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 đŸ‡·đŸ‡Ž (<- 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 đŸ‡·đŸ‡Ž.

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 CafĂ© đŸ‡·đŸ‡Ž at opening time. This pub is located in the Palace of the Black Vulture, arguably Oradea’s emblem – an awesome name too.


Columbus CafĂ© 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 – MĂ€rzen – 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 đŸ‡·đŸ‡Ž. 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 đŸ‡·đŸ‡Ž, 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, CafĂ© Moszkva đŸ‡·đŸ‡Ž 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 đŸ‡·đŸ‡Ž for the first time. This pub bears no relation to the rooftop brewpub Klausen Burger đŸ‡·đŸ‡Ž (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 đŸ‡·đŸ‡Ž, 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 đŸ‡·đŸ‡Ž and Beer Wall CafĂ© đŸ‡·đŸ‡Ž. 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 CafĂ© 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 đŸ‡·đŸ‡Ž where we paid our 2nd ever visit. This place defines low key with a bookish cafĂ© 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 đŸ‡·đŸ‡Ž wasn’t open, so took a gamble on an interesting venue out of the old town. Heltai FolkCenter đŸ‡·đŸ‡Ž 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 Sör 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 đŸ‡·đŸ‡Ž which has had a change of operation since 2018. Rather than being focused on Cluj’s ubiquitous beer Ursus, local craft beer operation BĂąrlog 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 đŸ‡·đŸ‡Ž, Submarine đŸ‡·đŸ‡Ž and Joben đŸ‡·đŸ‡Ž who share this design style. We visited the latter and found it predictably low key and cafĂ©-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 BlĂ©riot đŸ‡·đŸ‡Ž 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 CafĂ© đŸ‡·đŸ‡Ž 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 cafĂ© 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 cafĂ©s 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, LiĂšge

9.5/10

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

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

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

“In 1973 a group of students created a place that until then had never existed in LiĂšge 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 LiĂ©ge. 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.

Chata Pod Rysmi, Mt. Rysy

Chata Pod Rysmi




When is a pub not a pub?

…back to Slovakia

“Address”: Rysy Vrch Ć trbskĂ© Pleso Ć trbskĂ© Pleso, 059 85, Slovakia

Quality + Choice of Drinks: 6/10

Style + DĂ©cor: 8/10

Character + Atmosphere: 10/10

Amenities: 7/10

Value For Money: 8/10

When is a pub not a pub? When there’s no electricity or plumbing? When you can’t get there without clambering up chains and ladders? You’d think so, but you’d be wrong.

Chata Pod Rysmi stretches the whole concept to breaking point, yet its offerings resemble an Inn so near as damn it, that who would quibble? It bloody well is one.

2250 metres above sea level, inaccessible by car and 2 hour’s hard climb up from the fringe of civilisation at Popradske Pleso, Chata Pod Rysmi is the highest mountain refuge in Europe. Through sheer commitment, sacrifice and bloody-mindedness, a hut which most people would expect to offer – at most-  a basic place to escape bad weather, provides cooked meals, beds and beer on tap.

Open from 15th June until 31st October (due to being impassable at other times of year), the hut primarily provides a safe haven – and, if necessary – lodgings to those wishing to climb and pass the summit of Rysy, the peak of the High Tatras and border between Slovakia and Poland.

The idea to build a mountain hut came up at the end of the 19th century, but it was only in 1933 that the first Chata Pod Rysmi was realised. Lasting an impressive 20 years before sustaining severe avalanche damage in the mid-1950s, it was rebuilt and then extended in 1977. In modern times, a further avalanche in 2000 virtually destroyed the hut. Since 2013, following a lot of unnecessarily wrangling the venue has been fully reconstructed with a new design. Read more here:

http://www.mountainhuts.info/rysy

The fixtures are impressive and solidly built – and they have to be. The weather at this altitude is unpredictable and at times severe; it is situated at a point where humans are not designed to be.

