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. Décor 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 décor 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 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!

Bierwerk, Nuremberg

back to Germany

9, Unschlittpl., 90403 Nürnberg, Germany
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks – 10/10
  • Style and Decor – 7/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 8/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 7/10
  • Value for Money – 7/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor – 8/10

Whatever you think of beer marketed as “craft” whether good or bad, you can’t deny the popularity.

However, in Germany, the reinheitsgebot or Purity Law limits the brewing ingredients for anything marketed as beer to malted grains, hops, water and yeast alone, with the knock-on effect of limiting the range of flavours and experimental culture now associated with the umbrella term ‘craft’.

Germany has some terrific traditional beer styles along with a parochial and proud attitude, so this has contributed to a slower and more gradual acceptance of auslander beer made from different hops and yeast strains, of a different tradition and with a wholly different character and nation of origin.

Bierwerk, in Nuremberg attempts to straddle both the old and the new, with fresh, almost brand-free Franconian kellerbier on tap, while offering more modern brands, even a few Belgian, Czech, English and US beers. This is refreshingly open-minded for a city which has suffered a few notorious periods of extreme intolerance and superstition.

Bierwerk has an envious situation, looking out over a beautiful city square gently slanting towards the south bank of the Pegnitz river. Unschlittplatz is pretty with timber-framed houses surrounding a small fountain. You may forget this is the centre of a very large city as it genuinely feels as though you could be in a small town.

It isn’t the traditional bierhalle venue you may be used to, but neither is it a wholly corporate or alternative one. Clearly some care has gone into making it appealing to a wider audience, which is partly successful, but I have to include some criticism –  the branding and the décor errs a little towards the generic for my tastes.

Bierwerk is thronged in the evenings where the volume is raised, and while you’ll find a generally post-uni crowd, some middle-aged folk enjoy visiting too which gives a nicer sense of welcome.

Once things get going it’s a fun venue, with a large tree trunk where you can play the ancient game of hammerschlagen, the objective being to drive a nail fully into the log with a wedge end of a hammer before the other players can. There’s also a hook-swing at the far end of the room where you have to try and get the hook over the horns of a bull on the other side. Both of these become fiendishly difficult after a few drinks.

Bierwerk is a smaller venue than you might think from the outside, so be prepared to employ a little patience if you want a set – meanwhile, the bar area is decent enough if its not too crowded, and there is some leaning space around and about.

People are here for the social scene primarily, which goes on until 2AM on Fridays and Saturdays, which is as it should be. Bierwerk brings undeniably some of the freshest I’ve ever tasted. I enjoy the fact that there is an effort to market the original ‘craft’, the local, independent, unbranded, un-Punk variety. While you may prefer a 11% smoked peach sour, or one of their 150 bottles behind the bar, I’ll be ordering a half litre of Franconian kellerbier, which will redefine your notion of freshness. Bierwerk also have a partnership with a local brewery so you will find some of their own branded beer available to try, which should please some tick-box checkers as well.

Prices, as with Franconia generally much fairer in comparison to the North and West, so their regular beers won’t set you back much more than 3 euros 50 as of 2018. There is a small but reasonable offering if you don’t like beer (including beer cocktails) so as to ensure no-one is feeling left out.

If you absolutely have to, they will put together some food to wash the beer down. I’m sure you know what’s coming – choices are cheese, sausage, or wait for it…cheese AND sausage!

Franconia and Nuremberg itself are slowly marketing itself to a wider audience who will give it a try over the big cities and Bavaria and are extremely cheap to get to from the UK via Ryanair. From my experience it is well worth it, with beautiful unspoilt countryside and picturesque traditional towns which survived the war without too much damage. Nuremberg itself has a large old town, not all of which is old, but is a fun and yet laid-back place to be.

I wouldn’t recommend Bierwerk on account of its décor, and there are some issues with the level of comfort and design which could be improved, but I strongly recommend visiting for terrific beer and lively atmosphere. It’s a great way to meet people and at quieter times the bar staff will dispense some of their local knowledge. This elevates the place above the day-to-day craft venue which is content to be cold and industrial in style and cliquey in feel.

Bierwerk is an interesting meeting point of old and new and therefore an enjoyable and strongly recommended venue. Prost!

