El Bosc De Les Fades, Barcelona

Passatge de la Banca, 7, 08002 Barcelona, Spain
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks –7/10
  • Style and Decor – 10/10 
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 9/10 
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 7/10
  • Value for Money – 6/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  9/10

Translating to The Forest of the Fairies, this high concept bar is set down an alley entrance to a Wax Museum, and although it is listed as secret (how secret can a bar with over 1000 Google reviews really be?) you’ll find it signposted clearly enough on an arch set off La Rambla.

El Bosc definitely ranks highly for oddness – it is one of those special bars decorated with such care and attention that you can turn your head in any direction and see something new. The main area is quite a sight to behold when you enter in, with tree trunks shooting up and branches crawling along the ceiling to create an enclosed forested feel. Fairy lights make a prominent, predictable appearance, but it’s tastefully done. The central room is largely cleared of furniture to allow more people to congregate. As you’d expect with this décor and this location – it’s a popular spot, both with tourists and locals. No surprise – there’s nowhere else like it after all.

Luckily, there are plenty of other places in the bar to wander to, should you find the going a little bit congested. You will find a small area similar to a snug in a traditional pub (rather unexpected in such a place), a completely different back room with origami beetles in the window, a medieval style rocking bed to sit on, a table held forward by a toy soldier. Then another room, where suddenly the bar turns into a lush upholstered Victorian bedroom with pretty white furniture and billowing curtains – presumably the fairy’s bedroom? Who even knows anymore?! Then, follow through a corridor with huge machine like cogs on the wall and lampshades that look like bats, and a wall covered in backlit butterflies. I wasn’t high or anything, I can assure you. Wherever you turn, something new.

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The beers are the usual limited Spanish arrangement, and aren’t especially cheap (it’s La Rambla, so no surprise). Probably your best option is Voll-Damm, a double pilsner with just enough flavour and just clean-tasting enough to be inoffensive. But hey, at least it’s not Fosters. Voll-Damm services the visit well enough. Grab a bottle and get wandering down.

I visited El Bosc with my partner and we both felt the bar strikes a good tone, not too masculine or too twee, but occasionally fanciful and macabre, likely to appeal to both sexes and anything in between. It’s also pretty cosy if you get the right seat.

If you ever fancied combining a night out with the aesthetics of A Midsummer Night’s Dream this is your chance. No, this place doesn’t quite have have the raw power of an alternative bar, indeed it’s been lavished with money and attention to the extent it moves past a ruin-bar feel and there are some areas that verge on anodyne, but it’s so unusual, outstanding in its distinctiveness, so well-done in its execution, you can hardly walk past it without popping in for a drink and a nosey around. With any luck you’ll get a spot on the swing!

Although we always love obtuse and obscure selections on European Bar Guide, when the mainstream knuckles down and devotes some effort into making something fabulous, it can be well worth your time and attention. El Bosc goes way past the call of duty, pushing beyond the normal boundaries and expectations. When you leave, or perhaps even during your stay you may find yourself reassessing the question – what actually is a bar?

 

 

 

Gorila, Cesky Krumlov

Linecká 46, Plešivec, 381 01 Český Krumlov, Czechia
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks –7/10
  • Style and Decor – 7/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 9/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 6/10
  • Value for Money – 9/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  8/10

When you have a pub with so little online presence it barely registers on Google, the apparent repository of all the world’s knowledge, you already get an indication of the nature of the venue.

Likely a locals drinking hole, likely without such fripperies as wi-fi connections, fresh air, clean toilets, likely with the sort of limited amenities and word-of-mouth presence locally that make having any such online presence pointless. Situate it in a country like Czechia, not exactly fussed about airs and graces, and a clear picture starts to form of a backwater boozer.

Nestled in a side-street of the amazing medieval town Cesky Krumlov, Rock Pub Gorila (to give the full title) , provides the kind of underground pub experience Google probably thought it had eradicated through the many million 4 star reviews gathered of sterile chain pubs. If I and a few friends visited Gorila this weekend coming and reported back I could probably triple the online coverage single-handedly. It feels almost perverse to write about it now, in fact.

