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!

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!

 

U Kuděje, Olomouc

back to Czechia

Krapkova 236/20, Nová Ulice, 779 00 Olomouc, Czechia
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks – 10/10
  • Style and Décor – 8/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 10/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 7/10
  • Value for Money – 9/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  10/10

Evenings in Olomouc are a tough time to get seated. Wherever you turn, each hostinec, hospoda, pajzl, minipivovar or  výčep seems to be full. It is no exception when it comes to U Kuděje. Yet, frustrating though that is, there is all justification to persevere as you are searching for a drink in one of the best pubs in the city, if not in the whole country.

At first appearances Hospůdka U Kuděje may seem unremarkable. A Czech pub in a half-step basement of a very Czech city building? – seen plenty of those before. Wooden furniture from the Austria-Hungary era, with traditional ruralist décor? A well-trodden choice, too but the true quality of U Kuděje is the combination of a number of smaller things contributing to a greater whole, known as genius loci, or spirit of a place. Which we will now come to.

U Kuděje is not based slap bang in the centre (it could potentially lose a fraction of its charm if it were) but a short walk west on the fringes between Olomouc’s old town and a residential neighbourhood west of Čechovy sady.

U Kuděje is named after the writer Zdenek Kuděj, the closest and perhaps long-suffering friend of Jaroslav Hašek, who were both part of an anarchist/bohemian literary scene in the early 20th century, so is a fitting tribute to someone who spent huge amounts of time in pubs. You will find theirs and others’ works available to read (in Czech, of course) within the pub. Here is a short explanation of the pub and connection to the writer: http://www.memorialmatejekudeje.cz/?cat=14

Drop down a short set of stairs outside to the basement level and enter, where the bar area greets you immediately, with a list of beers attached above the bar. The place feels warm and bunker-like and you will almost certainly find people sat at stools around the bar, and a cast of regulars sat on tables to your right. To your left is a small lounge area with people deep in conversation and set into the ritual of the place itself.

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The pub has the atmosphere you’d expect from a neighbourhood dive and you’ll quickly notice from the interactions there are folk sat around who know each other well. This in my opinion is the core of the pub’s appeal, the warmth and simplicity of a social scene that people invariably seek out when given the choice.

A busy pub full of locals can be intimidating at first, and if you can’t see anywhere to sit you may be forced to hang at the bar (also awkward if there is no leaning room). Take a full look into the pub and if there is a spare seat ask “je tu volny”, and hopefully someone will yield. If you arrive as a group in the evening without a reservation, then all I can say is: Good luck. Yep, unfortunately Czechia does not do first-come-first served in pubs and will reserve tables for loyal locals at the expense of fly-by-night tourists and turf you out of your seat when the time comes.

U Kuděje’s big thing – atmosphere aside – is a focus on regional Czech beer, which is very good news for any fans of unfiltered and/or unpasteurised lagers (me). Offering 5 or so on tap at any one time, this is a sensible number that helps ensure freshness, and a little rotation for new and recurring brands. The beers are also served on porcelain plates built with recesses to collect spillage – this is very old fashioned but seems to be making a comeback of late.

They may try to suggest that these beers are good for your health but quite frankly, who cares? If it makes you feel better then yes, yeast can in theory help repopulate your stomach with good bacteria. However if you need it repopulating because of an excess of beer the previous night then that rather negates the point, doesn’t it? Prices are reasonable, perhaps on the high side for Olomouc, which isn’t a problem given Olomouc is an extremely affordable city.

The pub snacks at U Kuděje are typical for Czech pubs – expect the usual cheese, ham, pickles but keep a look out for Moravian cheese if that’s your thing, as that’s quite the regional speciality.

Lastly, take a look at the opening hours – few places open later on a Saturday than they do during the week, but U Kuděje is one of them This place is does a short 5 hours service on weekends, and opens at 3 during the week. This makes it doubly difficult to try and get into.

Although U Kuděje may be a tough nut to crack as an outsider, I personally couldn’t think of too many pubs on my travels I’d prefer to make the effort to ingratiate myself in. You’ll find the true atmosphere and camaraderie of a mixed crowd partaking in a time-honoured tradition, rate authenticity, not to mention enjoying some of the freshest, well-kept and well-poured lager available.

Have you been? Any comments or suggestions? We’d love to hear from you. Please get in touch, particularly if any of the above requires amending.

