Gorila, Cesky Krumlov

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

U Rotundy, Prague

Karoliny Světlé 1035/17, 110 00 Staré Město, Czechia
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks –7/10
  • Style and Decor – 7/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 9/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 7/10
  • Value for Money – 10/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  8/10

If you read travel blogs or even mainstream travel journalism, then you may have read about why the time of paying ‘a pound a pint’ abroad is dead, this referring to an era from the mid-90’s to around 2009 when the enormous disparity in earnings and currencies between West and East meant that Western Tourists could turn up in Prague and Budapest and feel like they were taking the piss even when, by the standards of the local economy, they were actually being ripped off.

The travel writers are true in identifying that the general trend over this last decade has been a paring back of those obscene financial advantages due to a steady increase in wealth, prosperity, earning power and the touristification (if that is a word) of Eastern European capitals, which has had a considerably restricting effect on the bargains to be had abroad, albeit in very specific conditions. Spend a day in Dubrovnik or Riga old town and tell me if you feel like you’re surfing on a wave of great value!

Prague too, has its tourist traps, and while there is far too much competition across what is a large and well-connected city for a rot to have set in like those honeypots I’ve listed above (as is also the case in large cities like Kraków and Budapest), it is certainly true that a normal beer, Kozel 11, for example, is sold in Prague old town and across the river Mala Strana for a price 40-50% more expensive than the going rate in most of the rest of the country. At the start of 2018, with Pound Sterling (£) in a slump, that puts you well over £1 for a half litre. For a Czech person visiting Prague from a small town, this would be a mild concern, but not, I doubt, much of a concern for you. Drinking great lager for so little, even if it is above the average for the nation isn’t exactly the kind of issue a British tourist spends much time worrying about. However, I am quite determined to demonstrate there are still breathtaking bargains to be found in Europe for beer.

Of course, I could drag you to a revolting dive bar in the middle of nowhere to prove my point (and in the process, kind of disprove it at the same time and make me seem like a petty idiot). However, the real satisfaction is finding the cheap beer in a good pub. I think the best approach to the old ‘pound a pint’ question is to find out: can you visit a good pub in the old town of Prague (Prague 1, Stare Mesto, whatever you want to call it) and get a half litre of beer outside of happy-hour for less than a pound?

Yes, of course you can!

During the socialist era, businesses such as cafés, diners and pubs were graded, the cheapest generally being ‘Fourth Grade’ or čtvrtý, the grading allowing goods and services to be distributed and tailored according to their central planning. This term has survived in Czech parlance to this day, as serves partly a useful metric if you are interested in finding some of the best value places for a drink (though be aware it can be used disparagingly about some rough and ready places too).

These ‘Fours’ have nearly died out in Prague old town, partly because there is little need for them in an affluent touristic, commercial district, but also due to capitalism’s inevitable march of progress in claiming the land from underneath people and its hostility towards partly-socialised enterprise (just witness the lamentable decline of the Milk Bar in Poland since their government stopped subsidizing virtually any seasoning that would help their food taste of something. What private enterprise is so pathetic and helpless that they need to winnow the offerings in a Milk Bar?).

Hostinec U Rotundy is not the last place standing in the old town where you can get a pint for considerably less than the usual going rate, but it is the most venerable, best quality, and I must confess, slightly alien and fascinating. It is by all reputable accounts, a ‘Four’ in form and function, and as I’ve been multiple times and had fun time and on one occasion surprisingly good food, it deserves a spot on European Bar Guide.

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U Rotundy gets its name from the rotunda a 100 metres up the road (which is an interesting little oddity that kind of blends into the background among the jawdropping other sights) and is so close to some of the main streets and sights in Prague old town that you can tack it on to any of the usual pub crawls without it feeling like a special detour. Yes, U Rotundy is on a less quiet street but it’s a spit from the river, Charles Bridge and an idle wander from the tourist crush on Karlova to remarkably peaceful old streets like Betlemska and Konviktska.

In some of the classic Pilsner Urquell pubs, such as U Pinkasu or Jelinkova Plzenska Pivnice you can experience what Prague was, or may have been like before the war, but U Rotundy is where to go if you want to experience an unvarnished socialist-era drinking hole, something which now, I think, is becoming a curiosity.

