A Weekend In Romania – Trip #3 of 2023

Trip #3 of 2023 - A Weekend In Romania

Hastily arranged, a last-minute opportunity arose to spend a weekend away in Cluj-Napoca, a city in Romania 🇷🇴 (<- this link is a plug to our Romania section of the guide) we last visited in 2018. As well as a chance to check in on some old favourites, we decided to include a day and night in Oradea, a city in the North West of the country close to the Hungarian border which we had never previously visited.

Day #1 – The Long Night

Arriving at Cluj-Napoca 2:45am local time from Leeds Bradford Airport, we made the brave, possibly unwise choice to eschew a hotel for the night and instead simply find a bar, stay out and take an early train to Oradea at 5:50am. On arrival at Cluj airport it was quickly apparent Romania had received heavy snowfall the previous week. The snow had stopped but not cleared away. Icy temperatures had set in, a bone-trembling -10 Celsius as we stepped out of Arrivals into the airport car park.


A taxi ride to the centre later, we reviewed our brief list of venues claiming to stay open after 3am on a Friday and made an attempt to visit Submarine, a bar/club hybrid with an interesting theme and decor. Just off the main square, we were relieved to see the city still lively with clutches of groups emerging from bars and nightclubs. However, when we approached the building Submarine was in we found wooden scaffolding and a sign on the door that despite translation remained unhelpfully vague. After a few attempts to pursue the matter we were forced to abandon the idea and headed for a place we knew would be open – La Țevi 🇷🇴.

On our last visit, La Tevi was the epitome of a scuzzy down-n-dirty dive bar popular with all manner of goths and misfits generally consuming large green bottles of cheap lager. It certainly won’t be everybody’s choice of venue, but it does what it does well. If you get in with this crowd they’re as friendly and loyal as you’ll get anywhere else.

This time, on our 2nd visit we found space at the bar next to the fireplace, roaring away. We looked at the options of beer which had expanded considerably to include a wider range of regional lagers with some craft beers. The tap options are still dreadful but if you’re after something that’s not a gassy Euro lager, they have several options in bottles, the best being from Capra Noastră.


We spent a couple of decent hours here knocking around with a selection of people who were far further on than us until it made sense to take the 40 minute walk to the station in the deep cold.

The 5:50AM train to Oradea takes around 2 hours 30 minutes on a grubby hand-me-down from Deutsche Bahn that hasn’t been well looked after. Broken toilet, broken windows, broken heating, and small. Two carriages was barely enough to squeeze in the passengers and it was a truly godawful journey, punctuated two dozen stops at villages in the middle of nowhere, each time releasing all the residual heat we had built up, resetting the carriage temperature to Baltic. Due to the state of the train, even when daylight arrived it wasn’t possible to raise spirits by taking in any of the lovely countryside vistas. But eventually the mind-numbing, sleep-deprived shivering ended – we had arrived!


Day #2 – All Day in Oradea

After all that, the warmth of the station hall in Oradea felt like a big swaddling hug from one’s granny. The cold had set in deeper than surface level though, and it was time to get some liquid central heating. Unfortunately the woman at the kiosk misinterpreted my request for a hot chocolate and I was served some ersatz hybrid of Ovaltine and cheap coffee which lasted about 3 sips before being binned. Not a great start. Christ, was it all going to be worth it?


Oradea enjoys a – let’s be polite – obscure reputation outside this region and enquiries with other well-travelled friends didn’t yield much either. However, cursory research actually piqued my interest. The city to Oradea’s south, Timișoara has a vast inheritance of crumbling Art Nouveau architecture too vast, too intricate and too beyond repair for a city with their budget to begin restoring, making the city centre an atmospheric place, haunted houses and faded glamour. Oradea was similar, except that for one reason or another, some money had come rolling in from the EU and many of its own marvels have been spruced up and fitted in their Sunday best!

Oradea has lots of side streets with low-key diverting and unusual constructions but reaching the main thoroughfare through to its main square and shopping streets suddenly unfurls startling, dramatic, colourful mansions and palaces. To a Westerner this feels all so hidden, and, to be cynical for a minute, so under-exploited as a destination.


We realised pretty quickly on our last visit to Cluj-Napoca that due to a lack of pub culture, bar-going in Romania doesn’t really happen until late afternoon at the very earliest. After breakfast, a trip to Oradea fortress, the apartment check-in and a much needed nap, we visited Columbus CafĂŠ 🇷🇴 at opening time. This pub is located in the Palace of the Black Vulture, arguably Oradea’s emblem – an awesome name too.


