The Victoria, Durham

The Victoria, Durham

9/10

86 Hallgarth Street 
Durham
DH1 3AS 

On a cold or damp day (not uncommon in Durham), walking in from the main entrance of The Victoria will throw you straight into the heart of the action and the warmth of the room rushes to bid you welcome.

The Victoria hosts cheerful, very chatty locals who will seize any opportunity to engage in a bit of banter, ask you how you’re doing and what you’re up to, and altogether give the sense that they never really leave the pub, other than on some onerous errand or other. It’s a down-to-earth community greeting that may take aback those used to more a reserved, private experience. There is no forced jollity however, don’t worry about that. On a weekday evening or Saturday afternoon especially don’t be surprised to encounter a bar area thronged with people.

The longstanding publican Michael Webster will give you a straightforward and honest North East greeting and absolutely has your interests at heart. On a busy day you may be offered a seat in the back – unusually this can be accessed via the bar hatch, but also via a couple of sets of doors at the back of the bar.

Pubs of this sort were conceived with an understanding of the concept of genius loci, a harmonious use of space to create a genial special atmosphere. The local architect Joseph Oswald who designed the hotel prior to its construction in 1899 appears to have fundamentally grasped what layout would produce a special venue. Since then, what changes there have been to its appearance have been kept to a minimum. This is now protected by Grade II listed status.

The layout, fixtures and fittings have been well preserved, including some genuine curios such as their vintage coin till, and the service bells fixed in the frames of the bench seats. Some of you may have seen in traditional pubs and know they are nearly always found to be out of action. Well, they have rigged up a new call bell and it’ll be nae botha (within reason) if you use it to attract the attention of the bar staff. Victoriana at its finest, as WhatPub splendidly describes.

However distinctive the venue may be, a pub its nothing without the atmosphere created by its patrons. While the décor in the Victoria is rightly prized for its distinctive and well-preserved quality – almost a museum in fact – the customers, along with the enthusiasm and commitment of the staff (an impression which is imparted by everything they do) give the place a vibrancy that others pubs don’t match, for all the wax and varnish they may apply. In my opinion these folks are as integral a part of the pub’s character as the marble fireplace, quirky side rooms or any eccentric array of chintzy royal memorabilia.


So what’s to drink?

For many years The Victoria has offered as its permanent ale ‘Big Lamp Bitter’, a full-flavoured and now rather old fashioned brown bitter of a sort which fits in with the experience of visiting The Victoria very well. You will find other local ales on rotation, for prices which are a little higher than most in the area, not that this deters the locals.

On the Saturday we visited, their kitchen had put on a spread of what can only be described as Durham tapas, traditional North Eastern grub mixed in with the kind of tuck you’d expect to fill the Famous Five’s hampers. You’ll be warmly invited to help yourself and get stuck in. They don’t much stand on ceremony around this area, and all the better for it in my view. Outside of tapas days, food may limited to toasties. Factoring in the hospitality here, their prices become far fairer.

The venue still operates as a hotel and you may see visitors hustled through the back with their suitcases and up the stairs to the guest rooms. In the morning they will enjoy a full English breakfast rustled up by local legend Maureen, reportedly well worth a try.

We spent most of our time in the small lounge at the back of the bar, a beautiful and cosy room with dark red detailed wallpaper, coal fires and hosting domino games. In the warmth and intimacy, you can kiss goodbye to the dreak and the damp of the outside and settle in for the evening. It’s the kind of comfort and enjoyment that’s been regrettably overlooked when attempts to modernise pubs have been made.

One of the great aspects of Victoriana (if we put aside some of the horrendous inequalities and hardships for working people) was the real concept of craft. That mass production was not incompatible with creating something special. That a venue ordinary people could visit could be lavish and a treat to visit rather than looking cookie-cutter and off-the-shelf, and on a human level, as Dr Johnson famously put it:

“As soon as I enter the door of a tavern, I experience oblivion of care, and a freedom from solicitude. when I am seated, I find the master courteous, and the servants obsequious to my call; anxious to know and ready to supply my wants. The more good things you call for, the more welcome you are. Alcohol exhilarates my spirits, and prompts me to free conversation and an interchange of discourse with those whom I most love : I dogmatise and am contradicted, and in this conflict of opinion and sentiments I find delight. There is nothing which has yet been contrived by man, by which so much happiness is produced as by a capital tavern or inn.”