One ardent Czech pub tradition which has bitten the dust for good, whatever your personal view on it, is smoking, so although U Rotundy looks like the kind of place where after 11pm you’d be lucky if you could make out the people from the other side of the room, that particular atmosphere (I was always dubious about as to whether smoke added as much atmosphere as people though) is gone, and won’t be returning, and that goes for the country as a whole.

One threat to banning smoking indoors, as happened in the UK, is that old men will simply retire from pub-going and fill their apartments with stale fog instead. However, unlike the UK, Czechia benefits from ludicrously cheap beer which isn’t going up by the same rate beer prices were in the mid-00s. For now at least, the cast of regulars at U Rotundy remains firmly in place, which is all for the good, as they are the ones keeping the place in business.

As with all cheap pubs, you find a coalition of old men and students enjoying the good value and occasionally having a ‘forthright exchange of cultural values’. One of the more pleasant aspects to Czechia is a healthy down-to-earth attitude and understanding of a communal pub-going mentality where people are less reserved than England. I wouldn’t say U Rotundy was full of women, exactly, as it’s not but neither is it so much of a man-pit that Czech women are afraid to venture in.

U Rotundy typifies the simplicity of those olden days. Don’t worry about deciding what beer you’re going to have. It’s Staropramen and you’re having it. Right? That’s settled then.

I posted a good article from Beer Advocate about this on our Facebook page (which I recommend you join for extra goodies and comments) where an American so used to multi-tap places got choice fatigue between his DIPA’s, barrel-aged sours and hibiscus goses and loved the culture in Prague where the stress of each decision was alleviated by the glasses being continually refreshed with the same beer, freeing your mind to concentrate on the important things about going out, like being with your mates and having a good time!

I must admit privately smirking at the thought of a few people I know or have met on my travels venturing into U Rotundy and being prescribed their drink. It’s not what I would want life to always be like but I have some serious admiration for the mentality behind it, in a world where choice must always equal better. Surely the fact stuff like this even exists is evidence of diversity in itself, right?

Anyway, the Staropramen 10 is as good as it’s ever going to get (ie. alright) and you can switch between light or dark if you really want to go crazy. At the time of writing 27czk weighs in snugly under a pound a pint, even at the lowest rate for sterling in years. Back in 2015 when it was 38czk to £1, this pint of beer would have been just over 80 pence a pint.

Even in Prague, these prices turn heads, and U Rotundy is busy most evenings as a result. The pub itself is relatively spacious, with a communal main room, and some dining tables up the corridor and anteroom to the back. One enjoyable aspect is that the tap faces you as you walk through the entrance, leaving you with a beer virtually before you’ve had a chance to wipe your feet!

There isn’t much going on musically other than the sound of geriatric grumbling and twenty-something conviviality, but they have a new TV (beginning of the end for this place, mate) and tend to throw on ice hockey and football. I wouldn’t call it a sport pub, but it’s got a casual interest, and that’s an amenity you won’t find in many of the more traditional pubs in the city.

Food-wise, U Rotundy does something of a surprising turn. If I was visiting a pub that looked like this in England I’d go hungry rather than attempt to eat anything emerging from the kitchen, and yet, after reading the largely positive reviews I gave it a go, and what do you know? Big portions of no-nonsense, fresh Czech cuisine at fair prices – not quite as fair as the beer price but at a corresponding standard to match what you’re paying for, and food you would pay over double for down the road without that home-cooked feel. That aspect of the place really counts in its favour, and although I wouldn’t usually bang on about food too much, it’s a nice feather in its cap.

Lastly, for flavour, I refer you to Max Bahnson of Pivni Filosof-fame, who said of U Rotundy in his funny and ever-useful book Prague: A Pisshead’s Pub Guide, “It’s dingy, dirt cheap and I doubt much has changed in the last 25 years, if not more. It’s like a bulldog, so ugly it’s beautiful. Proof that what really makes a pub special is not the stuff that comes out of the taps”.

Amen to that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Józef K, Gdańsk

Piwna 1/2, 22-100 Gdańsk, Poland
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks –8/10
  • Style and Decor – 10/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 8/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 7/10
  • Value for Money – 7/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  8/10

Any trip I make to a new city invariably involves researching local breweries and popular pubs in advance (this blog wouldn’t be up to much if I didn’t), which I find to be an enjoyable way to drum up excitement for an impending holiday, and useful so as to ensure you aren’t wasting your precious time abroad chancing it in drab dumps. There is always space for the odd unforeseen opportunity, however, and the ‘rabbit hole’ experience where you find to your surprise and delight you have found somewhere by accident is one to cherish. When you plan, be careful not to micro-manage those opportunities away.