If you can wrench your eyes away from the spectacular scenery (especially the river and castle tower ahead) look out for the dinky Gorila sign on black awning with a funky yellow Gorila, and a Kozel emblem next to it. Kozel just about sums the place up, the everyman’s go to drink in Czechia.

I bet you can partly imagine what it’s like before I even get started, but yes, expect smoking (we’ll see whether that’s remained the case since the ban), quality rock music of various eras, basement level prices for beer, and a committed throng of regulars hanging around in cliques, some of whom belong to a slightly friendlier Czech equivalent to the biker fraternity but these guys don’t own the place.

The decoration is modest rather than being outstanding but involves a succession of framed photos of classic rock and memorabilia giving the place a clear, if not exactly original identity. I’m also pleased to report there are actually some comfortable seats, something which will be a blessed relief after the generally not upholstered hardwood bench and chairs in most Czech pubs which must produce quite some discomfort for piles-sufferers out there. It’s scruffy around the edges and dog-eared, which is good because it feels lived-in, a bit like a sixth form common room. I still think that’s a decent thing for a pub.

Gorila has a strong community feel. Even though the centre of Cesky Krumlov is fairly touristy the locals in the surrounding areas descend into the beautiful city centre for some cheap drinking and social time – which by the way extends long into the night – don’t worry about being kicked out early here. Most tourists appear to steer well clear – unsurprising because Czech pubs like this really do not scream ‘come on in’ and it takes a degree of gumption to enter on your own, as I should know, because I did it.

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You’ll certainly encounter some lively characters, be they raucous alternative types or simply drunken buffoons, but the range of patrons gives away that the bar is generally a jovial place.  If you go looking for trouble you’ll probably find it, but if you keep yourself to yourself, or tag along with the youngsters having a laugh and a joke, you’ll have a great time.

It sort of reminded me of a few places I used to visit in my home town growing up – full of all kinds of people, unpretentious and lively, a community of people who didn’t necessarily all like each other but were determined to get out on the piss nevertheless.

Don’t bother even going here if you are intolerant to bad smells or spooked by odd characters. I wouldn’t imagine speaking English would do you too many favours either. Do go if you’re into finding out where the locals are drinking and wanting to sample a bit of their lives – in this case raw and unpretentious, a smidgen edgy but friendly enough.

As is the growing trend, there are more than a couple of beer options on offer here, and you’ll tend to find 2 resident beers with another 2 on rotation. Although Pilsner Urquell, Kozel and Gambrinus are predictable appearances look out for lesser lights like Svijany and Bakalar too – even an unvarnished boozer like this is joining in the fun.

Drinking here remains joyously inexpensive, not pushing much above 28 crowns for a normal beer, and of course that’s why people are here. An honest price for an honest place.

Cesky Krumlov doesn’t have the most obvious pub scene in the centre of town (though there are some spots such as Traveller’s Pub and some hospoda/pivnice type places for food and a beer, which makes Gorila the number 1 choice in town for an old fashion drop in for a pint with your mates, and it does a damn good job of it.

 

Klub Invalida, Kotor

Ulica 1 (istok-zapad), Kotor, Montenegro
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks –7/10
  • Style and Decor – 7/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 9/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 6/10
  • Value for Money – 9/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  8/10

“Come on guys, let’s head down Klub Udruzenja Za Sport I Rekreaciju Invalida Kotor this evening”

In one of Kotor’s tiny charming squares you’ll see a sign in Cyrillic displaying this unwieldy name, a townhouse facing onto the square with a few plain patio seats parked out in front. There’s a typical Niksicko pivo awning but the showy frivolities start and end there.

On the square you’ll also see another modern swanky bar adjacent, called Bokun. That one looks quite Western-friendly and approachable doesn’t it? Please try to ignore that, and head here instead if you are seeking a local down-to-earth experience.

