El Bosc De Les Fades, Barcelona

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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.

Bar Pastis, Barcelona

Carrer de Santa Mònica, 4, 08001 Barcelona, Spain
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks –6/10
  • Style and Decor – 10/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 9/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 8/10
  • Value for Money – 7/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  9/10

Any cursory research into Barcelona’s bar scene will lead you to the venerable and incredibly dinky-sized Bar Pastis, a staple venue of the Raval district for decades – with very good reason.

You may be concerned the place is over-exposed and  overly touristy – that’s understandable given how often it happens – well don’t worry. Bar Pastis can’t physically contain very many people for a start – secondly, the format of the place acts as an effective filter repelling faint-hearted rubberneckers, mainstream middle class folks and gormless teens almost as soon as they walk in (if they even get that far).

The outside of the bar really looks like nothing special, so much so that you might do a double-take before even trying the door. A late 80s/early 90s era sign in black and white ‘futuristic’ lettering hardly signposts the atmospheric speakeasy inside – just look at it! – but be brave, intrepid traveller, and dive in.

Once entering, and on the – not guaranteed – proviso you’ve managed to secure a comfortable standing or leaning spot, do take a moment to glance around at people entering the bar for the first time; enjoy the shocked and intimidated looks on people’s faces as though they’ve opened the wrong door into something truly disturbing and smily wryly as they reverse back out.

The old geezer running the bar wouldn’t want it any other way – indeed you’ll notice many stickers behind the bar area pointedly directing Erasmus students to an eff marked off.

So what’s this all about then?

Well, despite its diminutive size Bar Pastis could mostly call itself something of a music venue. It seems silly, even then, considering the place most likely fits 25 people in at a push (including any performers) but as true as day, there’s a small stage at the back of the bar that might allow 3 musicians at most, a table by the door that seems to become ever more useless and in the way as the night progresses (you can’t see the stage properly from there) and a few bar stools. If you’re desperate to sit down then prepare to be patient or prepare to leave – it took us around half an hour last time.

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The musical offerings vary between folk and jazz, and my last visit involved a maudlin French folk duo which despite being in Spain seemed perfectly appropriate for the location. Rather than recoiling in disappointment by what we found, the sound of live music was just the ticket as we thrust ourselves inside, and leaned over a few bodies to order some drinks.

Although it is a pastis/absinthe bar, strictly speaking, you’ll find a beer/wine easily enough. These are perfunctory efforts, really, slight concessions to what the bar would really rather sell, and merely passable. In addition to the drinks expect to pay a little surcharge for when there’s music on, though this doesn’t run to much more than a few euro. It’s all done informally by way of your first drinks order, which providing you’re not scared yet and wanting to flee, will prove very good value when the music starts.

The owner Angél has a typical René type look, slick back balding hair, roman nose and paunch, and is very much master of his domain.

While the music is playing you’ll find yourself drifting off into the surroundings which are some of the most crusty, ramshackle and amazing I’ve ever visited. The crimson painted walls of this tiny drinking den ran out of space some time ago, taken up with an unmistakably gothic and ever darkening set of paintings, yellowing newspaper clippings and various cultural ephemera from decades past. There is a slight bordello theme with some vaguely erotic stockings gestures and the centre piece on the ceiling, almost certainly a remnant from a Mardi Gras type festival is a suitably macabre mascot for a bar of rich, unflinching, uncompromising character. None of these items appear counterfeit, but inherited, and as a consequence you feel smothered in its history and the gradual accumulation of its importance.

No matter how many tourists attempt a pilgrimage to Bar Pastis, there is always a core fanbase who could be clearly identified from the tourists, while the transient custom of couples and folk music aficionados is only fitting for a bar of its kind.

Although I could suggest a few changes to the drinks roster and seating situation, it seems almost rude in the circumstances to do so, when so much of the place lavishes you with new things to look at, new music and revelry to enjoy, or that bleary eyed soulful haze at the end of a night. The place has a tendency to stay open into the small hours. Rejoining the street and heading down the relative normalcy of La Rambla (2017 terror attack excepted) feels like you just stepped back from a window into another universe, both real and yet unreal. How many bars come close to this?

It is for this reason Bar Pastis gets such a thumbs up from me. One of those places where an average score on Google fails to tell the true story. It’s brilliant – even if you go there once just to say I was there, good on you. You were there.