This is borne out by the fact so many of these historic venues have endured any number of fashion trends, changes of property ownership and economic disasters. Not nearly enough of them, to be sure, but there is something intrinsically appealling that keeps people coming back. And these people, as in all good pubs, belong to different walks of life.

A lot of pub owners and managers could learn a lot by spending a day seated and observant in a place like this.

Tilt, Mechelen

…back to Belgium

The Lowdown…

Address: Vrijgeweidestraat 62, 2800 Mechelen, Belgium
Hours: 10am to Midnight (Closed Wednesdays)
Phone: +32 15 41 58 99

Serving Mechelen, Belgium since 1906, Den Tilt is a true survivor tucked away in a pleasant residential suburb, even then only 15 minutes walk from the train station or the old centre. It seemed only fair, given the proximity, to attempt a visit on our first trip to the city.

Google can only tell you so much, but the gathering impression from the comments was one of authenticity and local life, which appeals to us far more than 50 different beer taps or vintage-effect light bulbs. While many towns have their ‘local institution’, we had no idea just how famous the place was.

It was a pleasant day and a pleasant walk, crossing past the enormous stone medieval gate, over the grand canal (which dissects the rivers La Senne & Den Dijle, the second running through Mechelen centre) and a short zig-zag through quiet suburbs. We had previously stopped in at Café Hanekeef near the central square, itself an interesting venue, and thoroughly enjoyed both the pub and the sights of the town centre. Mechelen really is an excellent city that remains overlooked by tourists despite its beauty and historic interest.

Upon arrival, we spotted familiar Maes Pils signage (one of the most common Belgian lagers), Palm emblems (same) and a whitewashed shop front with an interesting old ‘Brigand’ sign attached to what was once a first floor window.

The sign for Café Tilt “Lokaal W.T.C” itself seems to our eyes a bit unfashionable, the kind of thing you expect from community pubs. This is a good sign actually, as it duly indicates what’s to be found inside.

The wording ‘Lokaal’ is colloquial for pub, but not so often displayed outside in that manner – perhaps a throwback in itself. The W.T.C is a reference to its other purpose: a ‘cycling tourist club’!

https://www.wtc-tilt.be

As its homepage proudly boasts, “Storms, hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, genocides, gulf wars, the fall of the wall, the word trade centre, bird flu: WTC-Tilt survives everything!”

While we don’t want to spend this review talking about cycling, this club helps sustain interest in the pub and keep it at the heart of the community, and a lot of their events naturally drag back to a beer or three in the pub – that deserves enormous credit.

Furthermore, football club KV Mechelen compete with the cycling club for wall space and seating space, with Tilt being a designated ‘club house’.

Sporting allegiance is a very common theme for Belgian cafes and all the more important when economic conditions and fashions make life tougher. There is a fabulous blog article here which was very helpful when writing this piece.

Tilt is special, but also run by a special human being. Owner Rozeke Raymaekers is now well into her 80s, having stood at the tap for 40 years. It should go without saying that she, cycling or no cycling, is the stuff of national legend, even featuring on a TV testimonial for the cleaning product Feem!

There is always much interest in any longstanding characters who are masters of their art, and this article here provides a small portrait of Rozeke the person: http://thewordmagazine.com/the-hundreds/rozeke-raymaekers

I arrived at Tilt as an outsider of course, and, as you would expect from any pub was treated with an assured and friendly welcome by Rozeke, someone who has seen it all before but become no poorer for the experience.

The rhythm of the pub, with its simple one roomed front of house layout, in the early afternoon suits her, they fit like hand in glove. Sedate, friendly, and calm with the occasional burst of laughter or exclamation. While of course it may be unusual to an outsider to see someone of her advanced years on her feet all day long, there is nothing upon inspection of the facts which would lead that to be inappropriate. If she feels strong and willing, all power to her!

The pub itself is defined by a lack of pretension, right down to the outside toilets. You will find real life of all kinds mixing together, a true democracy, while the decoration itself is more of a collection of memoirs and sporting achievements than a genuine attempt towards any sort of stylistic angle (though it would seem the café did previously resemble more of a brown café ). There are some nice touches such as the pot-stove which remains in use, and old-fashioned savings cupboard, common but nostalgic items.

….Very well, but what’s to drink?

Drinks are simple and affordable. It isn’t all about a cheap 25cl of lager either, you will find some stronger bottles, mostly from the classic Belgian range, reliable and high quality. However sometimes, in straightforward pubs like Tilt, it makes sense to order something simple from the taps, which, you will often hear claimed as being “the best poured in the city”, however much trust you place in such hyperbole.