Proletaryat, Poznań

back to Poland

Wrocławska 9, 61-838 Poznań, Poland
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks – 6/10
  • Style and Décor – 9/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 8/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 6/10
  • Value for Money – 9/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  8/10

Soviet-themed bars have quickly become a staple part of the Eastern European bar scene. It must be due to the tonnes of old communist bric-a-brac that has been purloined from flea markets over the years. It’s remarkable how quickly this ephemera has been regurgitated, often in an apolitical way. Now, shorn of the memory of state repression, paranoia and hardship much of the era’s junk has been re-purposed and exhibited, capturing people’s nostalgic fondness for the idealism, optimism as well as the iconography of the era. Ideal for adorning a moody Polish bar such as this one in Poznań.

Proletaryat isn’t exactly lined with volumes of Das Kapital; instead you’ll note a large bust of Lenin staring at you out on the street. Enter to find a display of fairly impressive social realist paintings, disproportionately large portraits of Lenin and Marx, hung in front of rich crimson paint, with emblems and military insignia thrown in. The central bar area also expands further into an interesting looking  terrace-style back room where the cool kids hang out, that seems a little separated from the central premise.

There may be a vague leftist feel to the crowd here (perhaps its just the students) but in the main it does seem to be led by decoration rather than a hotbed of any political grouping.

 

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That said, the decoration is impressive nonetheless, it’s a very stylish place to go for a drink, without being particularly pretentious. The crimson and lamplight works well for a shady atmospheric slow sup, while at night it gets more raucous and one of those truly buzzing city centre bars where the lack of space and abundance of booze creates its own head of steam. This is a great example of decoration that allows a venue to work well in different ways at different times.

The location down one of the main city centre streets means it feels in the middle of the action – which in Poznan is pretty bloody active. You can expect to witness the type of revelry usually preserved for English city centres on an evening. It was quite an eye-opener, but I had previously been warned about it by some Poznanites (Poznanians?) during a separate trip to Wroclaw (another excellent city). The levity  doesn’t emerge from English stag parties or boys-on-tour either – in Poznan it’s mainly locals doing their homespun thing. Wodka i piwo can be a dangerous combo.

Aside of the tongue-in-cheek atmosphere, Proletaryat offers its ‘own’ beer as well (from what I can gathered, this is brewed elsewhere at Browar Czarnków and labelled accordingly), which is cheap even by Polish standards nowadays. The jasne (light) and ciemne (dark) beers are both fresh and well balanced. Not the finest ever brewed but tasty certainly and designed to knock back in volume. Apparently the vodka is served with a pickle here if you are interested in going native.

Any pub crawl around Poznań would be improved by a stop off at Proletaryat, as despite the increasingly familiar concept of the Soviet-themed bar, a good concept doesn’t stop being good just on account of its familiarity. Besides, they do a decent job of and it feels like its own thing rather than a cookie-cutter version or a clone-bar. If you haven’t been to one of these type of places before, then go at least once for the novelty value. If you already have and enjoyed it, then this bar is not to be missed!

Here I am:

pro7

King Grizzly, Florence

back to Italy

Piazza de Cimatori, 5, 50122 Firenze FI, Italy
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks – 9/10
  • Style and Decor – 8/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 8/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 6/10
  • Value for Money – 6/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor – 8/10

There’s a certain appeal to a corner drop-in pub that’s not much except a load of wood. Wooden floor, wooden ceiling,  ledges, barrels, seats, bar front, and so on. In that respect King Grizzly is like the spit n’ sawdust saloon bars of old, just with a hell of a lot of good beer added and a stricter policy on spitting.

Being small and located slap-bang in the centre of Florence doesn’t yet appear to have rendered King Grizzly overcrowded, or over-subscribed.

The comfortable rather than crowded feel  may be something to do with the purposefully growly and unprepossessing fuzzy bear exterior which cuts against its surroundings, the stately middle-aged grandeur central Florence lined with cocktail bars and ice cream parlours. The upturned barrels and snarly logo probably put the Aperol Spritz brigade off spending any time here than strictly necessary, while the exterior building has a certain anonymity that you could walk past  a dozen times before noticing there was a bar there.

Don’t confuse any of that with a criticism – it really isn’t. What this means in reality is that anyone in the vicinity who is after a real pub experience and a good beer can enjoy both of those in comfort without struggling for seating room or access to the bar. It also allows something very central and liable to be swamped with passing trade to maintain its identity.

The personification of King Grizzly seems to be the chap behind the bar, one of those younger bearded sorts where the beard makes him look wise beyond his years. Affable, helpful, and – unlike nearly all Italian bars and restaurants – he will give you a glass of tap water rather than charging you for mineral water. Mr Grizzly can guide you to a beer that you’ll like, which was particularly useful during my visit as my partner was still struggling to get into beer. An Italian double-wit beer and a salty Germanic Gose later, and progress was being made!