You may already have deciphered from the information above, but Klub Invalida is a very informal hang out, smoke and drink spot for retired sportsmen. It is still a Caffe Bar, in the Dalmatian tradition, just with the generic attempts at modernity removed. Instead, all the great aspects of a good bar: the local character, good value and commitment to unvarnished beer drinking are amplified, perhaps solely due to the absence of effort gone into the place. This is why there are hardly any reviews online and only a few photos available. They don’t care whether you or I know about the place.

Instead of paying 3 euros for a large Niksicko, as is nearly standard elsewhere in town, grab a table out front or in the bar itself and order a bottle of Niksicko for half that price. Old geezers won’t charge you what they don’t want to pay themselves.

It’s very pleasant sitting outside on the square in the sunshine watching Kotor’s many cats skulking about, and doing some people watching. but there’s a slice of local life to be enjoyed by diving indoors during the evening, with a crappy old telly perched at the front of the room displaying the evening’s football, and a grand old trophy cabinet by the door displaying the club members’ various sporting exploits in the 60s and 70s.

This may not sound like everyone’s idea of fun, but the gnarled elderly couple (probably 50 years old but looking worse for it) are friendly in their own gruff Slavic way. Ordering a beer will produce a metronomically identical process. The Master of the house, in his leather jacket and tatty grey sweater ceases whatever he is doing (smoking, usually), rather slowly assembles the bottles on a tray, and opens them in front of you one by one, in each case barking ‘Zvolite’ which appears to be Montenegrin for ‘voila’ or ‘cheers’, or a bit of both. There is a pedestrian kindness that falls somewhere in between Eastern European gruffness and rustic hospitality.

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The crowd inside are how you can imagine Kotor being if you extracted all the tourists. Some elderly folk clinging on to their spot in the old town, some labourers popping in for a morning/lunch/evening/last thing at night drink, the odd official and even the local constabulary made a late arrival to shake a few hands (which certainly raised a few eyebrows from where we were sitting). Don’t expect them to speak much English or have much to do with you personally. They are happy you’re there seemingly; there is an understated appreciation about it all, but this is really their place for which you are a tolerated intruder. As with all these types of places, the busier the place is, the better the atmosphere.

So, the drinks offerings. Niksicko is far from the worst lager in the region, and stands up reasonably for 3-4 pints, unlike some Croatian lager, but pleasingly they have brought out an unfiltered version recently which boosts the flavour, and stands up as a genuinely pleasant lager, albeit one that may become sickly after 5 or 6. The pleasure of paying a little over a pound for one of these (especially if you have arrived up the coast from Dubrovnik, where value goes to die) will boost the experience further. Wine and rakija is sold (the rakija is stored en masse in a big chest freezer) for pennies as well. Generally, finding a fairly specialist offering in such a gruff traditional place was a nice surprise.

There are some amusing eccentricities and oddities. For example, over Easter each table had a saucer containing bright purple-coloured hard-boiled eggs for your enjoyment, that appeared to have been boiled in beetroot juice. There is an element of unabashed and unapologetic naffness about the way they make nearly no effort to market their existence, actively disinterested in trying to compete on that level. I try to avoid using the word as it sounds so patronising, but it’s quaint to find a bar like this in such a popular spot, one that isn’t primarily interested in making money but wants to provide an honest place to hang out.

Kotor experiences frequent and dramatic afternoon thunderstorms, as I witnessed during our stay, but being ‘stuck’ in a pub like this while the square temporarily becomes a lake for two hours is no great shame, indeed it just gives you an excuse to turn around yet again and ask for another ‘beer. There are some nice spots in the centre of Kotor, but this is the only one with a genuine local atmosphere, local prices and authenticity the Caffe Bars of Croatia and Montenegro seem largely incapable of and disinterested in creating. Anyone going out for a beer and a chat in Kotor should be basing their evening around a long stay in here. As with our visit the owner may lose count of how many beers you’ve put away and undercharge you!

