounding the bar, the atrium (good for people watching), the mezzanine level or any little hidey-hole that suits your needs. Go for a wander around, because this is an art gallery as well as a bar.

Le Pot Au Lait has maintained a commitment to culture and the arts, so while we’d be perfectly happy if they just served drinks, it deserves extra commendation for hosting live events and being a communal meeting spot. Long opening hours mean this is a versatile venue that suits a quiet afternoon hangout or raucous late night drinks, each enjoyable in their own right.

We give bars a 10/10 rating when they are reasons in and of themselves to visit a place, and Le Pot Au Lait certainly justifies that.

The Cambridge Blue, Cambridge

9.1/10

The Cambridge Blue: A neighbourhood pub everyone wishes was in their neighbourhood.

Address: 85-87 Gwydir St, Cambridge, CB1 2LG
Nearest Station: Cambridge, 10 mins walk
Opening Hours: Sun-Thurs Midday-10pm, Fri-Sat – Midday-11pm (Due to Coronavirus restrictions this may change, so check with the bar directly for any latest info)

History

The Cambridge Blue, began life as the Dewdrop Inn, and remained with the name for over a century. All things come to an end, however, so when ownership changed to an ex-rower (always likely to be a big deal around Cambridge) in the 1980s, the pub name changed to those of the University and city colours. The new pub sign was a rather macabre mix of Welsh Dragon and American Eagle, reflecting the nationalities over the Landlords until their departure in 2007. There is more information on its history here, underlining that this pub is a backstreet, locals’ venue, despite close proximity to the train station.

New owners did not dispense with the rebranded pub name, but you will notice on arrival The Cambridge Blue’s signage now has a bold crimson/reddish brown background, creating a typically English contradiction. The little firkin barrel hanging underneath is a reasonably distinctive touch top. The pub boasts out front about being a ‘Real Ale Paradise‘, which immediately put me in mind of ‘Landbierparadies‘, a Nuremberg business dedicated to preserving and exhibiting Franconian beer (which, if you’re interested will make you completely rethink lager as a drink).

The Pub

On entry you will find a large bar, and it must be so in order to house The Cambridge Blue’s strongest suit, a vast offering of real ales, craft cask + keg, real cider + perry, dozens of whiskies, and tall fridges stocked full of Belgian beers, hundreds to choose from as it happens. The pub has won so many awards over the years for this offering that it would be frankly boring to reel them all off, but it leaves a firm impression. Pricing is along the lines of what you can expect in the city, so it is unlikely you will feel ripped off by many choices.

A wooden floor, chunky tables along with some recovered branding and signage from long gone businesses (including some which used to supply the pub with beer) helps bring the dominating bar area down to earth, lending a genteel element that contributes to that vital old nugget: genius locii.

Although there are normally (outside of Covid) a spread of tables around the bar area, including a nice snug set of a few tables around the corner, the main pub room is up to the left of the bar. With its slanted ceilings, fairy lights and yet more recovered pub ephemera, it’s like an oversized tube train carriage that’s crashed into a barn owned by a pub obsessive. In a good way.

Carrying on through, you will find that The Cambridge Blue boasts a large back garden, one that wouldn’t be immediately guessable while stood by the terraces facing directly onto the street front. The extra capacity is vital (even before distancing) given it’s such a popular venue and it backs on to the city cemetery. Without this a pretty small pub would remain.

Food is available, and although that isn’t really our area of interest, suffice to say, they cover a number of bases and dietary requirements.

Spending an evening in the main room as the natural light disappears, the glowing yellow of the lamps and dots of the fairylights takes over, or perhaps holding forth in the beer garden on a summer’s eve as the dusk sets in, you realise you are within – and part of – a quite special place. Other writers (who are very well travelled across the UK) have The Cambridge Blue as one of their Top 10 Pubs in the UK. When you pick the right moment and company here, it is tough to claim otherwise.

The concept of the Free House, (free that is, of the infamous brewery tie), a place free to stock its own choice of products to sell to the public is obviously one that attracts brave, bordering on foolhardy owners to make work. These are usually people with a vision. This far more often leads to better choice, a more distinctive venue and – in this case – the rewards of their labour: the custom of a great mix of locals and those from elsewhere who know that The Cambridge Blue is only a short walk away from the train station.

The pub at its best is all about a space to socialise, space where you know you can have a chat, play games, speak to different kinds of people, make friends, or sit in a cozy corner and ruminate. The Cambridge Blue offers that, so it would be valuable even without the compendium of Belgian beers. The fact it does go the extra mile is simply the cherry (or should that be Kriek?) on top. That is why we are delighted to add it on our guide.