Arriving via Slovakia: The walk from Popradske Pleso to Chata Pod Rysmi is beautiful and dramatic, with pine forests and mountain waterfalls giving way to jagged granite peaks, via an otherworldly tarn, before a short series of chains and ladders gains you access to the final climb, a rocky hard slog to the hut.

Weather permitting, it is up to you whether you want to scale the summit on arrival or sleep over and save that for the morning.

Arriving via Poland: A very steep slog from the easily accessed lake Morskie Oko, albeit up a well marked and well travelled route up sets of chains and ladders. Pack cautiously, move cautiously and attempt this in clear summer weather.

By all accounts, the interior of the new Chata Pod Rysmi has preserved the original atmosphere. Upon arrival you will note a few jokes, such as the ‘bus stop’ located outside, and inside some nooses handily labelled “2 places for vegetarians”. Hilarious
 depending on your sense of humour.

The hut’s tenant Viktor Beránek has been taking care of the hut for 36 years and is a living legend. Not only for the length but nature of the commitment he has made – in his prime carrying 100kg of stores up to the hut on his back. Yes, this is not a hut that benefits from airdrops: all the day-to-day supplies are provided by porters, sherpas if you like. Each day they supply on average 60kg worth of supplies. On your hike you may see drop off points, where the porters have left gas canisters midway up for their colleagues nearer the top to collect.

You can imagine, given the variable weather and tough terrain that this is requires an almost missionary level commitment. While your first beer (on our arrival it was Litovel Maestro) arrives, trust me when I say it slips down with as much guilt as pleasure when thinking about the poor sods lugging the kegs up the mountain! But after a while you have to get used to it, you have paid for it after all.

If you feel too guilty to partake, then make contact with the Poprad Lake Mountain Hotel who will be delighted to offer you a range of packages to take to the hut (weighing you down further on your ascent) which you can exchange for a free tea or soup at the hut by way of thanks. This way you can personally experience a fraction of the sacrifices they make every year.

They also have contracted their own label beer, courtesy of Pivovar Nymburk in Czechia, which you can buy in cans at the hut itself, testament to its iconic status in the region.

The food here is simple – warming and hot – and definitely Slovakian. Cabbage, dumplings, soup, goulash. Prices are as fair as you can expect given the supplies have been delivered on foot up a mountain. When you are up here, nearly everything they offer feels somewhat of a charity, even when you are paying for it.

Once you are fed and watered, there may be an occasion where nature calls, and here, the fun really starts. Clamber 150 metres along a rocky slope to visit Chata Pod Rysmi’s ‘Panorama Toilet’!

This outhouse boasts a full perspex window on the valley below, as you are seated on the throne. Anyone feeling constipated will soon find their digestive passage easing. During the night, this trip can be annoying as it is outright dangerous in bad weather to be visiting the toilet, and yet they are fairly strict about ensuring the gentlemen staying over don’t simply relieve themselves nearby. There are rodents around, you see


The experience of visiting a clifftop outhouse at 2 am with a weather system drawing in up the valley is certainly ‘one to tell the grandkids’.

So, onto the “pub itself”, you will note the communal area looks to all intents and purposes like a Slovakian pub. Communal wooden tables, rustic and simple decoration, and a bar area. Whether you’re drinking spirits or beer, you take your seats in the same way you would a pub, drink in the same way you would a pub, and chat in the same way you would a pub. It’s a pub. A pub with an enormous green ceramic heater, for good measure.

As the light fades, the staff bring out oil lamps, where the atmosphere increases even further. Lit by lamp and the occasional glint of moonlight, sit and enjoy your warm food and your beer in good company, a one off unique experience yet one that feels like a familiar throwback to simpler times, especially as there is no music unless someone picks up the guitar or sits at the piano which has also, extraordinarily made its way up here. There is no electricity (for the guests at least), no wifi, no phone signal.


If you get up in the middle of the night to answer the call of nature (requiring, for safety and good health that you get fully clothed and booted each time) you can see the staff jovially drinking and chatting among themselves in their breakout area, something which reminded me that after all, pubs are about socialising and human contact. With the usual trappings of modernity out of action it puts you in touch with the simple pleasures – with a side helping of bracing outdoor toilet usage for good measure.