Yes, this is a craft beer place, in that most of the offerings are from the ‘craft scene’ as it were, rather than traditional breweries, and are priced accordingly. However, none of the prices should scare off any English tourists who these days are used to spending £5+ upwards on terrible lager elsewhere, and when you put it into context, the prices are perfectly reasonable considering the excellent quality. If you ever needed persuading that Italian beer is getting its act together, you will leave this pub converted.

They are available in piccolo, media and grande size as well (wot, no Gigante?), which is a blessed relief given some English pubs unwillingness to pour strong beer in anything lager than a half-pint. Don’t look angrily at me if you’re asked to pay many euros for a pint of 8% beer though.

The general idea is that all the beers cost the same unless stated otherwise, so there’s a skill to determining which one is best value for that price. Or if you’re not a Scrooge like me you can just pick whatever takes your fancy.

Expect a really wide selection of styles as Grizzly thankfully has time for German and Belgian styles as well as the usual US craft offerings. Being super-critical, putting on a good Czech pale lager wouldn’t hurt. These places often define themselves as anti-lager which is a shame as there are so many wonderful ones. However, other than that, most bases are covered.

Music selection is eclectic without being irritating, and does a decent job of keeping enough people entertained, and despite central Florence being a sleepy place during the evening, (even in the height of summer), Grizzly remains open until 2am.

It’s one of those places where it’s easy to meet and talk to other people to, where you can say you met as strangers and left as friends. I think this has something to do with the half-seating, half-standing format as you are only ever a swivel or glance from becoming part of a conversation. It’s a fun place to hang out and an example of how a good pub and a good beer brings people together without the need for vacuous ‘glamour’.

It’s great that a place like this can be directly in the old town of Florence, a mere stone’s throw from Piazza della Signoria.

Anyone seriously interested in pub going and spending some time in Florence cannot look past this place on a crawl.

Have you been? Agree with the above comments, or perhaps know some things about the place I don’t? Please do let me know! Comment below or go and join the discussion on Facebook!

Azimut, Šibenik

back to Croatia

 Obala palih omladinaca 2, 22000, Šibenik, Croatia
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks – 7/10
  • Style and Decor – 9/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 8/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 9/10
  • Value for Money – 7/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor – 8/10

Going out for a drink on the Dalmatian coast invariably involves choosing from a selection of Caffe Bars, which may have amusingly goofy names such as ‘TURBO’ or in one real life instance ‘KUM’, but in practise provide a nearly identical offering that defines the term Generic. After a few days anyone interested in good beer and good pubgoing will be tearing their hair out in frustration (I’m bald, so have to improvise) trying to find somewhere characterful.

Sibenik’s nightlife offerings are in the main, no different. There’s a beautiful Riva with patio furniture so you can relax by the calm seas and people watch – fine for a while. When it gets colder and darker, venturing inside becomes necessary, and it is then where the particularly poor beer selection, poor music choices and absence of interesting décor or atmosphere starts to grate.

Azimut is Sibenik’s alternative antidote to all that, a club and live music venue of sorts, with offbeat décor inspired by Hungarian ruin/garden bars making the most of its cellar situation nearly underneath the main square. I have recently been informed the basement used to be the town’s well/reservoir for water which explains the high ceilings very well! (Thanks to Azimut’s Facebook group for providing that information)

As with a lot of places on the Croatian coast, it doesn’t really get going until the summer, but even out of season there is a core crowd you’ll find lining the bar chatting and messing around, and a side room which is geared up for live music but also has games involved. The eventual end feel is relaxed, open, fun feeling and the sort of space you want to hang out and could make friends in.

Despite the basement situation there are tall warehouse-style ceilings which makes me wonder what the place used to be used for. However, they’ve done a good job with the décor, with impossibly high shelves, hanging umbrellas, books and bric-a-brac making it feel homely whether it’s busy or quiet, meaning the venue is quite versatile, capable of coping with live music performances and bustling custom in summer or acting as a down to earth neighbourly bar off-peak. Perhaps their slogan ‘Find Your Way’ has this in mind.

Another good thing is Azimut’s opening hours, carrying on until the early hours of the morning, which is long after the rest of the city has gone to bed, meaning there’s no need to feel obliged to shape your evening around arbitrary time constraints.