While breweries are easy enough to seek out, for various reasons it can be difficult to filter out drab mainstream bars and Irish Pubs while google searching for bars abroad (thanks Lonely Planet for the gazillionth Irish Pub recommendation, you lazy middle aged wankers). In order to drill down to find alternative pubs and bars where locals go, or where there is anything different going on it can take a bit of persevering. Depending on the country, if you can’t find anything, that may mean it just doesn’t exist (eg. Croatia), but Poland is one of those countries where even if good bars aren’t obvious at first, it doesn’t mean they aren’t around.

Jozef K was one such place I probably would have walked straight past if it wasn’t for word of mouth recommendation from a guy I know who had recently visited. Granted, it is located on Piwna (‘Beer Street’) in Gdansk, one of the main nightlife spots in an old town not short of good options, but has no courtyard and the entrance is so plain you would never get an idea what was inside unless someone told you, or unless you were morbidly fascinated by the plain exterior of that particular building.

The bar is situated in a modernist building with impressive and elegant narrow windows stretching from the ceiling downwards. Strangely enough I can’t remember too many bars with such windows, of a kind which reminded me, weirdly, of the science block at my secondary school. These soaring windows allow quite a deal of light into the bar, and you’ll find the place operates with the lights off until fairly well into the evening.

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The style of the place is salvaged defunct scientific equipment + antique furniture which is a combination which could look odd, but when placed together and mounted so they all align with each other creates an impressive feel like a museum of professor’s study that has gone rogue and become a bar. Certainly techy and geekier than your usual retro chic bar, but pointedly elegant with it. It borders on the ‘ruin bar’ aesthetic but manages to be its own thing really well. There’s lots of stuff to look at, so when you’re tucking into a lovely strong Polish beer you can let your eyes wander around the room appreciating the effort, which stands apart appreciably even among those bars it is inspired by. That good.

Jozef K also appears to be the place to see and be seen if you’re a millennial in Gdansk, and in the evenings there are groups of townie types who will appear after 10pm, who don’t quite appear to understand or appreciate the aesthetic but have an intrinsic understanding of their obligation to be there. The seating is a little sparse which reflects how quickly the transition from sleepy afternoon place to buzzing night venue takes place. It gets very lively indeed.

Jozef K’s beer choice is admirable, as nearby brewery Browar Amber is represented well  – one smaller brewery that pre-dates the Polish craft ale explosion and serves beer in styles tradition to the region. Being a Pomeranian brewery, their offerings are largely Germanic, with interesting bocks, double pilsners and pszeniczne, a useful word to learn (psheh-neetch-nay) as it means wheat beer! It’s great to see the brewery concentrate on heritage styles rather than copying the popular US styles as so many other Polish breweries have opted for. The price at the bar is typically competitive for Western wallets – not necessarily the best value for the city but for an English tourist paying between £1.50-£2 for a beer will not break the bank.

Jozef K deservedly earns a reputation as a good all-rounder. The atmosphere and style is good, the vast majority of the other visitors are Danzig born and bred, good cheap and slightly different beer and it seems to occupy an important role in the local pub scene. The music works well for the environment and it moves seamlessly from stylish and studious cafe bar to lively night bar. There are no real lows to think of and a visit comes highly recommended.

U Poutníka, Brno

Vstup branou č.p. 14, Starobrněnská 16/18, 602 00 Brno-střed, Czechia
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks –9/10
  • Style and Decor – 8/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 9/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 6/10
  • Value for Money – 10/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  9/10

Czechia excels in very unpretentious pubs devoted to swilling high quality beers of its own making. These pubs are the very definition of down-to-earth (particularly the ones located in cellars), welcoming all comers so long as they wish to experience and uphold this noble mission.

U Poutnika is Brno’s best example, possessing attributes common to those rare standout pubs that tie everything they do and everything they are together to produce ‘genius loci‘, a phrase which refers to that most indefinable and frustratingly hard to pin down thing – a place’s ‘spirit’ – (no, not Becherovka or Slivovitz ) – an accumulated sense of place and purpose that produces that atmosphere most people are seeking when they go out and socialise: vitality and character, usually so elusive to the majority of bars and pubs. The phrase ‘you had one job’ springs to mind whenever I think of some the hapless, and occasionally pretentious soulless holes I’ve stepped into.