All the same, without internet for 12 hours, I was gagging to find out the cricket score in the Ashes when we got off that mountain….

You can’t find somewhere like this place just anywhere, it goes down as not only one of my best pub experiences but best life experiences.

Au Delft, LiĂšge

There is a certain delight in finding a diamond in the rough, not least when it’s a brown cafĂ©. LiĂšge’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 LiĂšge) 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. LiĂšge proves this quite adequately, as a cursory search will reveal, you can barely turn a corner in the centre without bumping into some bar or other, while certain streets have a local notoriety.

Some bars, such as Taverne St. Paul, Café Lequet and Le Pot Au Lait are, for their own differing reasons, Liégeois institutions, the bright lights that draw everyone in (those with good taste, anyway). However, today we are going to focus on a more understated city centre venue, Au Delft.

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Au Delft is a corner bar situated in an art deco influenced grey-brown brick city building with a quarter-circle frontage and circular windows running down each storey. The structure is non-committal and the materials used are unattractive in colour, so the impression lands in an uncanny valley between noticeably funky and downright ugly.

It doesn’t seem as though this would contain anything preserved except perhaps the embryonic ego of a reckless architect, but one look at the Jupiler signage, and the ground floor bar indicates that something interesting may be inside – or at the absolute very least, somewhere to buy a beer.

Step inside under a large dark green awning to discover a well-preserved bar blending stylish dĂ©cor (appearing to span from the early ’50s to ’70s to my eye), with features and fittings that regularly appear in brown cafĂ©s, one of my absolute favourite styles of bar. Their name itself references a medieval town in Western Netherlands, a heartland of the brown cafĂ© 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 décor and sense of refuge. It is both an excellent place for quiet contemplation or jovial conversation.

I was on limited time and so could only stay for a couple of beers, but I could have easily remained in Au Delft all evening. The impossible prospect of turning a place into my local, to get to know the other staff and become part of the fixtures of the bar are often one of the melancholy aspects of travelling. Often I am happy just to have found the venue and spent a night there, but Au Delft is one of those places I suspect you can only truly ‘find’ when you have visited for many years.

While Au Delft may not be the first name on everyone’s lips when it comes to nightlife in Liùge, 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 LiĂšge, 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 café.

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

 

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. DĂ©cor 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 dĂ©cor to my eyes. All the same, it breaks up the long, long walk between the train station and the old town quite nicely.

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

Insomnia, Cluj-Napoca

back to Romania

Strada Universității 2, Cluj-Napoca 400091, Romania
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks –6/10
  • Style and Decor – 8/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 9/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 7/10
  • Value for Money – 7/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  8/10

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

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

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

Insomnia is very much geared towards a younger crowd – if not young then young at heart – with bright, psychedelic dĂ©cor, 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 dĂ©cor 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!

Keimling, FĂŒrth

back to Germany

Obere Fischerstraße 5, 90762 FĂŒrth, Germany
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks –8/10
  • Style and Decor – 9/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 10/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 7/10
  • Value for Money – 7/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  9/10

In clarty weather there’s nothing more enjoyable than diving into a warm cozy pub. Franconia is no stranger to such climatic conditions and the pub offerings are generally designed with that in mind.

It is January after all, so when we emerged from the U-Bahn station at Rathaus (from our weekend stay in Nuremberg) we were faced with a deluge arriving from above. FĂŒrth old town is a pretty one, with a classic Bavarian/Franconian appearance, clock tower, steep tiled roofs and timber-houses, enough for an hour or two pleasant wandering, but it took us only ten minutes stroll around getting soaked through before resolving that we needed to get to a pub – and quick.

After researching in advance I had one pub in mind as an outstanding potential venue – Keimling.

It’s a short walk from the stop and a pleasant one, along one of the main streets and then down a steep lane. A charming and enticing little lane spurs up to your left but carry on down until you see a small beer garden – you have arrived.