Columbus CafĂŠ had a nautical theme with a mast, sail, and ‘deck’ type wood-fittings. Some people may already be shuddering at the prospect of such a theme but it was actually fairly muted and well-executed, easily ignorable. All the wood at least produced a cosy appearance and some natural atmosphere inside, while there was also terrace seating covered with the beautiful arcades in the Palace. The pub served a bottle of beer – Märzen – as it happened which was in effect a house beer, named after the palace. This was passable – in these regions you adjust your expectations accordingly.

After dinner and a strategic time-out, it was time to get involved in the nightlife properly, beginning at Lokal 🇷🇴. This venue is very typical of the alternative scene in Romania, based in a network of rooms in what appears to be an old apartment complex, with covered outdoor seating and a bohemian atmosphere among the faded grandeur. Their drinks offering was pretty decent, far beyond the incredibly limited distribution we found last year in Sibiu. Craft beer has punctured through the macro offerings meaning most bars will have at least one or two atypical choices alongside those plugged by Heineken, SABMiller et al. Lokal was the standout venue in Oradea with a friendly feel, a core audience of post-grads and a firm sense that in late spring and summer it blossoms into its full potential.


Moving on, our next venue was Gekko Pub 🇷🇴, another house/complex turned into a bar and club, with a series of rooms and a courtyard. This is not central, but easily reached about 15 minutes walk from the centre. On entrance we were confronted by some bouncers. After explaining we are English they appear to abandon the normal spot checks and questions and let us in anyway with no frisking or payment (top tip for any locals). The pub itself is on the extreme end of unpretentious, simply a bruised and battered hangout spot for youngsters that resembles a sixth form common room. Loungey sofas, table football, big screen, etc. The drinks options weren’t so great here, but it’s cheap and cheerful and when the warmer months approach, the courtyard will be one of the better spots in the city to go to.


The final venue on our list, CafĂŠ Moszkva 🇷🇴 followed a similar format, a large building repurposed into a bar, live music venue, courtyard, hangout spot and basement club. Resources are also stretched thin so a lot of space receives only the minimal TLC and decoration, giving it an alternative feel. There was no bouncer this time, but we arrives to a throng of people smoking/vaping in the courtyard. On entry you are effectively in a townhouse with a stairwell and corridor leading off to what were previously grand old rooms, but are now fixtures of the bar itself. Moszkva’s audience was somewhere in between Lokal and Gekko’s – young, down-to-earth, one of the first times I have felt conspicuously old, albeit not to feel unwelcome in any way. Pumping music, live gig going on upstairs and a very decent selection of drinks including several craft beers makes this a well-equipped choice for a late hangout in Oradea and finished up as our second favourite in the city.


Day #3 – Return to Cluj-Napoca for an evening of Hungarian folk culture!

We were dreading a repeat of the train that took us to Oradea, so made a personal decision to book first class for the return – for a price that was still not very expensive given the length of journey. Thankfully the train on this occasion was a spacious, length, typically central/Eastern Europe affair, with compartments (which I prefer) giving a private and relaxed journey back to Cluj-Napoca, enjoying lots of sweeping sights of snow-capped hills and meadows in what is still a sparsely populated corner of Europe.


Apartment check-in times are an obstacle any seasoned traveller needs to navigate, making pub choices around agreed check-in times, so on arrival with time to kill we decided to visit Klausen Pubhouse 🇷🇴 for the first time. This pub bears no relation to the rooftop brewpub Klausen Burger 🇷🇴 (which we somehow failed to find this time after having previously visited), as Klausen is the old German name for Cluj, so as commercial property, its use is fair game. Klausen Pubhouse is stodgy in a reassuringly familiar way, its design a portmanteau of pub styles from Irish to Czech: curved ceilings, chunky seats, hues of creams and greens. It was no surprise that the first foreign voices we heard aside ours was in this place. Not wishing to be sneery about that, this sort of pub has a solid reliable appeal and also offered a Romanian brewed IPA on draft that didn’t suck. It also got busier during our visit.