Azimut, Šibenik

back to Croatia

 Obala palih omladinaca 2, 22000, Šibenik, Croatia
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks – 7/10
  • Style and Decor – 9/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 8/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 9/10
  • Value for Money – 7/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor – 8/10

Going out for a drink on the Dalmatian coast invariably involves choosing from a selection of Caffe Bars, which may have amusingly goofy names such as ‘TURBO’ or in one real life instance ‘KUM’, but in practise provide a nearly identical offering that defines the term Generic. After a few days anyone interested in good beer and good pubgoing will be tearing their hair out in frustration (I’m bald, so have to improvise) trying to find somewhere characterful.

Sibenik’s nightlife offerings are in the main, no different. There’s a beautiful Riva with patio furniture so you can relax by the calm seas and people watch – fine for a while. When it gets colder and darker, venturing inside becomes necessary, and it is then where the particularly poor beer selection, poor music choices and absence of interesting décor or atmosphere starts to grate.

Azimut is Sibenik’s alternative antidote to all that, a club and live music venue of sorts, with offbeat décor inspired by Hungarian ruin/garden bars making the most of its cellar situation nearly underneath the main square. I have recently been informed the basement used to be the town’s well/reservoir for water which explains the high ceilings very well! (Thanks to Azimut’s Facebook group for providing that information)

As with a lot of places on the Croatian coast, it doesn’t really get going until the summer, but even out of season there is a core crowd you’ll find lining the bar chatting and messing around, and a side room which is geared up for live music but also has games involved. The eventual end feel is relaxed, open, fun feeling and the sort of space you want to hang out and could make friends in.

Despite the basement situation there are tall warehouse-style ceilings which makes me wonder what the place used to be used for. However, they’ve done a good job with the décor, with impossibly high shelves, hanging umbrellas, books and bric-a-brac making it feel homely whether it’s busy or quiet, meaning the venue is quite versatile, capable of coping with live music performances and bustling custom in summer or acting as a down to earth neighbourly bar off-peak. Perhaps their slogan ‘Find Your Way’ has this in mind.

Another good thing is Azimut’s opening hours, carrying on until the early hours of the morning, which is long after the rest of the city has gone to bed, meaning there’s no need to feel obliged to shape your evening around arbitrary time constraints.

There’s what counts for an interesting selection of beers around this end of Dalmatia, with some imported bottled English ales making an appearance, however it was short on Croatian craft beer at the time of writing – only Tomislav was available, which is tasty but too strong to spend all evening on. Again, this is a fairly low bar to pass given most places in Croatia serve 3 or 4 awful beers at most. Azimut’s prices are a few kuna more than elsewhere, but given it’s a distinct venue and slap-bang in the centre of town, that’s unsurprising.

Edit (9.7.18) I have recently been advised by the management they now stock Croatian craft beer –  happy days! Until my return the score for drinks provisionally goes up to 7/10.

Given young Croatians enjoy going out in the evening, and Sibenik is starting to attract the attention of Western tourists you would think there would be more than one venue like this, but so far the nightlife remains largely bland obsessed with creating modern aspirational lifestyle bars to create that ‘summer vibe’, but ultimately blend in to one and project mediocrity and cheapness rather than glamour.

Hanging out in Azimut is like breathing fresh air given those otherwise stale options. It’s clear that quite some imagination and bravery obviously went into creating it, and any stay in Sibenik by anyone desiring a beer and a good time in the evening must involve a visit here. As TimeOut point out, every Croatian town should have an Azimut. I’d extend that to every town full stop.

Orzo Bruno, Pisa

back to Italy

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Via delle Case Dipinte, 6/8, 56127 Pisa PI, Italy
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks – 8/10
  • 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

Opinions of Pisa tend to be mixed, which is a shame as the airport provides an excellent conduit for people to explore Tuscany, but often people venture no further than the Piazza Dei Miracoli before moving on. It’s certainly true the Tuscan idyll of cypress trees, rolling hills and gently worn villas is perhaps not best demonstrated in Pisa, but that’s not to say the town is without charm, far from it.

The city centre is certainly one of those places that feels like it gets taken over by young people at night. Yes, you can sigh at the peeling plaster and graffiti in some of the classical piazzas that have become a bit grungy but there is a certain verve and energy Pisa offers in compensation for that. It’s a good night out.

Beer isn’t Italy’s strong suit, however it has belatedly begun a concerted effort to catch up. When you have a little think about why it’s suddenly taking off, it makes sense. The young seek good beer out in Italy for a few different reasons. Wine is seen as the preserve of the middle-aged and middle class, increasingly more of a drink to enjoy with food or a particular occasion or season, whereas beer is more casual.