Keimling (translated as Seedling) is so named after a seed-trade facility which formerly existed on the premises. Evidence of this remains apparent as you walk in, with the drawers and cupboards re-purposed into the new pub structure, most notably to the left of the bar as a corner-bar top. The bar’s logo and mascot is a seedling emerging from a wooden house, which can be seen in wood carving in the corner to the left of the bar.

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I really like the use of space in Keimling. You’ll enter to find a small bar directly facing the entrance and inviting partitioned benches to your right. The alley leading to the toilets also manages to find space for a dartboard (N.B – careful not to leave the gents toilet without checking if a dart is headed towards your face!) There is a small standing area to the left of the bar with ledges and corner area with stools, which has been constructed from the cupboards and drawers I mentioned above.

Carrying on past behind the bar leads you to a subterranean cellar ‘snug’, a very characterful little quirk of the pub which I can imagine being handy for gambling and plotting – among other things. The rest of the pub space is a large, more communal back-room area akin to a quaint pub restaurant, with windows looking out over the street.

The style is rustic, a quintessential traditional pub of a kind you’d hope to see everywhere in Northern Europe, especially on a rainy day. Apparently the owner Wenzel has not altered this appearance since the 1980s; hopefully it will remain intact for another 40 years to come.

The rock soundtrack is a clever touch as it brings in a younger crowd and prevents the risk of the pub becoming too genteel and middle-aged. Staff also vary between young and middle aged so there is a nice communal mix, and it feels like the community are coming together, in that great way a pub should do. The music is also a throwback to the pubs long-standing connection with live acts.

It’s a typically Germanic thing to combine the quaint with the visceral – in this case the almost twee decoration that you’d expect to find in your Grandma’s living room with hard rock music.

Adding further to an impressive list of positives is the selection of beer. Not only do they offer the Franconian speciality Rotbier (red beer) on tap, but they offer their own label beer, Keimling Dunkel, a rich, thick and dark beer that was at once flavourful as it was easy to drink. You’ll note a host of other local ales, which are about quality over quantity.

Don’t sweat about the prices either. As with most places in Franconia a half-litre of beer rarely exceeds 3 euros 5 cents, considerably lower than in the West.

Service is assured and courteous, and despite being English auslĂ€nders they were kind to us – it’s a friendly place.

Keimling also offers food, a handy thing for any pub, though I cannot comment on that so much as my real interest is in the pub and the experience.

The optimum time to arrive in my opinion is between 7pm-9pm where you can watch the pub transform from sleepy (albeit with a rock soundtrack) to a bustling neighbourhood venue, with every bit of seating space occupied.

It’s always a great sign of a pub when it makes you feel like you wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

If there was any room for improvement I would suggest keeping the volume of music down in quieter times. Many pubs believe loud music compensates when it is quiet, but I believe the opposite, it simply emphasises the absence of people while making it more difficult to speak. This is not a big problem with Keimling, but a little recommendation nonetheless.

Fortunately Keimling is very easy to reach, even if you are staying in Nuremberg, because the U-Bahn links to FĂŒrth in a simple 10 minute journey, and Keimling is only 5 minutes up the road from there. There are pubs in the city I live in, sitting at work right now, that would take me longer to get to.

For my money it’s worth doing. Perhaps only WeissbierHex in Nuremberg old-town directly competes to a similar standard, so I’d say Keimling is the best pub in the Nuremberg/FĂŒrth area.

As their website states, quoting Terry Pratchett:

If you don’t turn your life into a story, you just become a part of someone else’s story.

Now there’s a romantic philosophy to justify pubgoing, if ever there was one.

Have you visited Keimling? Any comments or suggestions? We’d love to hear from you!

U Zlatého Tygra, Prague

back to Czechia

Husova 228/17, StarĂ© Město, 110 00 Praha 1, Czechia

Nearest Square: StaroměstskĂ© nĂĄměstĂ­

Nearest Metro Stop: Staroměstská

Hours: 15:00 – 23:00, Monday-Sunday

Reservations: +420 222 221 111

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

Anyone with a mild interest in the European bar scene or the city of Prague will no doubt have heard of U ZlatĂ©ho Tygra (At The Golden Tiger), the historic Czech pub and city institution based slap-bang in the tourist hub of Prague’s old town.

