Insomnia, Cluj-Napoca

back to Romania

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

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

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

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

Insomnia is very much geared towards a younger crowd – if not young then young at heart – with bright, psychedelic décor, paint thrown up the wall Jackson Pollock style and giant lampshades covered in stretched Insomnia-logo t-shirts. About that logo – a not particularly discreet drawing of two animals humping. That aside, the place is funky and seems to have survived 15 years without looking overly dated.

You will notice from their website a rather esoteric mission statement (some of which might be lost in translation) which is reflected in the bar itself. It is the perigee between taking themselves too seriously and not taking themselves seriously at all. This must come from its early days as an art gallery. While the venue is now predominantly a bar, they still host events of varying flavours – book launches, poetry readings, the odd festival here and there.

 

The bar, as with most you’ll find in Cluj, is set up for sitting rather than standing, which means dealing with table service – not my favourite thing in the world. In Romania I noticed some people become rather upset when they have to order at the bar. Not sure why – getting drinks that way is quicker, direct and you can settle the bill there and then, saving everyone time and effort.

Insomnia also has a slightly different format in that they expect you to settle the bill upon the drinks being served, which took a little getting used to when most table service involves you settling the bill at the end of the evening. I can only imagine they have had some trouble with people leaving without paying – which again could be solved by switching to bar service!

The other gripe is that, quite alike other central European countries, it is possible to reserve tables in advance. Is this a good thing? In practice this hardly ever works well in a pub, as it deters people who haven’t got a reservation sitting in that spot until the reservation starts, costing the bar money and making the arrangement feel off-putting. Also, when the bar is really busy, save for two or three empty tables, simply because of a couple of reservations that may last for only one round of drinks, where is the logic there?

In Cluj, all beers seem to have arrived on the same lorry, so you can expect the local brew Ursus and its variants (which are okay at best), and other SABMiller-owned brands including some English beers. The choice here is neither great nor terrible – they have covered several bases, but after a couple of days in the city, seeing the identical drinks everywhere becomes a little dull.

Draft beer is also served in 400ml glasses, a cynical way of gaining 20% on every drink, and quite pointless given the bottle sizes are 500ml and often cheaper. It’s difficult to criticise Insomnia over any other Cluj pub for this, as it is unfortunately commonplace. The upshot is that most people order bottles, not draft beer as they are better value for money – given the expense involved in setting up a bar, this seems hideously counter-productive.

Insomnia also offer what they call “long draft”, 2.5l of beer arriving in an enormous trophy-like stand with its own tap which I saw a few people taking ‘advantage’ of.  You know you are in student land when gimmicks like this pop up.

Anyway, moving back to the positives, Insomnia’s atmosphere inside is lively and well-paced, while the surrounding décor certainly helps keep things upbeat.

Insomnia is also based on the first floor of a historic building, which I often like as bars of that sort always feel quite bohemian. Outside the bar you will step out onto the balcony walkway of an inner courtyard, the typical sort of atrium you get in ex-Hapsburg cities (especially those with Hungarian history). This situation is appealling and adds to the experience.

Insomnia can be found just a few seconds walk from the main square, which is also handy as the main squares of European cities are generally host to far more corporate venues than this. Insomnia, more than others, underlines the all-encompassing young feel of the city, not to mention a European city centre that yet hasn’t been ruined by corporatising everything.

Maybe Insomnia will continue for another 23 years to come – and onwards – or perhaps the economic tides will sweep it away. I certainly hope to find it is going strong when I return, and hope it doesn’t take me 23 years to do so!

I strongly recommend Insomnia for your visit to Cluj, primarily as a fun alternative venue, and a strong all-rounder that does a lot of what it takes to be a good bar well, or really well.

Lastly, be aware Insomnia closes at 1AM, so if you are having trouble sleeping, you’ll need to move elsewhere!

Spiż, Wrocław

back to Poland

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
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  9/10

Update: Since my initial visit in 2016, I returned to Spiz again in 2018 and 2019 to find, thankfully, little had changed except for the addition of a craft beer to their roster, the APA.