Genius loci is a very well-used phrase by Czechs on reviews of their pubs, so it seems appropriate to mention it in reference to U Poutnika, which is as good a pick as any to demonstrate how an otherwise simple place with a look you could barely pick out at an identity parade can be elevated by virtue of its operation and customers, who every day contribute in their own way to the maintenance of a tradition, and who knows, perhaps even one day a legend. Some people may scoff at this, but even cursory research indicates that this place, much as several others has had its very existence threatened by bureaucrats, and therefore anyone who in their own way has patronised a pub, become an advocate, or a regular can fairly be argued to be participating in a peaceful revolt against such nonsense.

U Poutnika enjoys a central location in Brno’s ‘old town’ (largely a bustling and business-like provincial city but with some very pretty areas and buildings too), meaning no special trip-out to the suburbs is required in order to join the young, old and everything in-between who drop by on their nightly ritual. Although the pub may be central, its unassuming position nestled in a side-street arcade seems to provide at least some shelter from passing trade. However, upon your arrival you may notice a throng of people outside (all smoking). It will be quite busy, as Brno itself has very lively nightlife of a kind anyone from a northern city in the UK might be quite familiar with.

From a simple look around at the exterior, with its shopping arcade frontage and rather straggly-looking signs you may be adjusting your expectations downwards by the second, and I wouldn’t blame you if you were a touch tremulous arriving solo. Sod it – you’ve come this far, so why baulk at the last minute? Dive inside!

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The taproom is located right at the front, so if you want a quick beer ‘on the stand’ as they say, find a leaning post and have at it. U Poutnika is lucky enough to boast a “tapster” – invariably a rotund, middle-aged man whose sole job is to attend to the cleaning of glasses, pouring of beers and maintenance of the taps and kegs. Separately the server’s job is to go around tables doing the ordering and delivering of said drinks, but if you’re alone it may be easier and quicker (given how busy U Poutnika is) to approach the tapster directly when you first walk in – not always the most pleasant experience. These chaps can be quite growly and monosyllabic, even in their own language, let alone trying to converse with them in yours, so approach with caution, know your ‘dobry den‘ from your ‘ahoj‘ (the latter reserved for friends and regular acquaintances only) and be clear in your demands.

Jedno Pivo, prosim‘ will result in being presented with the house light lager, which is the excellent, criminally under-distributed Poutnik Pehlrimov, (translating to Pehlrimov Pilgrim) a Moravian beer difficult to find in Prague and Brno, let alone anywhere else (forget about tracking it down in the UK). As always in Czechia, light lager is so much more than the thin, gloopy and over-crisp offerings Brits are used to. This beer is poured with a smooth thick head, giving you a correspondingly thicker, smoother drink, and one which is so easy to knock back it becomes virtually irresistible. They do the 12 degrees and the unfiltered equivalent. That’s all – and that’s all that’s required. Try escaping from a pub having had just one half-litre of Poutnik – I haven’t seen it happen yet.

And ‘Czech‘ out the prices (sorry, I had to do that once and I promise never to do so again) – unbelievable! 29 crowns for a half-litre, ie. a pound a pint in a city centre pub, without having to enter into a slum with a tap, or one of Czechia’s notoriously rough and occasionally dodgy ‘Nonstop’ Herna pubs that stay open 24 hours for gambling, chain smoking and putting back of gallons worth of budget lager in a haze of depression. This great value has not escaped the attention of everyone – the pub is name-checked in a 2010 article in The Guardian.

Fuck, we haven’t even sat down yet! Have a glance around the taproom first – there are usually some pub emblems, mascots and ornaments that give a place individuality, and U Poutnika is no different in that respect, but head into the backroom for the sit-down and a chat amongst Brno’s finest.

You’ll find a curved ceiling in the archetypal Czech pivnice style, bench seating around the perimeter and plenty of communal tables, with a yellow ceiling telling tales of the millions of cigarettes smoked in the room and a palpable sense of history reverberating through the echoes and murmurations of friendly conversation going on around you.

Once seated, the server will be round to hand out a slip, and mark your slip for every beer you consume. He works pretty hard considering the almost constant demand for fresh beers – it is no cushy job, and you can tell that by the thickness of forearm and glistening forehead. The drinking goes on between 2pm and midnight – a relatively late closing time in a country with a more conservative attitude in that regard.