Reading about the pub’s stories, its literary connections and seeing the photos of Bill Clinton and his ilk tucking into schnitzel and beer sat among locals may generate a degree of excitement alone, but I will be up front with you about the good – and not so good – aspects of U ZlatĂ©ho Tygra.

 Let’s begin with the good stuff first, of which there is plenty!

The pub signage with its bas-relief tiger and gold lettering is striking and one of Prague’s true icons. The sign indicates not only the business but also the historical identity of the building, which pre-dates its current use. The interior has hosted various previous operations such as a patriotic cafĂ© and reading room before the second world war, and undergone rebrands such as U černĂ©ho tygra (The Black Tiger), U kopáčƯ (The Dice), and U KraftĆŻ (The Craft) in the past. Its literary leanings continued through the 20th Century, not least due to the patronage of writer Bohumil Hrabal, (now made permanent life President) who had a favourite area of the pub in which he would hold forth on the topics of the day, and just as often sit there quietly absorbing the atmosphere and consumed in his own thoughts. Hrabal passed away shortly before the turn of the century, but the pub keeps his memory alive in the best way possible, with tributes that are lovingly well-pitched but don’t turn the place into a shrine.

The entrance is based down an alleyway rather than on the street-front which I generally quite like as this increases a sense of cosiness and clandestine activity, vital for building the atmosphere in traditional venues like this. Heading inside, the design and layout is an archetypal Czech pub with communal tables, bench-seats installed along the walls, wooden panels, cream (going on yellow) walls and those curved arches so typical of the pivnice style. The stained glass windows (with tiger insignia) allow light in but effectively block out activity from the busy street, creating that cocoon-like feel that most of the best Czech pubs offer.

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Look around and note many framed photographs which present the three key themes of the pub – tigers (of course), famous patrons from sport, art and politics and, as could be predicted: Pilsner Urquell. This lager, while brewed by PlzeƈskĂœ Prazdroj in Pilsen, not in Prague, is nevertheless synonymous with Prague and  Czechia due to its ubiquity. The Golden Tiger was only the second pub in the city of Prague to secure a contract to service it so there is a long-standing connection not likely to be severed or altered any time soon.

When you consider the old town mean average price for a half-litre of Pilsner Urquell, the prices here are fair-to-middling given the central location, and the first pint of it arrives without your say so (as does a second and a third unless you make a point of putting the mat over your drink). Beware, if you turn up thirsty you could easily find yourself processing several glasses in short order. This is one of those pubs where it’s virtually impossible to leave without at least two.

A slight quirk is an insistence on using 0.45l glasses meaning they gain 10% on each beer. Annoying and cynical, but not worth fussing over too much.

The place sells very little else to drink (see their menu here), and even has a policy of not serving spirits! Highly unusual as nearly every other pub in the country will offer you at least Slivovitz, Becherovka or Fernet Stock.

U Zlateho Tygra was for decades and up until the war a bit of an all-boy’s club, refusing women service and directing them to find the nearest cinema while the menfolk held forth in the pub. However, this culture was broken in fittingly macho fashion by a woman called Lady Helenka, as the tale goes:

“She came here with her fiance Vaclav Prymek, who was an officer and an army pilot. When Lady Helenka was stopped at the door, she promised to keep track. And when the waiter counted the lines on the bill, there were 44 of them. Lady Helenka managed 22 beers that evening, as did her future husband. The waiter laid a white napkin in front of Helenka on the floor, kneeled down and said: Madam, this seat by the counter will always be yours, even if the Egyptian king Faruk comes in.”

22 pints? Sounds crazy but you wouldn’t rule it out.

Now some bad stuff. A famous pub is, as you’d expect, a popular one, with the problem that it cannot accommodate locals and tourists at the same time without losing its appeal pretty quickly. Therefore they have struck some form of compromise.

