Bar Marsella, Barcelona

Carrer de Sant Pau, 65, 08001 Barcelona, Spain

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

Being a cult venue, Marsella isn’t exactly a secret. Any basic search will reveal lurid tales from this bar’s often sordid 200-year history, but just because Barça residents know all about it doesn’t make the experience passé for a newcomer. Every first visit is by definition a novel one and besides, there are good reasons why it has become an institution, as I will now reveal:

You’ll need to walk to the Raval district just a short walk west of La Rambla. This has been a notoriously edgy red-light district in the past, but they seem to have cleaned it up a touch lately. From my experience it isn’t any more or less edgy than most major European city centre districts, including those on the Med. While there may be some drunkards around late in the evening, and destitute migrants trying to sell you ambient temperature beer from crates, all this stuff can be swerved without encountering any real trouble.  Perhaps my tolerance comes through growing up in Northern cities in the UK, where you’re never far away from confrontation of some sort. The only thing I would watch out for is being corned by any groups down any narrow lanes – they will know the rat runs better than you (being rats and all).

After a short walk the faded and stained net curtains and  geriatric frontage of Marsella comes into view, set directly off the street. You might need to do a double-take to confirm which of the various panels is the door – and don’t yank the door off its hinges! The fixtures look so delicate and aged that any mistreatment might cause the whole edifice to crumble.

 

 

This theme continues once you’re inside. You’ll find a single-room marble bar with a wide open space at the front doubling as old-time  dance-floor and bar area. Though they do occasionally organise events, there probably won’t be any dancing going on and you’ll see most people gathered along the seating areas to the left as you enter.

Take a moment to inspect the cracked plaster everywhere, the decrepit wood panelling and former grandeur, which brings to mind a Havana cocktail bar. There are shelves and bookcases along the far wall with bottles that look untouched for several decades, if not longer.

Among many items of interest are Franco-era signs prohibiting singing, spitting, loitering and amassing in large groups (fun not being one of the hallmarks of living in Catalonia during his dictatorship). It was known at the time that the establishment was a hangout of dissidents and revolutionaries.

As with most Spanish bars, you can expect to find it open until the late hours. If Google is correct, opening at 6pm would make Marsella is somewhat of an early riser. 10pm is not uncommon time for some bars to open in Spain, and given I have read varying reports about its opening hours I would recommend you try this place later on in the evening to give you the best chance.

Marsella is well-known for its Absinthe, a rarity in the city until the last few decades. You may find some brave souls partaking in the rather studied ritual as you scan the room.

There is certainly a time and place for Absinthe – and where better than here? However, even with that factored in, a more astute decision in my view would be to order one of their enormous boozy cocktails that are made with panache but presented plainly and simply (contrast that with any cocktail bar in England where the added value is all about the artifice and presentation). While I love a beer, some bars just don’t feel quite right to drink it in, and this is one of them.

The current operation is a fascinating double team of Master and Apprentice. His teacher, a scholarly old soul who tends the bar, chips in here and there, and a young scholar who does the table service and most of the hard yards.

The atmosphere is powerful, particular once the booze gets to work. I’d recommend plonking yourself on a table where you can see the bar area on your left and the seating area on your right, as this gives you the full panorama. There is a hell of a lot to look at in the bar, but take a moment to ease back in your chair and appreciate the general scene itself, where at points you will feel as if you’re fading into the history of the place. Perhaps it’s the glow of the lights against the walnut-coloured wooden panels, or that undefinable ‘vibe’ that makes it an unforgettable destination, but the short of it is, they’ve created something simply by doing nothing. Since 1820 they’ve opened their doors and just let it gradually age (and in some senses rot) around them. Is the place ever cleaned? Glasses, seats, floor and table-tops, perhaps. The rest? Don’t bet on it.

You can read the anecdotes about Hemingway, Picasso, Dali if you like, but I preferred to sit there and considering the wider churn of people that must have frequented the place over time, mostly to enjoy the absinth and heady surroundings.

I read here that Marsella was previously threatened with closure due to the wishes of the building owner (something this 2013 website appears to mourn), until the city itself stepped into save it, purchasing the building itself to insure against it. This article (in Spanish) confirms it.