Of course there are those looking to be a bit hip and different for which beer offers an opportunity to pose and stand out/completely conform among peers. Boiling all that down, the main appeal as I see it, is that quite honestly beer and aperitifs are a better option in a hot country over the course of a long evening. It is still the case that in Italy good beer is a bit of a novelty, but craft beer has been riding the crest of a rising wave for a few years now.

Pisa’s very best exponent of this is Orzo Bruno (a play on words with Orso meaning Bear and Orzo meaning Barley) not just a place with good beer on tap, but a really, really good pub.  In order to find Orzo Bruno you naturally find yourself wandering into the epicentre of the city’s nightlife. It’s a nice walk in, as you can feel the volume and excitement level gradually rise. You’ll find the pub and its unassuming exterior perched down a side-street, yet in the thick of the action.

Inside, it’s an informal affair with pinewood type seating falling somewhere inbetween modern and ramshackle. In the summer heat the windows and thrown open and there are tables and chairs outside. As with all great pubs, everyone looks like they’re having a good time. The best of all, it looks and feels predominantly like somewhere Pisans go themselves, with a ring of authenticity you just can’t fake.

On tap you’ll find local Italian brews for a decent price – their predilections for strong beers and German styles ensures you can purchase some strong, tasty stuff for quite a lot less than you’d expect. Wit beer, red beer, doppio malto, it’s nice to go to the heart of interesting Italian brewing styles and have a genuine isolated and authentic ‘Italian beer experience’ in what is a nice pub.

These are brewed at a co-operative brewery Il Birrificio Artigiano, an excellent idea still common in Germany where provincial beer enthusiasts have occasional use of shared premises of a scale capable of delivering decent volume. These beers are usually unpasteurised and unfiltered, which is fine because they aren’t designed to last, but to be drunk straight away! You may even find oddities such as attempts at cask conditioned bitter served by Angram hand-pumps.

There’s a little something extra on offer too, that a lot of English people won’t be used to. It’s difficult to find complimentary anything with a drink in England these days, yet in Orzo Bruno dig into a veritable platter of snacks laid out on plates in front of the bar to enjoy with you beer from 7pm onwards.

Spain and Italy are insistent that food must in nearly all cases accompany drink, which is not my view, but offers a change of speed. You may want to consider leaving some room after your evening meal to enjoy the range of snacky bites on offer. It’s a quick way of adding on further poundage on top of the calories in your beer, so don’t go over the top!

Orzo Bruno works well whether at day or night, which is typical of places of its kind that stay low key and informal. You could pop in mid-afternoon and read a book with a pint of head here at 11 in the evening with a group. It’s just an all-round good place, reinforced by the enthusiastic patronage of locals. They also do discounts between 7-8.30pm, which is much later (and therefore better) than most happy hours in England.

Pivnica Mali Medo, Zagreb

back to Croatia

Tkalčićeva 36 Street, 10000, Zagreb, Croatia

  • Quality and/or choice of drinks –7/10
  • 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

The ‘Little Bear’ is located in the centre of Zagreb’s old town and offers by far the best example of a pub around these environs. Otherwise, your options are identikit café terraces or the odd raucous rakija bar. To be honest, a night out spent solely Zagreb’s old town would be pretty bland unless you dedicated yourself to drinking shots, or visited this place.

Mali Medo acts as brewery tap for Pivovara Medvedgrad (translates as Beartown), named after an old fortress in the hills North of the city which has undergone a rather appalling renovation, but is worth seeking out for the view over the city.

The brewery, operating since 1994 precedes the craft beer craze and concocts a range of different beers – including their own attempt at Kriek – highly peculiar by Croatian standards where anything outside Euro Lager seems to be regarded as otherworldly. Their beers aren’t unpleasant but they’re some way short of the wider standard these days and a bit ‘last generation’. Nevertheless, a couple of the more traditional styles are competent enough to put away a few of, and the extra flavour and freshness will come as a relief after drinking the likes of Karlovacko everywhere else.

They operate a number of pubs, but the best of the lot is, in my opinion Mali Medo in the centre of town.