While you may walk past, or poke your head through the door and see something ordinary, the people around you are the true indicators. The glint in everyone’s eye betrays they know they are lucky to have a place like Tilt in their lives.

Before we go, please enjoy this nostalgia trip into Mechelen’s cafés of the past.

I sincerely hope they have a continuity plan for when the inevitable happens. After all, “WTC Tilt survives everything.

As for Rozeke’s take on the future?

I will keep this way until the very end”. “Life is celebrated here, and nobody is looked at here by its colour, age or gender. Having fun, that’s what counts here. Yes, I mean it: I will fall dead here after my counter.

Amen.

Opus Pistorium, Bari

…back to Italy

Opus Pistorium, Bari

8.7/10

Where is Opus Pistorium?

The best bar in Bari is located in the tight twisty environs of Bari old town! Here you can enjoy an atmosphere which – at the time of writing – has survived the effects of major tourism that has so drastically affected the likes of Dubrovnik and Venice, destroying the local life in the centre of its city.

Such local life, in all unfettered glory can be found in the heart of Bari, what many other hollowed-out cities would simply call their ‘cultural centre’ (with the tacit acknowledgement that the city’s residents are surplus to requirements), but what in Bari constitutes a genuine living city.

The air is heavy with fresh laundry as residents drape their newly washed bed linens over the balcony to dry, families gather in dining room cum kitchens to dine and converse, their loud exclamations echoing along the alleys and passageways. Children play football and bar owners trundle the latest batch of beer on trolleys around the uneven flagstones with careworn expressions. Traffic noise appears distant, with only the occasional revving of a Piaggio piercing the background echoes of human life cleanly bouncing off the flat surfaces and crooked streets.

Don’t be fooled, Bari is no backwater, indeed the old town is simply 1 of several distinct constituent parts of what is a busy and vibrant place. The city simply features a little further down most travellers to-do lists. Yet, what Bari may lack in self-opportunities, quirky features and bucket-list icons, it compensates for through its authenticity. Outside of the summer in particular, the lack of tourism will feel like a breath of fresh air. This experience is now absent from the places which have welcomed cruises, AirBnB and backpackers all year round.

Bari old town’s nightlight is crowned by 2 very atmospheric brooding bars situated within 30 seconds of each other just off the old town square Piazza Mercantile, the first being Chat Noir (also featuring on our guide), and this one, Opus Pistorium.

The name, which sounds uncannily like a disgraced amputee, is actually a reference to a Henry Miller novel. OP (as we will refer to it from now on) is the best bar we have found in any district of Bari. What made the discovery even more fun was finding it on a whim, not after any studious research, and it being the last bar we visited in Bari on our stay!

What’s it like?

On arrival from the exterior, the contents within will not appear screamingly obvious, with a small discreet entrance, but venture in, and you will be greeted with a spectacularly stylish bar.

OP is based in a tall long room with a curved brick ceiling nearly 15 metres up. I would not be surprised if the room had a specific different use in the past (a water tank perhaps, like Azimut in Sibenik?) but the effect on the bar is endowing it with acres of wall space.

Most bars would not attempt to rise to the challenge, but instead OP carefully accepts it, with a tall long bar area decorated with plants, rather than simply bottles, and artwork of an exotic, occasionally oriental leaning. The colour scheme is crimson – combined with fairylights and candles, this creates a brooding effect that lends itself wonderfully to an intimate late night drink.

Casting your eyes around the room will also reveal a careful decoration of antique furnishings and ephemera, although this isn’t an out-and-out antique bar like the half dozen we have documented in our Days Out feature at Kazimierz, Krakow. The end effect at OP is somewhere in between. Modern artwork and lighting but with a strong nod to the past in other aspects. It is effective and impresses as being tasteful and distinctive – extremely important for becoming eligible for the European Bar Guide.

…come on, tell me about the drinks!

Of course be interested to know what drinks are on offer. Wine strongly features on any menu in a non-specialist Italian bar, and OP is no different, but the beer and cocktail choices are similarly very strong, the emphasis being on quality, not quantity in terms of options. The cocktails we tried were carefully but promptly made, beautifully mixed and presented at a fair price, certainly one which makes you raise an eyebrow in comparison to the cost of beer (which after all, takes rather less effort for bar staff to prepare and serve). Local ingredients make up a strong feature. Normally a sprig in a cocktail in any old bar would be largely presentational, but the rosemary was so fresh and full of scent it added to the flavour and sensation of drinking (what in my case was a Penicillin).