As with a lot of the best pubs, the come-one-come-all inclusivity here is what makes it – you can rub shoulders with students, architects, petty philosophers, borderline-vagrants, politicians, quiet pensioners, who may sit there silent for an hour before a conversation topic sparks them into life. Idle chit chat, card games, passionate political discussions, bitter feuds over sporting rivalries, it’s all to be had in places like this where everyone no matter how low or lofty is allowed to express themselves and be at one with each other.

It’s the kind of pub you would make your local minutes after moving into town.

Strefa Piwa, Kraków

Józefa 6, 31-056 Kraków, Poland
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks –10/10
  • Style and Decor – 7/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 8/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 6/10
  • Value for Money – 7/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  9/10

Any new bar venture in Kraków’s old Jewish quarter Kazimierz (unarguably the coolest district for nightlife in Poland) needs to work hard to wrench people away from the dozen other exceptional bar options in the vicinity. My first visit to Strefa Piwa in 2015 was enjoyable, but the venue was young looking with that fresh wood-shavings smell still lingering in the air, yet to develop character either as a place or with its own crowd. In just a short space of time, that has now changed.

Strefa Piwa translates to ‘Beer Zone’, a rather generic name if there ever was one, so I stick with the lingua franca when referring to it. The pub itself is quite small – a narrow room with a curved ceiling in the style of a Czech pivnice decorated with a rather striking chart painted across the expanse of the walls, linking a hundred beer styles with their parent families. This decoration gives a clear indication about their raison d’etre -it’s heavily beer orientated, which is of course a good start with any bar. I quite like the fact the interior is a nice cross between a simple cosy drinking den with some of the architectural features of a beer hall. It’s not a specific reason to visit, but adds to the genius loci. The mirror to the left hand side of the bar always suggests there’s a second room, but trust me, there isn’t.

Two years ago a visit to Strefa Piwa would have been largely one to seek out a quality beer, what with the venue being in its infancy and  atmosphere still being a little quiet. I’m pleased to say since that visit Strefa Piwa has developed a core audience of locals who share the space with clutches of young travellers and backpackers. It’s a friendly, hustle and bustle type place in the evening that isn’t overly bothered about competing with the faded antiquey style bars down the road in terms of décor, isn’t going to drown out conversation with pumping music either and does well in providing a slightly different offering for the area.

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Because the décor is simple, it is the kind of pub that needs a throng of people to lend it vitality, but now it has that, Strefa Piwa serves up a great combination of incredibly high quality beer and a chatty, vibrant venue, that is also down-to-earth enough to avoid the pitfalls of some pretentious multi-tap beard-stroking craft venues out there (we’ve all been to them).

To compliment the nod towards Czech pubs in the design, there are a few high quality Czech ales (such as Kout na Sumavy) along with rotating craft Polish beer. The range is wide enough that you can find something great along a range of styles, with 7/8 tap options and a large bottle selection. As per usual the pricing, while a tad expensive by Polish standards is among the cheapest for craft ale you are likely to find around Europe. They have also opened a beer shop next door, which qualifies as one of the least surprising business moves going. Fine, of course, avail yourself of that if you feel the need, but we are more interested in the pub, right?

Strefa Piwa succeeds by offering something different to the majority of Kazimierz bars (although Omerta is quite similar). The pointedly different style to the ruined antique chic typifying the style in other Kazimierz bars seems to appeal to a local crowd who are more interested in drinking good stuff and socialising than ‘being seen’. You can pop in, sit down, calm down, and find a corner your mates and you can have a chat – that’s a key appeal of a pub, after all. The reviews online don’t lie – 4.6 stars on Google after 250 reviews is a phenomenal mean average considering it’s a simple pub, and that speaks of a widely friendly and likeable place, not just a hipster venue, and it’s not the first time the pub has caught the affectionate praise of a bar blogger , nor I suspect will it be the last.

Strefa works well as a stop off in between the bars around Plac Nowy in the centre of Kazimierz and the old town in Krakow, or just to drop by in and of itself for a casual pint. It’s a strong option that’s improving every year.

Like many pubs courting a young crowd they must be careful to make plans for when the place is no longer flavour of the month. For now they’re safe, but it wouldn’t hurt them to introduce a few community events, or consider a small extension to create more space.

If you lived anywhere near Kazimierz, Strefa would be right up the list for a stop-off, very much your home away from home public house, as it were. It’s just a pity only Cracovians get to enjoy the pleasure more regularly, the jammy bastards. Even though Strefa is up against stiff competition, jot this one down in your notebook! You won’t regret it.