The pub itself has a typical pivnica look, dropping down off the main cobbled street to a large half-basement area with a curved ceiling, and some partitioned niches with bench seating (one of my favourite pub features) along with the typical long tables you’d expect of a central European cellar pub.  Mostly, the décor is in-keeping with inn-keeping, wooden framed artwork on the wall, and traditional furniture, a step above bland. It’s suitably cavernous in order to cram in the many hundreds of people who flock to it daily – worth a reminder at this stage that it is the number one venue slap bang in the centre of town.

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As there is a beer terrace out front with much coming and going the atmosphere is very noisy and lively, sometimes pierced by live music performances. The upstairs area serves as a stage, with performers opening the windows to serenade people on the street. Very unusual and atmospheric. You  get the picture that this is one of the cultural hubs of the city. Be warned, if you’re after peace and quiet, this isn’t the place for you.

As with most pivnicas there is food available. Sometimes this can turn a place too much like a restaurant, but here it blends in with people turning up for a drink of beer better than some others, and as the evening progresses you can tell this is chiefly a drinking spot – good.

Considering the hustle and bustle, service is actually not too bad until it comes to the point of paying, where you almost have to grab the staff by the lapels and shove the money into their pockets. As per usual, table service slows up the whole arrangement. This is a very inefficient method when you compare it to those mega-brauhauses in Germany and Austria where a tapster and a token system means hundreds can be catered for by just a few people, or simply an English pub with a big bar where you can walk up to the bar staff and order – sort yourself out rather than relying on others to carry a glass for you. Unfortunately in Eastern Europe there appears to be an unwritten rule that one must never ever approach the person pouring the beer, or expect them to be able to operate a till.

Any place, city, town or village automatically feels enhanced by a centrally located brewery and/or its taproom, and this is certainly the effect Mali Medo has had on Zagreb old town. There is some work to do on the beers themselves, and it would be nice to see a few more pub touches, just slightly, to add character. It wouldn’t be an 8/10 unless there was some constructive criticism to encourage improvements. Aside of this, it still remains an essential, indeed desperately vital place to go for a beer in Zagreb.

U Jelinku, Prague

back to Czechia

Address: Charvátova 33/1, 110 00 Nové Město, Czechia
Nearest Square: Jungmannovo náměstí
Nearest Metro Stop: Národní třída on the B-line
Hours: 11:00 – 23:00, Saturday until 18:00, Sunday Closed
Reservations: +420 224 948 486
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks –9/10
  • Style and Decor – 9/10 
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 9/10 
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 6/10
  • Value for Money – 7/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  9/10

Even those of us committed to pub-going find it daunting (though enjoyable) to explore Prague’s enormous pub scene. Tearing oneself away from the high quality known favourites such as U Hrocha or U Cerneho Vola is difficult enough in itself; given a holiday may last only a few days, you could be forgiven for sticking to the known favourites.

However, several visits in, I am starting to chip away at the available drinking holes the city and can strongly recommend doing so for the many gems that exist outside of the most touristic areas.

However, Jelinkova Plzenska Pivnice or U Jelinku’ as it is more colloquially known, was a bit of a blot on my copybook, a core old town pub I had known about since 2007 recommended in Prague Pubs as being an authentic Pilsner Urquell pub in the heart of the old town serving the stuff unpasteurised from a tank, but never visited.

By rights I ought to have paid a visit in the early days, but for one reason or another, things got in the way. This is partly down to the unconventional opening hours, quirkily being open only until 6pm on a Saturday and being closed altogether on a Sunday! Though inconvenient, it gives you a flavour already that this is a pub doing whatever it wants, to hell with the consequences.

Finally, after multiple occasions I ensured I paid a visit in December last year. Firstly, as with all the best Pilsner Urquell pubs, it is virtually impossible to leave after a single pint, the devil on your shoulder always telling you to go for one more, and the Czech tradition of inviting you for another the moment they spy you getting to the end of your glass.

Jelinku is a tiny pub and so when you visit don’t be surprised to find standing room only, if that. As you walk in you’ll find a square wood-panelled bar area and walls sparsely decorated with some classic Pilsner Urquell ephemera from decades past. There is an old fashioned open bar area with a sink where the tapster Bohumil Kundrt does his work.

It’s all about having a beer na stojaka, ‘on the stand’, so you greet the tapster, order the inevitable number of beers required, pay straight up (unusual for a Czech pub) and take your beer for a lean with your mates. Simplicity defined.

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It seems to be a family operation, and the main tapster’s appearance is appropriately a caricature of a pre-war central European maestro, a rotund, smartly-dressed fellow of borderline retirement age with white hair and a majestic and comically-curled moustache, helping transport you back in time to the good old days of Bohemia, which is very much where this pub would rather exist.