 

Café Vlissinghe, Brugge

Blekersstraat 2, 8000 Brugge, Belgium
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks –8/10
  • Style and Decor – 10/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 10/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 8/10
  • Value for Money – 6/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  10/10

Every town deserves at least one historic place in which nothing ever seems to change. Being able to link aspects of our own lives to the past (as futile as that endeavour may seem at times) helps to provide our own existence with a sense of place and purpose, in the knowledge that we have retained and respected at least some things of value along the way, and by frequenting these places we contribute to their survival.

Café Vlissinghe takes this idea and extends it beyond all usual historical parameters, and the news gets better still – it’s a pub! Even in Brugge, a place not short of preserved architecture and institutions, it can reasonably claim to be one of the most evocative links to their past, the business traceable for centuries and thankfully keen to preserve the format for centuries to come. Once you have a good thing you don’t easily let that go.

The earliest record of the pub dates back to 1515, extraordinary in and of itself and it claims to have been running continuously from then until the present. This earns Vlissinghe a place on the list of oldest companies in the world. The look of the place may be redolent of a late Medieval inn, however it appears some of the appearance was lovingly and coherently retrofitted in the mid-1800s (an era steeped in fascination and nostalgia for all things Medieval), with the installation of contemporaneous artworks and paintings and furniture that are consistent with the period. It’s all very brown, black, tarred, burnt caramel and crusty textures. Precisely the sort of thing you want with an old pub.

Vlissinghe is located mercifully outside of the main tourist drag, down a typical Brugge alley: cobbled street, whitewashed walls, ancient brickwork, and a bicycle propped up outside that’s so old you wonder whether it’s become an ornament (until a man in a flat cap emerges from the door, tucks his newspaper under his coat and rides off on it). It must be no more than 50 metres long, but the amble down the lane, with the pub entrance coming closer with your every stride has become somewhat of a ritual for me, just long enough to build a sense of anticipation for what’s to come…

Vlissinghe’s gothic lettering is painted above the entrance, so dive straight in and turn left and head down a long corridor entrance with a series of side rooms. This may lead you to believe it is a large venue, but the pub itself is really just a central room, up a couple of steps at the end. You will note it is appointed with large, sturdy, venerable furniture, cushioned with studded leather upholstery, warped floorboards that creak underfoot, faded oil paintings hung on the wall which you have to swivel to and fro between the sheen of the lighting to properly discern, and an impressive and unusual centrepiece: a cast iron steam heater kicking out warmth into the room, most welcome on those days when the cold is piercing and the wind is rushing down the North Sea through the canals and arteries off Zeebrugge.

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There is a pub dog, for good measure who is unobtrusive and content with its existence, pottering around, sniffing and having naps.

The main room overlooks a garden and terrace area used as a bowling green in the summer and has outhouse toilets, which gives the place a friendly and ad hoc feel. These toilets are modern, which I will concede is the one part of a pub which should keep up with the times (though, rather incongruously, they also ‘have’ an APP!)

The kitchen is in an adjoining building and focuses on winter fuel – soups, toasties, meat and cheese platters, miscellaneous bar snacks, which are all done Belgian-style, reliably homespun, the purpose being to warm you up and soak up the drinking. Service is friendly (occasionally disorganised and a little slow, which comes with the territory) and the prices are par for the course, with a few cheaper options.

Nevertheless, there are other things going on here than a pocket sized ethnographic museum, Café Vlissinghe stocks a local beer, the delicious tripel Fort Lapin brewed in a garage five minutes up the road by a new brewer. As this is part-fermented in the bottle and unfiltered, as you pour in the last part of the bottle you will note the colour change from bright amber to a cloudy, yeasty colour! Even with this beer choice, you get the sense of sentimentality and heritage at wanting to promote a city project, even with the hundreds of other Belgian beers they could have chosen to sell. The total range of beers available is modest (most Belgian cafés feel obliged to offer at least 60 bottles and 8-10 taps these days, which does showcase their extraordinary brewing very well, but is often unnecessary) but it is well chosen, with at least one of each main style, and with local options.