 

Bernard pri Lýceu, Bratislava

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

The appeal of pure, unfettered going out to the pub, without extra bullshit or pretensions is something that grows on you the longer you spend time in Czechia or Slovakia, both countries that are strong on substance over style. Backing this philosophy up is their retinue of absolutely excellent world class beer kept to strict and exacting standards that is so singularly enjoyable you can find yourself in many scuzzy and otherwise unappealing dive bars still with something worth clinging onto (literally) . Not only that, but the sheer simplicity of the arrangement. A warm homely room with comfortable seating and good beer for a chat and a good time among your peers. Whatever gimmicks bars with throw at you, a million beers on tap, a sheet urinal with slices of orange in it, or drinks priced according to the stock exchange, it all eventually comes down to a room, a drink, and a good time. If you haven’t got that, you may as well be running a hardware store for all I care.

This Bernard Pivo insignia pub typifies working class drinking, set with only a car park between it and the dual carriageway out of town. It’s easy to reach if you’re near Bratislava old town, 15 minutes walk, so close you can still hear the trams exiting the tunnel under the castle (well worth a closer look in the dusky hours). The discount supermarket and sex shop next door certainly hammers home the gritty location, yet in spite of its grim view of the motorway and dubious neighbours the pub offers a surprisingly pleasant terrace area outside with covered bench seating that compliments the pub itself quite well.

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Don’t expect a warm welcome at the door, for this place is not about such fripperies. Czechoslovakian (in this sense I believe the defunct term still is applicable) service is almost routinely noted for being gruff and workmanlike at best and openly hostile at worst. The real welcome hug, if you were searching for one, is written on the blackboard stand by the pub, boasting nearly the full Bernard range, from the simple 10 degrees light lager or  ‘desitka‘, at barely a euro for a glass right up to the stronger special beers. Walk inside and find a very simple cosy room decorated like it hasn’t seen the fall of the Berlin wall, with a dinky bar area in the corner. There is a TV adjacent and some ice hockey memorabilia dotted around the place.

Don’t expect anything fancy – though I hardly telegraphed that it would be, did I? – it’s a classic local drinking hole with a vaguely nostalgic sporty theme. The staff won’t speak English (unless really, really pressed to) but neither do they utter any objection when you order a beer – they know why you are here and behind the stoic expressions they are pleased to serve, in that solemn Slavic way. The other patrons inside barely even turn around to acknowledge you, clouded in their haze of cigarette smoke and drunkenness, something which might give you peace of mind if you find the prospect of entering pajzls like this place intimidating.

There isn’t really space at the bar to have a beer na stojaka so if you’re going for a good time not a long time, your arse will need to make contact with some furniture. Not to worry, expect plenty of seats inside to go at. Hey, why not surprise them by choosing in Slovakian – desitka, jedenackta or dvanackta (3.8%, 4.5% or 5.0% Bernard lager) prosim – you might cause a flicker of an eyelid, which would be something of a successful extraction from a Slovakian tapster in my experience. Or they’ll just be annoyed you spoke Czech to them.

The terrace is a bit more communal, so even if you aren’t involved in any socialising directly and have arrived on your own there is a friendly feel to sit amongst the hubbub, and comes recommended over sitting indoors if the weather is fair. If you’re there in January dive inside the Dive! The pub crowd is an odd split between young couples and students who sit outside and typically grizzled old boozehounds who wander in and out between cigs and beer, but this crankily functional dynamic works in its favour and I quite like places like this that throw different groups of people together. That’s what a true pub should do.

The Bernard is excellent, disappearing down the hatch with alarming ease. Quite often you’ll arrive with the noble intention of staying for one, then ten minutes later, having found yourself dispatching a whole large beer, well and truly snared into staying for another, partly because you don’t want to move on so soon, partly because the beer is so fucking good. On both occasions I found myself dispatching several in short order, the price and quality proving irresistible. If you google the pub most of the photographs are simply pictures of glasses filled to varying levels, testifying to how well they keep their beer in this pub that anyone thinks someone would want to look at that.

While there are many humdrum aspects to Bernard pri Lyceu you could probably find in dozens of other hospodas in the city, I couldn’t think of a better example of a comfortable, strongly-supported working class venue, and the beer and value just tops it off.