The site has been a pub since 1918, with the Pilsner Urquell contract drawn up 8 years later, remaining ever since.

One of the recurring features of these throwback places is treating tourists with a tolerance rather than an open arms embrace. If you can stand some-good natured jesting and accept you are in the domain of the tapster and his stamgasty, who are perched by the bar having a chat and a joke, you’re assured of a good time nevertheless.

Many of the regulars use their visit for conversation, so you may find one or two chirping up in English to get a conversation going. This is one of the hallmarks of a great pub and it is this unique environment, almost forcing people together at the bar area to drink and talk which acts as the ice-breaker, so vital for a sole travellers in a foreign country.

The Pilsner Urquell is as good as you’ll find it anywhere, and you may find the format of standing results in you drinking more of the stuff than usual – that and the nerves, I guess. At 46 crowns for a pint, it’s on the high side of pubs still catering for locals rather than tourists, but if I told you that equates to £1.50 a pint I’m sure you won’t quibble! Don’t even bother asking what else is on to drink, as there isn’t anything. You’re on Pilsner or spirits – that’s it.

There is a room around the back which receives table service (it will either be the rakishly thin lady or the more comely lady of the house who is in attendance). Access to these tables can depend on reservations and at a loss of that, good luck. Though I haven’t yet had the pleasure, it looks a truly pleasant place to be with seating facing in around the room creating that feel of conviviality you’re searching for when you try pubs like this. The format is simple and yet for other places make creating such genius loci seem like alchemy.

Though Prague is currently experiencing a wave in characterless craft beer bars, and has an almost bottomless trunk full of cheap but featureless macro-brewery branded drinking holes, you can’t walk far before a true pub hoves into view. The real job, as I’ve been finding, is being able to sort the wheat from the chaff, and knowing when is the best time to be there.

Jelinkova deserves a high score because it is so different from the usual, it rewards perseverance and the best time to be there is simple: when it’s open. If you’re up for a good time, not a long time, the pub is right up there as the best in the city.

Leopold’s Delicatessen, Split

back to Croatia

Ujevićeva poljana 3, 21000, Split, Croatia
  • 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 – 6/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  8/10

Although I am about to praise this bar and urge you to visit, I should firstly state that I really hate its name. Yes, Leopold is a nice guy who knows his stuff, and that’s a cool name but ‘Delicatessen’ seems sickly sweet for a beer bar. The quicker it is reduced to Leopold‘s or even Leo’s the better! Get in touch with Leo and tell him yourself!

There have been some comments made online that alternative beer is now mainstream in Split, which may be well-intentioned to promote the place, but I can tell you from first-hand experience that isn’t the case at all. Most of the time you’ll be stuck drinking Croatia’s terrible trio of crap lagers or Staropramen if you’re lucky. Yes, Split remains by far the best city for drinking good beer in Croatia, but even then, you could count the number of good bars also selling good beer in the old town itself on one hand, and some of those are not especially good value, leading to a loss of local custom – the net result is they become touristy and lose their charm. Those that manage to retain local custom and offer something worth visiting rather than a generic Caffe Bar experience are thin on the ground in Split, and pretty much non-existent across most of Croatia.

Leopold’s is certainly one of the standout bars in the city centre, not just for beer but for atmosphere and somewhere you must bookmark to visit while in Split. This place is a beer bar, first and foremost – you’ll see some ad hoc meat and cheese slicing going on at the bar, sure, but the reason everyone is here is to try Croatian craft beer, perhaps taking a dip into the fridge for a reasonable interesting array of bottle offerings.

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On tap are some really beautiful tasting Croatian beer which will seem like you stepped into a parallel universe after spending your days in Croatia drinking their depressingly bad mainstream brands Karlovacko, Pan and Ozujsko.

There are 4 taps on rotation, all with Croatian beer from small breweries across the country, (though they also sold the way over-exposed mainstream beer Punk IPA too, which may pass for interesting in Croatia but not for a British traveller).

Thankfully the Croatian beer I tried was pretty good, one by Nova Runda and a single hop version of L.A.B’s Barba the standouts. They have brewed these beers carefully so as to not scare the locals, not over-hopped, but with enough punch and unfiltered flavour to be comfortably superior to all the mainstream Croatian beers. Good for a session, you might say, that milder drinkability that suits Mediterranean summer drinking. Thanks for not going the Polish/US craft route of slamming as many bitter hops in there as possible. The place is also interested in scotch whisky and bourbon if you are too.