Yorckschlösschen, Berlin

9.2/10

Berlin’s Jazz Bar par excellence…

Address: Yorckstraße 15, 10965 Berlin, Germany
Nearest U-Bahn stop: Mehringdamm
Opening Hours: 6pm-11pm Sun-Tues, 6pm-Midnight Wed-Thu, 6pm-1am Fri-Sat (Due to Coronavirus restrictions this may change, so check with the bar directly for any latest info)

Yorckschlösschen, a name not easily tripping off an English tongue, references a district named after the van Wartenburgs, with ‘Schlösschen’ referring to a castle. However grandiose its name, disregard images of aristocrats and palaces from your mind. Here is situated a pub, and a quite brilliant one at that.

At the entrance you will be met by a huge curved sign above the door in the style of a theatre or ballroom, advertising Jazz and Blues performances. It is a flamboyant welcome that demands attention from any passer by. This is clever use of the corner of the building which juts back beyond 90 degrees in a wedge. For whatever reason, there a lot of good pubs in wedge shaped buildings.

Upon entering you will notice how this determines the layout. To your right, a small stage with a piano, to your left, a chunky table in front of some thick red curtains. This is the prized seat in the house if you are hear to enjoy a performance.

One can’t help notice the large chandelier which adds to its decadent, slightly sleazy bohemian feel. For Yorckschlösschen, above anything else, seeks to transport you to the peak of Berlin’s Jazz scene a hundred years earlier. While regular performances only begun around 30 years ago, you can quite easily believe they had been going on longer. Part of this is that the building has served as a pub under the very same name for 120 years, so there is an authentic and tangible history, which lays the platform for the more recent musical addition. To be fair, 30 years is reasonably good going, all by itself. Every Wednesday, Friday + Saturday from 9pm performances begin, with Thursday added during the winter months.

Moving forward now in the aim of getting a drink, you’ll notice its bar area is slightly occluded by a pillar and the comings and goings of the staff, but offers plenty to look at, indeed, as you swirl around you will be engulfed by historic posters, ephemera, styling and decorations that have come in and out of fashion more often than most of us have had hot dinners. As the band play, the waiter takes your order and you are ensconced at the heart of the pub, you cannot help but declare, silently or otherwise: This is it, this is where I want to be.

But what about the food and drink?!

For those souls who are more focused on Product, I am pleased to report good things about the local Kreuzberger Tag und Nacht beers available on tap alongside a reasonable stock of more common German offerings and a fairly comprehensive array of spirits, mixers and cocktails to choose from. Additionally, you’ll find reliable pub grub served from a small kitchen. Service is pretty efficient and friendly if you are being waited on, though there are a few spiciers characters around if you go nearer the bar.

The backroom is more of a hangout and socialising spot in the pub, where raised voices won’t upset those enjoying the music. This part itself we found cosy, distinctive and worth exploring. You could turn the place into your local very easily, play cards, board games, read a book – as long as you lived somewhere near it. Nowhere in the pub feels unloved, or cavernous. It’s all compact and cosy.

The final, and not insignificant string to its bow is a beer garden which regardless of the situation near a busy road feels nicely calm, verdant and – to a degree – private. It doesn’t feel like you’ve been stuck out far from the pub, you still feel part of its anatomy, which for me is crucial, as so many beer gardens are so anonymous that there is no special reason to comment on them.

This all builds a picture of a fabulous all-rounder, with no obvious weaknesses to report. Sure, everyone could think of one or two tweaks here and there which would add to the quality of the place even further, but on a 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, etc, visit, such considerations will be far from your mind.

We travel far and wide in the hope of discovering pubs and bars like this one that don’t just settle for mediocrity but want to be a piece of living art, a cosy home for locals, an interesting place for visitors and a dazzling contribution to pub culture. Visit as soon as you can.

Scârț, Timișoara

Scârț
Timișoara
9.2/10

In Timișoara, a venue has appeared in the last 5 years which is entirely unlike anything you would expect to find in the West.

Strada Arhitect Laszlo Szekely 1
Timișoara
Romania

In Timișoara, a venue has appeared in the last 5 years which is entirely unlike anything you would expect to find in the West.

While Western Romania is hardly a hotbed of distinctive individual bars setting Europe alight, in a strange way, the cheaper rents, creative freedom and lack of corporate control make it much more likely that such a place may come into existence versus an expensive, tightly corporate trend-following city centre (eg. Leeds).

There is a twisted irony that Timișoara, birthplace of the Romanian revolution against communism would now host as one of its most popular attractions, Scârț, a bar and museum nostalgically smothered in its relics and ephemera and making money from them.