There’s what counts for an interesting selection of beers around this end of Dalmatia, with some imported bottled English ales making an appearance, however it was short on Croatian craft beer at the time of writing – only Tomislav was available, which is tasty but too strong to spend all evening on. Again, this is a fairly low bar to pass given most places in Croatia serve 3 or 4 awful beers at most. Azimut’s prices are a few kuna more than elsewhere, but given it’s a distinct venue and slap-bang in the centre of town, that’s unsurprising.

Edit (9.7.18) I have recently been advised by the management they now stock Croatian craft beer –  happy days! Until my return the score for drinks provisionally goes up to 7/10.

Given young Croatians enjoy going out in the evening, and Sibenik is starting to attract the attention of Western tourists you would think there would be more than one venue like this, but so far the nightlife remains largely bland obsessed with creating modern aspirational lifestyle bars to create that ‘summer vibe’, but ultimately blend in to one and project mediocrity and cheapness rather than glamour.

Hanging out in Azimut is like breathing fresh air given those otherwise stale options. It’s clear that quite some imagination and bravery obviously went into creating it, and any stay in Sibenik by anyone desiring a beer and a good time in the evening must involve a visit here. As TimeOut point out, every Croatian town should have an Azimut. I’d extend that to every town full stop.

Orzo Bruno, Pisa

back to Italy

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Via delle Case Dipinte, 6/8, 56127 Pisa PI, Italy
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks – 8/10
  • Style and Decor – 8/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 9/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 7/10
  • Value for Money – 7/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor – 8/10

Opinions of Pisa tend to be mixed, which is a shame as the airport provides an excellent conduit for people to explore Tuscany, but often people venture no further than the Piazza Dei Miracoli before moving on. It’s certainly true the Tuscan idyll of cypress trees, rolling hills and gently worn villas is perhaps not best demonstrated in Pisa, but that’s not to say the town is without charm, far from it.

The city centre is certainly one of those places that feels like it gets taken over by young people at night. Yes, you can sigh at the peeling plaster and graffiti in some of the classical piazzas that have become a bit grungy but there is a certain verve and energy Pisa offers in compensation for that. It’s a good night out.

Beer isn’t Italy’s strong suit, however it has belatedly begun a concerted effort to catch up. When you have a little think about why it’s suddenly taking off, it makes sense. The young seek good beer out in Italy for a few different reasons. Wine is seen as the preserve of the middle-aged and middle class, increasingly more of a drink to enjoy with food or a particular occasion or season, whereas beer is more casual.

Of course there are those looking to be a bit hip and different for which beer offers an opportunity to pose and stand out/completely conform among peers. Boiling all that down, the main appeal as I see it, is that quite honestly beer and aperitifs are a better option in a hot country over the course of a long evening. It is still the case that in Italy good beer is a bit of a novelty, but craft beer has been riding the crest of a rising wave for a few years now.

Pisa’s very best exponent of this is Orzo Bruno (a play on words with Orso meaning Bear and Orzo meaning Barley) not just a place with good beer on tap, but a really, really good pub.  In order to find Orzo Bruno you naturally find yourself wandering into the epicentre of the city’s nightlife. It’s a nice walk in, as you can feel the volume and excitement level gradually rise. You’ll find the pub and its unassuming exterior perched down a side-street, yet in the thick of the action.

Inside, it’s an informal affair with pinewood type seating falling somewhere inbetween modern and ramshackle. In the summer heat the windows and thrown open and there are tables and chairs outside. As with all great pubs, everyone looks like they’re having a good time. The best of all, it looks and feels predominantly like somewhere Pisans go themselves, with a ring of authenticity you just can’t fake.

On tap you’ll find local Italian brews for a decent price – their predilections for strong beers and German styles ensures you can purchase some strong, tasty stuff for quite a lot less than you’d expect. Wit beer, red beer, doppio malto, it’s nice to go to the heart of interesting Italian brewing styles and have a genuine isolated and authentic ‘Italian beer experience’ in what is a nice pub.

These are brewed at a co-operative brewery Il Birrificio Artigiano, an excellent idea still common in Germany where provincial beer enthusiasts have occasional use of shared premises of a scale capable of delivering decent volume. These beers are usually unpasteurised and unfiltered, which is fine because they aren’t designed to last, but to be drunk straight away! You may even find oddities such as attempts at cask conditioned bitter served by Angram hand-pumps.

There’s a little something extra on offer too, that a lot of English people won’t be used to. It’s difficult to find complimentary anything with a drink in England these days, yet in Orzo Bruno dig into a veritable platter of snacks laid out on plates in front of the bar to enjoy with you beer from 7pm onwards.