After some food there we made a repeat visit to Insomnia 🇷🇴, a 1st floor apartment bar and cultural centre that made probably the biggest impression on us during our 2018 visit. In between then and now the venue has been given a facelift, moving closer to a kind of aspirational chic that hasn’t done it any major favours, with a redesign of the bar area also spoiling the pub-like feel it used to have where you would sit in a bar room itself. During this visit there was a photoshoot so the sight of preening individuals posing didn’t help either. However, the choice of drinks has improved, the courtyard area has been better exploited and they continue to host off-beat events. As Cluj’s oldest bar (still not that old) there will remain a degree of nostalgic appeal.


After check-in and a rest, we decided to check out two of Cluj-Napoca’s craft beer venues, The Brewhouse 🇷🇴 and Beer Wall CafĂŠ 🇷🇴. The former was only around the corner from our apartment, and is a corner bar on a beautiful little street, the sort that you have to pinch yourself is in a major city centre. The Brewhouse offers a large range of Romanian craft beer supplemented by a connected brewing operation, Blackout Brewing whose wares occupy around half of the taps. The interior is tasteful and well designed, and there is altogether an absence of anything to complain about (aside the prices which are pushing UK levels). The main issue is that there is so little to really grasp on to that’s distinctive, that provides a sense of identity.


Beer Wall CafĂŠ is a 10 minute walk away, through the central square towards the riverside. There is a nice cobbled lane by a stream and a painted barrel by the door guides you to the entrance. Inside you’ll find a more generic craft beer bar appearance – blackboards, raised seating, industrial chic, but it isn’t overly obnoxious or starkly lit, and the drinks selection is, once again, excellent. The ‘beer wall’ does what it says without ever being impressive enough to justify the dramatic sounding name for the place. While it didn’t quite make our guide, we also found there wasn’t much to criticise and really enjoyed the Zimand wheat beer we had (brewed near Arad) that was impressively authentic.


A few doors down is Old School Coffee House 🇷🇴 where we paid our 2nd ever visit. This place defines low key with a bookish café bar vibe, lived-in decor and fitting, friendly service and a couple of craft beer options in addition to the norm. They attract a corresponding audience which stays the right side of pseudy.


After an evening meal we noticed one of our guide entries, Zorki 🇷🇴 wasn’t open, so took a gamble on an interesting venue out of the old town. Heltai FolkCenter 🇷🇴 is not well-reviewed online, however there are some mitigations. Based on its format (probably love or hate) and the inevitable ethnic contrasts, some people have taken a dislike to the place. We are not among those people.

The evening almost didn’t happen. On arrival we entered through a driveway to what appeared to be a venue fully closed for the evening. Lights off, no-one sat in the courtyard, no music or sound of conversations. We tried different rooms – conference centre, offices, and made a last effort to try the door in the far corner – now we were in business.


Heltai Folkcenter is a Hungarian cultural centre whose dealings go well beyond operating its pub – which is a simple traditional kocsma, its bar room a timeless rickety affair with a bookshelf and simple seating. The drinks selection is Hungarian focused – mainstream selections of beers like CsĂ­ki SĂśr and hard liquor like Unicum, but there is a perfunctory selection covering most bases. The prices are cheap and fair in accordance with those offerings.

Initially the place felt like it was winding down, with 4 or 5 groups chatting among themselves, but after half an hour a slow influx of people changed the momentum and suddenly there was the sense we were instead building up to something. This was surprising given their official hours close at 11pm!

As suspected, the music began to play, first with a fiddle, then an accompaniment of double bass, before an impromptu band had developed, with traditional dancing, a room full to bursting and at this point we were sharing a table with some of the locals.

A few beers – then whiskies – later, the blurry, fulfilled merriment and excitement of being at the right place in the right time may have led to some excitable tweets from our account. We stick by the general vibe though – one more occasion where we walked through a scary dark door to find a great pub and have a wonderful time.


Day #4 – More Cluj, then home!

After a day without sleep on arrival and a late night, we caught up on sleep ahead of the final day in Cluj. We walked up to the old citadel hill late morning in bright sunshine, then through to the long city park where skaters were still using the frozen pond to the large modern football stadium at the end, where melting icicles were causing a hazard! Lunch was at Fabrica de Bere 🇷🇴 which has had a change of operation since 2018. Rather than being focused on Cluj’s ubiquitous beer Ursus, local craft beer operation Bârlog run this flash pub restaurant. Unusually they offer 6 of their beers on tap, so we of course ordered a tasting tray of them to accompany our lunch. As a venue the vibe is too restaurant and the decor and atmosphere too embedded in aspirational lounge bar culture to consider including on our guide, but it was a good opportunity to try more local beer.