You may or may not be aware that Czech pubs permit reservations even for the right to perch on a bar stool. This system, so unlike the first-come-first served approach in English pubs can result in disappointment. At U Zlatého Tygra you may as well forget even trying to turn up in the evening unless you have reserved your spot well in advance, though it may be worth enlisting a Czech friend to help secure that.

In the evenings, as there are reservations it feels almost like a private member’s club where you need to stay all evening to get full value for the exclusivity.

Here comes the compromise: there is a way in but it relies on your being prepared to begin drinking mid-afternoon, not always everyone’s favourite starting point. Turn up at 2.50pm, 10 minutes before opening time, join the queue (which at this point may be snaking around the front of the building), and if you’re in the front 30 or so you should be assured of a seat unless you’re in a large group. If you see people pushing in at the front then choose whatever retribution you see fit.

This may not be a concern of yours, but I feel a certain duty, given that I am waxing lyrical about the place, to point out that U ZlatĂ©ho Tygra is not a museum, and the enduring appeal is because it is not spectacular but authentic and traditional. Even though there is some nice stained glass and a sturdy preserved atmosphere, it’s hardly La Sagrada Familia. Therefore, treat it as the pub it is meant to be – eat, drink and be merry. If you show the staff the respect you would show a host who invited you in, you will not be badly treated.

Inevitably, the authenticity can be occasionally vandalised by some tourists who believe it to be a fairground ride instead of a pub. Their behaviour is offset in amusingly curt fashion by the servers who adopt an uncompromisingly stony-faced approach to anyone who isn’t their mates and anything they regard as bullshit (quite a long list).

This is – depending on your point of view – chauvinistic, deeply cynical in order to maintain their asset, or their absolute right as publicans.

While this can be intimidating, consider it a pushback against the place being overrun with tourists and gentrified, as it surely would be without a little resistance.

While it is easy to have a pop at tourists, in one sense their custom helps keep the philosophy of the place alive –  people from all walks of life sitting around together and enjoying themselves. The pub website explains further through this anecdote:

“There is the story, in which the pre-war French Prime Minister Herriot visited U ZlatĂ©ho Tygra. He was accompanied by the section chief of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a permanent guest U ZlatĂ©ho Tygra. They bought pork neck with bread and mustard and fitted incognito in the beer hall . While Herriot was drinking, showed to the opposite side and said : “There is sitting the chair of the Chamber of the Deputies of the Parliament Malypetr, but the gentleman sitting next to him I do not know . ” – The section chief said: ” There is sitting a master of painting from MelantriĆĄka. ” Herriot greeted again and then whispered : “But there is sitting the president of the Administrative Court , but the gentleman next to him I do not know. ” Also the guide did not know. Then their neighbour to the right said:” This is a manufacturer of funeral lamps from Karlovka. ” – Surprised Herriot turned to that neighbour and asked : ” And who are you ? “That gentleman raised up his glass and answered” I am a caretaker from Skoƙepka, please . ” – Then the Prime Minister declared : ” Gentlemen, fault! Democracy is not in France but here ! “

Once the crowds are seated, and after their first beers have been extinguished the atmosphere inside quickly gets going. Among them, comfortable and surrounded by the excitable friendly crowd, with dishes of hot food emerging from the kitchen, it really feels like the place to be.

Whilst seated you will note a stout tapster working flat out to replenish glasses, pausing the flow only to greet and converse with the stamgasty whose presence ensures this most Czech of pubs stays that way.

Due to the tourist trade it’s not somewhere I would choose to go every week – there are other places to go in Prague for an authentic traditional pub experience, without the hype and tourist hordes (Hostomicka Nalevarna, for example, which you can read about by following the link), but there’s no doubt the Golden Tiger has a certain sprinkling of magic borne from its history and ultimately its significance. Try it on different dates and times of day in order to work out when to absorb the most local flavour. As hackneyed as it is to say, you can’t really miss out on a pint in U ZlatĂ©ho Tygra while in Prague. Which, as discussed above, means two.  This really is a pub to be reckoned with.

 

U Kuděje, Olomouc

back to Czechia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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