The main appeal of frequenting Vlissinghe is the sheer sense of relaxation. Whether it is 11.30 in the morning or last thing at night, I doubt anything about the feel of the pub changes hugely. Hunker down for an afternoon of supremely enjoyable beer drinking, hearty soups and toast, or head down in the evening and sit amongst the throng, frozen- in-time but warmed through with merriment and the satisfaction of your own quiet contribution to keeping the whole thing going. Cheers!

Papa Joe’s Biersalon, Cologne.

Alter Markt 50-52, 50667 Köln, Germany
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks –8/10
  • Style and Decor – 10/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 10/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 8/10
  • Value for Money – 6/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  9/10

Some forms of pub going occur entirely outside of the confines of English culture, and one of these is to be found in Cologne, where Papa Joe’s Biersalon has become a local favourite.

The traditional of socialising and even group singing alongside strangers is much more common in Germany, and during the height of the evening, the singalongs in Papa Joe’s constitute a proto-form of kareoke, except instead of one person singing, most of the pub joins in.

To make matters weirder, the songs are ‘performed’ hourly by a mechanical marionette by the bar, the range of tunes being a remorseless cast list of traditional German favourites with the typical organ, harpsichord and accordion ensemble. You’ll be gawping at first, through the sheer  eccentricity of a setup that by now locals know like the back of their hand.

Sitting among the crowd, even if you aren’t joining in the singing (there is no obligation to) is to take in a heady experience of local life, a sample of German national expression even, if you want to take it further. The venue itself adds to all of this; is traditional in style but theatrical in shape with raised seating around the perimeter of the ‘pit’ area in front of the bar, and a corner stage to boot. With the bar’s history, it isn’t surprising the place is adorned with jazz instruments hanging from the beams and snippets of musical ephemera plastered to the walls. There’s plenty to look at.

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Drinks are best procured from the bar area as table service can be a little slow at peak times. The local beer Gaffel Kolsch is on tap and delicious, at a standard price for the city centre, and while that ought to do you just fine, there are some decent other options these days too (if you fancy a hefeweizen for example).

The traditional seating and cosy interior is about the only aspect of the experience I can think of that was akin to English pub going. Everything else was rather quaint, quirky and shameless in its kitsch ‘old-time’ quality. Expect to see a huddle of young folk bombastically belting out the standards by the bar, while the middle aged folk sit further back, rocking their heads and crooning along.

If it’s not the mechanical instruments it’s live jazz music, bawdy poetry recitals and all other sorts of 1920s-era throwbacks to keep everyone entertained. Concerts are free and it’s always busy. Unsurprisingly, given its location in the heart of Cologne (you could run there from the front door of the Dom in a minute flat) Papa Joe’s has become an institution, creating an atmosphere you can’t just bottle or duplicate at will.

If you’re a little anxious about forced jollity I can certainly understand a degree of reticence, but you have to be there to understand. Even if you’re still wary, you’ll be pleased to note there is some respite in-between the shows, and you can hang out perfectly as you would elsewhere, just in a lovely and lively pub.

After visiting in 2007 I kept a grainy video on my phone of our time there, and over the next few years, generally spent penniless and occasionally depressed, I would occasionally pop that video on and remind myself of the good times spent in here to cheer me up. That phone and video has now gone, but the memory lives on strongly.

It’s an essential place to drop by in Cologne, particularly as some of the brauhauses can tend to melt into one after a while. Papa Joe’s it offers something utterly different, strange, and yet pitted in the local tradition. Throw down a far jars of Gaffel Kolsch, gawp at the spectacle in front of you, and hey, even join in if you dare. After the festivities head around the corner to a kebab shop for a Turkisch pizza (making care to consume it before the alcohol wears off). Welcome to Cologne! In fact – welcome to Germany! This is the kind of pub you can almost justify a plane ticket for.