The name itself, “Scârț” translates to ‘Squeak’. Apparently there are extra layers of meaning to that (I haven’t managed to find out just what. Other suggestions seem to think it means Creaky door). Loc Lejer is more direct: ‘A chill place’. It was opened by a group of actors who were looking for a way to sustain themselves and their work.

The bar itself is located in a large old house in a quiet neighbourhood south of the city centre. It is not all that far away on foot, perhaps 15 minutes, also only a hundred metres away from a locally famous restaurant Casa Bunicii.

While the walk to Scârț may feel unsettling, entering the bar, even for the first time, feels almost like going to see an old friend.

Despite a Museum attraction on the premises, you won’t find too many huge signs nearby advertising its location.  However, as long as you stick to the address and follow your nose, you’ll be OK.

Like a lot of cities in the region, backstreet Timișoara during the evenings is dark. I mean really, really dark. With little signage or street lights to guide you, the strongest indicator of the bar is the rumbling of conversation around the back of the building. Enter through the front gate and you will see a number of large artworks fixed to the fence in the driveway. Carry on through and you’ll find a small garden terrace, and a set of steps leading up to the bar itself.

On entering, you will find the bar directly to your right. You will have quickly noticed the place is very nicely decorated, with an array of communist-era nostalgia among one or two new artworks, with a few tables directly opposite the bar top to sit around.

There is a wide choice of drinks – alcohol certainly does not dominate, although there is plenty of that should you wish. The cheapest (though certainly not nicest) beer, Ciuc, will set you back 7 lei, reasonably good value in a city which generally fluctuates between 8-13 lei for a basic half litre bottle. If you are simply looking for tea, that can be served in pints and I read that they make their own elderberry drinks. We also read that you can buy certain old time snacks like Pufuleti, Eugenia and Danut, which is thoughtful.

Once served, you can explore two backrooms, where the décor hits you from all angles, with any number of interesting and varied pieces of communist kitsch to cast your eyes on. The furnishing is eclectic, but thoughtful, with some chunky tables to sit around, some bench seats and some soft furnishings to laze around on.

They have also provided board games, books and musical instruments, great touches from a bar which has dedicated itself to becoming a social hub.

We visited Scârț several times during our visit, at different times of day too, and there always seemed to be people milling about and treating the place as a second home (in a positive way). The garden in particular seems to be an area for convalescence, almost.

Remember we mentioned a museum? Well here is where the experience becomes even more colourful. If you have already been identified as a tourist the staff at the bar will likely invite you to go down and see the museum at a time of your choosing.

You will experience more intense version of what can be found in the bar. The name is “The Communist Consumers’ Museum”, effectively a collection of childhood items, relative luxuries and day-to-day objects which inspire nostalgia for the era set out in the style of a small apartment.

I must admit, its basement location makes it feel more nuclear bunker-like than was probably intended, but they have put a lot of care into arranging the items in a homely way. The exhibition is also interactive to a point. You are free to play with stamps, blackboards, musical instruments, old radios and really get hands on with the items in front of you (providing you show respect, of course!)

At the end point you will find some piggy banks – the museum is free but donations are welcome (and well deserved).

Once you have exhausted yourself in their historical air raid shelter of nik-naks and nostalgia, it’s back up to the bar to take a seat and socialise.

The crowd hanging out at Scârț are down-to-earth. This isn’t a pretentious see-and-be-seen destination. There are no bouncers, no under-dressed teenagers and no one is trying to be someone they aren’t. It’s a place to be yourself, at ease with others.  Which is why we like it – a lot. This is also the recurring reason why thousands of people have rated it so highly on Google and TripAdvisor.

As if this wasn’t enough, the bar also has a theatrical connection, founded by members of the local Auăleu theatre group, who you can find more about during your visit.

Scârț does what nearly all the best bars in Europe achieve: it pits itself at the heart of a community, gives people multiple reasons to visit and exudes an identity that inspires loyalty.

What other bars find so difficult, this one seems to find easy. Where other venues have settled for less, this one has gone expressively explosive. As the website itself states – nothing has been left to chance. (Also, they haven’t removed the bath from the restroom, even more underlining that this really was someone’s house back in the day!)

Their sign-off is bold and confident: “you have got to be new, surprising, magical, young, warm, precise, inviting and everything else that Scârţ proves to be every single time.” We couldn’t agree more.

This mission statement is what all should have in mind when they create a bar. Sadly very few do, but at least we have places like this one to remind us what things could be like, and a website like ours to tell you where they exist! 🙂

Is it really that difficult?

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

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