“The bar Marseille, whose future was uncertain during the last two years due to disagreements between Lamiel and the former owners of the premises, has just become the property of the City Council, which has bought the building on Sant Ramon Street, 1, Sant Pau corner. for 1,093,000 euros.”

Extraordinary. How many bars could you possibly say that about?

So many new bars try to be all things to all people, with the end result being a bland beige mush no-one will ever remember – let alone try and save from closure. By contrast, this bar knows itself, isn’t afraid to be loved or hated and is never going to change until the building itself collapses into rubble on top of it. Until that day comes, Viva el Marsella! – Places like this don’t come along every day.

Au Daringman, Brussels

back to Belgium

Rue de Flandre 37, 1000 Bruxelles, Belgium
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks – 6/10
  • Style and Décor – 9/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 10/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 7/10
  • Value for Money – 6/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  9/10

Rue Des Flandres, in St. Catherine quarter is a great road for a bar crawl, host of several venues varying between good and great. In my view Au Daringman belongs to the great category, not only for the street but for Brussels more widely – I know, high praise in a city jam-packed with great bars.

The primary reason I reach this view is that despite the bar scene across Europe turning increasingly corporate, this brown café still feels like a personal venture. Despite being surrounded by crowds of people, passing trade of tourists and the daily grind, Au Daringman supplies an oasis of calm, moody contemplation during the day and an alternative-feeling cosy haunt at night.

Upon arrival you’ll note an attractive red exterior with old Stella hoarding, partly obscured by the greenery cascading down the front of the entrance, a look which is typical for a street with plenty of side-alleys and greenery.

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In the afternoon the bar is managed by the charismatic Martine (the pub known locally as Martine’s or Chez Martine), the managing in the quiet hours extending no further than being propped up on a stool reading a newspaper or a book, filing her nails, peering over the rim of her specs and drinking coffee.

On first appearances there doesn’t appear to be all that much maintenance required of Au Daringman other than a morning clean, watering of the plants and the odd keg change/clean of the lines, but it is clear the enterprise is a labour of love.

This café is so named because the original owner was a boxer and member of the Daring Club de Bruxelles in the 1950s and 1960s, a Molenbeek-based football club whose players were referring to as the Daringmen. Read further here.

Au Daringman also proves what a solid basis the ‘brown café’ is as a concept to work outwards from. Let’s compare other Brussels venues: Le Coq is the archetypal Belgian boozer, Monk is an elegant historical recreation, and Au Daringman is the off-beat jazz era cousin, with artistic leanings. Yet all of these still belong to the same pub family.

There are lots of interesting touches to the decor, from the cubist textured wood paneling, to a board with what appear to be scores from a local table football league. Apparently the bar has been going since 1942 – it looks like most of the bar hasn’t been significantly altered since the 1970s.

The simplicity extends to the beer choices on tap – it’s very standard stuff. Stella, Leffe, or Hoegaarden. In Belgium at least, all three of these are a reasonable standard.

While it may not be apparent – at least not during my visits – they also boast a host of bottled drinks, some of the well-known Trappist, Abbey and lambic Belgian ales along with some lesser-seen ones such as Gageleer.

On my last visit I spent two hours here quietly, with no book and no telephone function (imagine that in this day an age).  The beautiful simplicity of sitting among the wood paneling and minimalist jazz memorabilia, enjoying a beer and alone your thoughts sums up what Au Daringman is about during the day. Au Daringman wants to make you feel at home, but also quietly oozes cool.

While the bar becomes a lively place in the evening, almost transformed in doing so, some essence of the place goes missing when it is crowded. However, that goes with my impression, which may not be yours. As with Monk, I recommend visiting in the early evening when it begins calm then slowly starts to bubble up.

Despite Instagram cataloguing the world, you won’t find much online presence for Au Daringman, as presumably its location on Rue De Flandres makes advertising superfluous.

Yet another brilliant Brussels bar and an essential visit on the ‘brown café’ circuit in the city.

P.S – Sadly Martina does not own the building itself, so this is a bar that may be on borrowed time. All the more reason to visit while you still can!

Further reading:

http://becinbrussels.blogspot.com/2012/05/au-daringman.html

Have you visited Au Daringman? Perhaps it is your local. Please get in touch with any feedback or comments regarding the above!