When compared to the central brewery and pub Mestiansky Pivovar with its glass, chrome and corporate feel, Bernard pri Lyceu provides a stark contrast but equally, a welcome reminder of the more homely and simple values of pub going. I would include it on any night out in Bratislava. If you don’t believe me, check out what other people are saying.

 

 

Jazz Kocsma, Szeged

jazzkocsma

Kálmány Lajos u. 14, 6721 Hungary

One of the pleasures of travelling is the sense of inevitability of unearthing a gem, something even more rewarding when it has involved some level of adventure. That was certainly the case when discovering Jazz Kocsma in Szeged, a fascinating and typically Hungarian university town bordering Serbia, which I wrote about recently in my sister blog Undiscovered Europe. Being in Szeged was alone, rather off the touristic beaten path, and even for a well-seasoned traveller there was a certain sense of the mystic about it with its enormous twin spires brick cathedral with volleys of bats swooping around it, a similarly enormous synagogue and the whole Vojvodina region being largely unknown to me.

There are bars in Szeged city centre, as you’d well expect, although we found fairly few for a city of its size. Unfortunately due to being out of term time, it was also sheepishly quiet at times. The central pub scene seems to divide itself between student drinking and old man drinking, without too many crossover places (which were tacky and/or corporate in any event). It was quite difficult to find any drinking holes that looked like they’d made any efforts to be homely, characterful or different. After a couple of hours of mediocre boozing we decided to call it a night, with the option of a venue called Jazz Kocsma, which we would drop by on the off-chance it was still open in the early hours.

On an unlit back street 20 minutes out of the centre, in a spookily quiet backstreet (to the point of feeling abandoned), Jazz Kocsma hoved into view. When we approached the bar, its old wooden doors were shut, the ancient lettering above the door frame several decades old at least – from there it seemed impossible to think the place had opened to anyone for years. Remarkably its inception was in 1992, so one can only assume they were going for a 1930s speakeasy vibe from the word go.

However, desperate to find somewhere before heading back to our awful hotel (the Tisza Sport, if you’re interested, though please don’t stay there) we tried the doors and to our surprise and relief found light downstairs, the place alive and accepting guests. There was a short break of silence as we walked in (the entrance of four Englishmen at a late hour most likely unexpected), and while surveying the scene we discovered this very ramshackle ancient jazz club, with a corner bar area on the right and small stage on the left, with resident piano and giant old rug lending the place a somewhat homely feel – that is, if the home had been left vacant and squat in periodically for a decade – however that isn’t intended to be a criticism in this case.

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The beer options are perfunctory Hungarian stuff, unspectacular, with the risible Borsodi at least being cheap, and a dark lager option that will almost certainly prove a better bet. The bar staff were neutral and as impassive as ever for Hungary (it remains to be seen what actually surprises Hungarian middle aged men) and the bar area was a very typical example with lots of pinewood giving it an almost cabin type quality versus the look of the place as a whole.

However, while we were in search of a good beer in a good pub the primary quality of Jazz Kocsma is not beer but atmosphere. Being very late at night, events were slowing in pace, with groups huddling quietly around ramshackle tables and vintage furniture and paintings in the candlelight. The mood lighting and gentle murmur of the groups in each area of the room set the tone nicely, as does the homely, yet dilapidated décor.

Yes, the Jazz part of their title does actually mean something, and although there was no music playing at our late time of arrival, their events calendar shows their live music performances remain in full swing with 5/6 official events a month, and more if you count the open mic stuff. It was easy to see from the interior how a Jazz band would elevate the experience. Make sure to check before you go as you may find that your woozy late evening pint is interrupted by some energetic live music performances (or alternatively visit in search of those performances to find one man and his dog at the bar trying to dissolve into the scenery).

This venue is a historical slice of local life that seems determined never to redecorate or change. Impossible to tell whether it was always this ad hoc, old and crusty or it has been happy to become so worn down. Regardless, the end effect is a powerful and distinct experience that will elevate your evening out in Szeged and prove that sometimes the best pub experiences aren’t always going on in the centre of town. It’s telling that the place is still going strong despite the lack of marketing and obscure location, largely from word of mouth. Such institutions are rarely bad places to visit. This is one of those encounters that rewards curiosity and comes highly recommended.

  • Quality and/or choice of drinks – 4/10
  • Style and Decor – 7/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 10/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 7/10
  • Value for Money – 8/10
  • F: The Pub-Going Factor –  9/10