The walk back to the centre from there is grim, a busy, noisy polluted road with pavements that apparently still haven’t been relaid even after 4 years. At least there wasn’t 10 centimetres of snow to trudge through this time.

One of Cluj’s peculiar themes is steampunk, a design style that many local artists appear to have coalesced around. There’s a fun little museum you can visit in the centre that sets the tone, which can then be augmented by visiting bars like Enigma 🇷🇴, Submarine 🇷🇴 and Joben 🇷🇴 who share this design style. We visited the latter and found it predictably low key and cafĂŠ-like in the early afternoon. The frustrating thing about Joben is that it does have many interesting items to look at, but they are bogged down in otherwise generic furnishings that tilt the place towards being a modern mainstream lounge bar rather than an alternative one. It’s still worth having a nosy visit if you’re at a loose end.


With time running out before our flight, we fit in two 1st times visits, first to Blériot 🇷🇴 which was a studenty, fairly alternative hangout spot that mid-afternoon on a Monday was virtually deserted. It looked to have a bit of potential however and one to bear in mind.


And finally….. Shadow CafĂŠ 🇷🇴 a well-reviewed 1st floor apartment bar (haven’t we heard that a few times already) with classic rock n’ roll stars on the wall, and a decent drinks selection. Again, the setup is designed to segue from sedate cafĂŠ to lively bar seamlessly. While a little more could be done with the decor, it must be said that the place is a strong all-rounder and we’re happy to recommend it.


Final thoughts!

The main development since our previous visit to Cluj-Napoca is the emergence of craft beer bars which widens the diversity and provides a challenge to the existing venues, one which they have adjusted to by nearly all including in their offering, which is a big positive. Finding the FolkCentre and being there at exactly the right moment is a stroke of good fortune – be careful to ensure your visit there coincides otherwise you might find your experience significantly differs.

Oradea was a welcome highlight with a beautiful, quirky and distinctive centre and just enough going on from its tower climb, citadel + museum, Orthodox church and funky architecture to fully justify a day and night there. Although the trains are rickety, reaching Oradea in terms of time is perfectly possible from Cluj, but we’d recommend not trying to cram in a visit and return to Cluj on the same day.

Romania’s bar scene is still far too geared around a small section of society – you won’t see almost anyone aged over 40 in most of these bars, while the action itself gets underway reasonably late. Prior to then, sleeping cafĂŠs and stodgy pubs don’t exactly inspire. However, focusing on the positives, the nightlife is lively, very unpretentious, good value and increasingly satisfying in terms of its drink offering.

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-CarrÊ , 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 LiĂŠge. 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.

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 dĂŠcor 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 ScârĹŁ 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?

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

Au Delft, Liège

There is a certain delight in finding a diamond in the rough, not least when it’s a brown cafĂŠ. 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, CafÊ Lequet and Le Pot Au Lait are, for their own differing reasons, LiÊgeois 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 dĂŠcor (appearing to span from the early ’50s to ’70s to my eye), with features and fittings that regularly appear in brown cafĂŠs, one of my absolute favourite styles of bar. Their name itself references a medieval town in Western Netherlands, a heartland of the brown cafĂŠ 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.

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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.

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Au Delft has a nice convivial atmosphere whether quiet or busy, partly down to the carefully preserved dĂŠcor 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 drinks – 8/10

Style and Decor – 8/10

Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 8/10

Amenities, Events & Community – 7/10

Value for Money – 8/10

The Pub-Going Factor – 8/10

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

…back to Belgium

 

 

 

Domkeller, Aachen

back to Germany

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Bar Marsella, Barcelona

Carrer de Sant Pau, 65, 08001 Barcelona, Spain

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

Being a cult venue, Marsella isn’t exactly a secret. Any basic search will reveal lurid tales from this bar’s often sordid 200-year history, but just because Barça residents know all about it doesn’t make the experience passĂŠ 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. DĂŠcor 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 dĂŠcor to my eyes. All the same, it breaks up the long, long walk between the train station and the old town quite nicely.

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

Het Galgenhuis, Ghent

back to Belgium

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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 dĂŠcor, 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!