Spain and Italy are insistent that food must in nearly all cases accompany drink, which is not my view, but offers a change of speed. You may want to consider leaving some room after your evening meal to enjoy the range of snacky bites on offer. It’s a quick way of adding on further poundage on top of the calories in your beer, so don’t go over the top!

Orzo Bruno works well whether at day or night, which is typical of places of its kind that stay low key and informal. You could pop in mid-afternoon and read a book with a pint of head here at 11 in the evening with a group. It’s just an all-round good place, reinforced by the enthusiastic patronage of locals. They also do discounts between 7-8.30pm, which is much later (and therefore better) than most happy hours in England.

Wichmann’s Kocsma, Budapest

**NOW PERMANENTLY CLOSED 🙁 **

back to Hungary

 Budapest, Kazinczy u. 55, 1075 Hungary
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks – 6/10
  • Style and Decor – 8/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 8/10 
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 6/10
  • Value for Money – 9/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  8/10

The colour, energy and sheer distinctiveness of ruin bars should be enough to sustain any young visitor to Budapest for several visits. However, this doesn’t mean that the fundamentals of good pubs should be ignored. I broadly agree with the maxim ‘a change is as good as a rest’.

Wichmann’s Pub – an antithesis of a ruin bar – stands on the very same district as the original conception. As with a lot of these kind of places, it’s so inconspicuous that you could be halfway inside before you realised where you were. There’s no point building up something too much where the main qualities are simplicity and value.

It’s worth taking a look online before you go, because many of the pictures of the pub make it look faintly modern, partly due to the shade of the lighting and texture of the wood. When you arrive you’ll realise that it’s rather more traditional and worn with age.

From the street it is fairly inconspicuous, you’ll see only a golden glow of light from the exterior, through patterned tinted glass windows. Quite old-fashioned. Wichmann is one of the last original, authentic Budapest bars from before the fall of the Iron Curtain, before tourism, before capitalism, before AirBnb.

What you’ll discover inside is one of the most no-bullshit pubs in the city. Cast your eyes around its ever-ageing wooden edifice, nice vaulted beams towards the back of the room and a small bar where a venerable and portly man (presumably Wichmann himself) serves you the beer.

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Everything about the beer ordering, serving and presentation (or lack of it) is so many fathoms short of façade and showyness it’s endearing and actually, downright hilarious. However, dig beneath the service and you’ll find many a punter going into raptures about the service and the place in general. According to WeLoveBudapest, if you’re offered a shot of palinka, it is deemed the height of rudeness to decline. There you go – you have been warned!

Wichmann’s pub is owned by a famous Hungarian Olympian Tamás Wichmann, with 3 medals in canoeing, famous enough to supplant the place’s previous name ‘St. Jupat’. Wichmann himself was bequeathed the pub for his achievements instead of a pension, by virtue of how the old system was arranged for retired sportspeople.

As you’d want, demand and expect, a place like this is good value, and one of the few non-generic pubs in the district where the prospect of a good beer for a quid remains  feasible. Here you can choose between a bottle of Pilsner Urquell or a German-style, Budapest-brewed Brandecker on tap for that price – not bad at all.

After service it’s really all about the drink and the chat. The more friends the merrier. It’s one of those places that needs a few groups to drum up a merry atmosphere, that without music and conversation can be absent, but when its are kicking off, it feels like you wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. That cosy glow of wood and old lights makes you feel right at home. It’s also nice to be among a mixed crowd of different generations, rather than the exclusively under-30 crowds of most ruin bars.

You will find a small snack menu, serving only the most basic food so rudimentary as to be impossible to cook badly, all focused towards your desiring of further drinks. Meat sandwiches, schnitzel, along with chilli beans on a Thursday.

The opening hours are pleasingly traditional: 6.15pm onwards, closed all day Sunday, and yet open until 2 in the morning all other nights. A nice illustration of the mass of contradictions going on. It’s a late bar that opens when it wants to.

You’ll find it difficult to wrench yourself away from the ruin pubs but honestly, give this place a go if you fancy a calmer, more authentic Budapest pub experience. Beneath all the glitz and frantic excitement it’s nice to drill down and spend some time among locals grumbling away and propping up the bar. This is a last bastion sticking two fingers up to gentrification, and all the better for it.

Unfortunately – and this is the sad part – it appears time is running out, and the old man is due to retire at the age of 70. Wichmann‘s will remain open this summer 2018 before closing its doors for good. It seems central Pest has no remaining call for a down to earth cheap hangout pub. It’s your last chance to be part of a wonderful tradition, as the district will never be the same again. 1987-2018