The bar itself is pretty interesting to look at, with some nice mosaic-tiled patio furniture and vinyl records stuck to the ceiling. There’s also a swing seat in the middle of the bar which is a bit of a novelty, and a classic ‘dive’ bar layout that will instantly appeal. Leopold’s also seems to have a slightly annexed looking terrace which was well-appointed but the surroundings feel featureless (like a parking lot) – not the best from the options available.

However, the splicani prefer to congregate outside (this is common practise in the country and probably why there are so few Croatian bars with interest interior décor), and at some point as the evening progresses you will probably find yourself sharing space with some annoying American backpackers. Leopold seems to arrange tastings in advance with large groups – unfortunately halfway through my visit 20 Americans darkened their doors and the staff immediately began catering for them, seemingly exclusively. Perhaps that was bad timing but being moved from my seat and then having to listen to them droning on left a sour note, and not the good kind you get from a quality lambic.

They organise events such as live music on the terrace, barbecues (don’t miss out on these if you get the chance!) and seasonal beer like Oktoberfest, another excuse to skip past the bad macro lager in Croatia.

I have every confidence if you can dodge the worst excesses of the passing tourist trade Leopold’s is one of the best, certainly in the top 3 bars in the old town of Split. Agree? Disagree? Join the chat on facebook

Café Jubilee, Valletta

back to Malta

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

Sometimes quiet towns and cities can churn up such desperation for a drink that you’re prepared to lower your standards with alarming ease, as you wander past boarded up shops and sleeping houses in search of nightlife, or in lieu of that human adults that aren’t already in bed at 10pm.

Malta’s capital Valletta certainly knows how to make a beer drinking pub-goer concerned, as although it may be pretty and characterful, on an average evening out of season you may find its large old town to be packed away and fast-asleep in the manner of an English market town on a Sunday circa 1950. As with many countries with a warm climate, a bulk of the usual pub characters you’d see propping up the bar in an English pub or holding forth at the stamgast table in Germany or Czechia (craggy old men, let’s be honest) instead start the day with a pint and a cig at a drop-in bar, and are safely home for tea, bed and chronic farting by the time most of Northern Europe are venturing out.

It’s vital to do some digging if you want to hang around all evening in Valletta, as turning up on spec could lead to a good hour of traipsing around fruitlessly for drinking options, something which can become more confusing on account of the inconsistent labeling of streets on printed maps flitting from Maltese to English whenever it feels like it.

Café Jubilee is a shining star in this void, a bar I’d be eager to frequent were it in my town. Tasteful, sometimes striking art nouveau frames fill each inch of wall space making it a very stylish and atmospheric place for a drink, regardless of how many people are there, yet it is a popular place, predominantly with young people, and tables fill up during the evening. Grab any table you get the chance to. I’d say it goes past simply being tasteful and really crams in the art pieces to build a memorably busy-looking atmosphere.

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There is an unavoidable café element to the place, with that being the daytime purpose, and the furniture style being more in that direction, but I felt it transformed sufficiently on an evening to be a typical evening bar, a meeting place with a communal vibe developing that makes it feel more homely as the evening progresses, bubbling up to that pleasant background hubbub that combined with the elegant surroundings could be transporting you to Paris or Brussels.

It’s also a place to find Farson’s Blue Label on tap, reasonably rare as most other places tapping from Malta’s big brewery, one of many true oddities on the island serve only Cisk, a decent if not outstanding lager. The combination of cask bitter and the cosy, ornate surroundings are just the tonic to a city pub scene lacking on a number of levels. Service and price are not notable for the area, but neither are they offensive, and the service is likewise understated rather than fantastic, but those are minor issues. The bar is open until 1-am (wahey!).

The good news is Café Jubilee are stationed in Gzira and Gozo too, providing further pleasant places of refuge as you navigate options that fall between tacky ex-pat pubs and generic Mediterranean café bars. Along with the strip of stylish night bars that open on weekend evenings down the centre artery of town Café Jubilee is an essential port of call during your stay in Valletta, as the exemplary reviews elsewhere attest to.

 

Józef K, Gdańsk

back to Poland

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 here comes highly recommended.

Have you visited recently? Please let us know what you think via the comments below or our Facebook group!