À la Mort Subite

alamortsubite
Rue Montagne aux Herbes Potagères 7, 1000 Bruxelles, Belgium

There is sometimes a premium to be paid on a special occasion, so on my annual visit to A La Mort Subite I breathe in deeply and dive more deeply still into my wallet, on account of the luxurious overall experience of visiting this splendid Bruxelles bar.

Distinctly Parisien in format, this opulent faded-grandeur art nouveau venue (translation: At The Sudden Death) is one of Brussels and Belgiums most famous bars, so no surprises or left-field picks from me this time. A la Mort Subite might count as a brown café for the bench seating up the sides of the long room, if it wasn’t for the lack of brown elsewhere. Cream walls and pillars, the elegant ornamental décor stacked with studded crenullations, mirror panels and a stately, out of time design. You have a venue somewhere in between a café and a salon, originally built as a place for socialites to be seen in, yet, being Belgian, still focused predominantly on beer. The décor has such an authentic and preserved quality (no change since 1928, save for the occasional running repair) so it’s difficult to think of too many other places that are alike.

Mort Subite supplies the draft beer, and this brewery serves fruit beers and lambic effect rather than the real wild yeast sour lambics McCoy. They are still rich in flavour and sweetness, and a tad sour, but lacking any sort of dryness and depth that might indicate the traditional lambic brewing process. A small serving of their kriek for example, which would be a good choice, will set you back five euros on its own. Some of the other options are fairly astronomical considering the price one can drink for elsewhere in excellent surroundings. Mort Subite beer may as well be drunk here as much as anywhere on the globe. With this being Brussels you can expect a small food menu with cheese, charcuterie options and the usual pub food like croque monsieur to help your beer go down (as if anyone should need help finishing a Belgian beer!)

 

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The bar clearly feel they are unique to set such a high price, and annoyingly, they are right. An afternoon drink in A la Mort Subite can feel rather like a drink in a grand café, nice enough in itself, but the bar character starts to come alive in the early evening time as the crowd changes, and you can suddenly start to absorb some of the atmosphere and understand the underlying reasons for the endurance of this place. A special bleary eyed feel starts to develop, the sharp lines and corners blurring into the cream colours, like dropping into a dreamworld. That’ll also be the strong beer…

The grandeur and glamour of socialising in the inter-war era is yet to be recreated around Europe on any identifiable level, save for the odd outstanding example, partly because of the lack of venues who have committed to investing the kind of money to pull it off well, and also because the eventual crowd it attracts tend to have little to no appreciation of their surroundings anyway.

Service is almost classically continental, with wide stomached balding René type characters smoothly dissecting the venue with assurance and steady hands under the drinks trays. They are immaculately professional and patient considering conveyor belt of foreign tourists and the format of table service requiring more work than is strictly necessary. These characters add further to the sense of intransigent and reliability that lend a place a certain charm, that A la Mort Subite certainly possesses.

Although the evening and night crowd appeals to a few nostalgic locals who insist bars like these used to be abundant, a large volume tourists of venture in during the daytime, and because of the heritage of the place, often an aged crowd at that. The only sudden death that occurs in this bar is from pneumonia and cardiac arrest, I suspect.

Changing the venue in anyway seems to be verboten, and I wouldn’t approve major adjustments either ,however it seems to me there is nothing to stop the place rejigging the drinks choices and doing some marketing from the outside, as this venue is not designed for middle aged obese American sat in Burghaus jackets, it is designed for the young, the stylish and the vibrant. The way to really bring back the good old days isn’t just to leave the décor and service meticulously unchanged and hope for the best. The good old days were good because they were vital, vibrant and inhabited a nascent social scene. The place could do more in that regard by hosting more events, perhaps some understated live music, and so on.

In order for A La Mort Subite to take the next step, they need to be brave enough to recapture the zeitgeist in a way that doesn’t upset the period features, rather than settling for being a museum.

A La Mort Subite is a preserved remnant of a particular era and a great opportunity for anyone with a real passion in the rich and diverse history of socialising, beer drinking and recreational culture to step out of the every day experience and soak in the special character of the place. There are scarcely grander or more historical venues to recline and get merry with some astoundingly good beer. It may be so well known as to be passé, and it isn’t the pinnacle itself of pub going, but that doesn’t stop it being one of the best bars in Europe.

  • Quality and/or choice of drinks – 7/10
  • Style and Decor – 9/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 8/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 5/10
  • Value for Money – 4/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  8/10