Spiż, Wrocław

Spiz

Ratusz 2, 50-106 Wrocław, Poland

The history of the ‘Ratskeller’ in central Europe is rich and fascinating, not least because the concept of the main social meeting place being in the epicentre of the town was the signature of medieval towns. Yet for various reasons this has become lost, even countries famed for such traditions, not least Germany. The cities expanded, the places became victims of their own success? Who knows.

Wroclaw has a great deal of crossover culture with Germany, being known as ‘Breslau’ by their neighbours, and along with that, the drinking culture centred in traditional fashion on the city’s extremely large and impressive Rynek. Today, the Ratskeller ‘Spiz’ delivers to modern Poland such an correct feeling representation of the style, it acts as traditional cultural anchor in the city’s otherwise modern and often alternative-edged social scene. Despite having only existed since 1992, it has basically revived a periodically forgotten historical purpose and in a short space of time picked up quite a bit of character to boot.

Upon entering the Spiz cellar, you will discover a Germanic, Gothic and stately subterranean beer hall with its impressive mash tuns, giant barrels, cloistered ceiling and interesting display cabinets, acting as a mini-museum. You can order these straight from the bar which makes a nice change from having to wait for table service. The bar area is a fairly amusingly disorganised affair with servers handling money slightly grouchily and seemingly not fully comfortable with the concept of direct interaction with the general public. Alternatively you can wait for the waiting staff to make an appearance, and these matronly sorts are not to be messed around with. Apparently carrying heavy beers around all day gives you muscles!

Importantly too, Spiz brews what it sells, and yet freakishly it competes with two other breweries also on the square itself – talk about keeping a tradition alive! All Spiz beers are unfiltered and unpasteurised giving them a hard-to-match freshness, and their whole range from the light lagers, yeast beer and honey mead fall somewhere between okay, good and very good.

They are geared towards either hearty winter drinking or refreshing high volume summer drinking and although you may quibble here and there about not hitting a certain level of finesse, their drinks hit a good mark consistently. None of their beers will come close to breaking the bank, even by Polish standards although with it being central it’s not the cheapest place either.

 

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Conversely, there is a huge seating area outside, including an outside bar which on a sunny day becomes the ultimate drinking spot in the city, as one can recline with a beverage and enjoy the sights and sounds of a buzzing and vibrant Rynek. On my last visit the weather was gloriously sunny and although I’m not hugely taken by terrace drinking usually (as often you may as well be anywhere), it hardly gets any better than this. To your left, glance upward to the clock tower of the Ratusz, then straight ahead a line of magnificently restored and individually painted burgher houses, then to your right the join onto the Maly Rynek, which, through depth of field provides a fleeting illusion that this beauty and artistry stretches throughout the city. If you just keep sat there chugging away at the lovely beer, you can convince yourself it does.

A passion for preserved historical features isn’t just borne of an interest and preference in historical architecture, also a yearning for the atmosphere and simplicity of the time. Sat outside spectating on the various forms of life passing by does on a temporal level transport you to a previous era. The Rynek in Wroclaw is terrific and Spiz has the number one location for enjoying it.

If there wasn’t anything else to do in Wroclaw it would be enjoyable in itself to spend your entire time at Spiz. As can be seen by the various reviews, the positive experiences are well founded. However, Wroclaw is a terrific city as I highlighted here on my sister site Undiscovered Europe.

Yes, it’s entirely obvious as a destination and about as alternative as the use of the letter E in the word sentence. The service may not be all that, and it can be very busy at peak hours. Similarly, the TV screens downstairs in the beer hall garishly advertising info about its horrendous looking disco nights do detract from the experience. It needs to be very very good to overcome these – and it is.

Very few pubs will ever take such a short time to embed themselves in the landscape and cultural of such a big city, and they’ve done, by heavens they’ve done it.

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