OP is a late bar, so don’t attempt to visit before 7pm, indeed you may be advised to pop by later on if you are seeking a faster-pace. While it was sedate on our visit, many other reviews reference how busy it can get, so it may be advisable to reserve a table, which is possible between 7 and 9.30pm.

Combining a drink here with one in the longer standing and slightly more bohemian Chat Noir will delight anyone who enjoys drinking in those deep red boudoir aesthetics.

One of the risks of a bar of this kind is drowning in its own pretentiousness, risking a lack of openness and a stuffy feel, producing a crowd of customers that behave accordingly. Neither of these bars fall into that category, as while they may not be down to earth either, the decoration, atmosphere and staff will put you at ease.

Both are worth visiting, indeed both belong among the best bars in Europe but Opus Pistorium stands out even further, offering better drinks and value for money, with a style that is original in places. We highly recommend taking time to drink at this superb moody bar on your visit to Bari!

…back to Italy

Chata Pod Rysmi, Mt. Rysy

Chata Pod Rysmi




When is a pub not a pub?

…back to Slovakia

“Address”: Rysy Vrch Štrbské Pleso Štrbské Pleso, 059 85, Slovakia

Quality + Choice of Drinks: 6/10

Style + Décor: 8/10

Character + Atmosphere: 10/10

Amenities: 7/10

Value For Money: 8/10

When is a pub not a pub? When there’s no electricity or plumbing? When you can’t get there without clambering up chains and ladders? You’d think so, but you’d be wrong.

Chata Pod Rysmi stretches the whole concept to breaking point, yet its offerings resemble an Inn so near as damn it, that who would quibble? It bloody well is one.

2250 metres above sea level, inaccessible by car and 2 hour’s hard climb up from the fringe of civilisation at Popradske Pleso, Chata Pod Rysmi is the highest mountain refuge in Europe. Through sheer commitment, sacrifice and bloody-mindedness, a hut which most people would expect to offer – at most-  a basic place to escape bad weather, provides cooked meals, beds and beer on tap.

Open from 15th June until 31st October (due to being impassable at other times of year), the hut primarily provides a safe haven – and, if necessary – lodgings to those wishing to climb and pass the summit of Rysy, the peak of the High Tatras and border between Slovakia and Poland.

The idea to build a mountain hut came up at the end of the 19th century, but it was only in 1933 that the first Chata Pod Rysmi was realised. Lasting an impressive 20 years before sustaining severe avalanche damage in the mid-1950s, it was rebuilt and then extended in 1977. In modern times, a further avalanche in 2000 virtually destroyed the hut. Since 2013, following a lot of unnecessarily wrangling the venue has been fully reconstructed with a new design. Read more here:

http://www.mountainhuts.info/rysy

The fixtures are impressive and solidly built – and they have to be. The weather at this altitude is unpredictable and at times severe; it is situated at a point where humans are not designed to be.

Arriving via Slovakia: The walk from Popradske Pleso to Chata Pod Rysmi is beautiful and dramatic, with pine forests and mountain waterfalls giving way to jagged granite peaks, via an otherworldly tarn, before a short series of chains and ladders gains you access to the final climb, a rocky hard slog to the hut.

Weather permitting, it is up to you whether you want to scale the summit on arrival or sleep over and save that for the morning.

Arriving via Poland: A very steep slog from the easily accessed lake Morskie Oko, albeit up a well marked and well travelled route up sets of chains and ladders. Pack cautiously, move cautiously and attempt this in clear summer weather.

By all accounts, the interior of the new Chata Pod Rysmi has preserved the original atmosphere. Upon arrival you will note a few jokes, such as the ‘bus stop’ located outside, and inside some nooses handily labelled “2 places for vegetarians”. Hilarious… depending on your sense of humour.

The hut’s tenant Viktor Beránek has been taking care of the hut for 36 years and is a living legend. Not only for the length but nature of the commitment he has made – in his prime carrying 100kg of stores up to the hut on his back. Yes, this is not a hut that benefits from airdrops: all the day-to-day supplies are provided by porters, sherpas if you like. Each day they supply on average 60kg worth of supplies. On your hike you may see drop off points, where the porters have left gas canisters midway up for their colleagues nearer the top to collect.

You can imagine, given the variable weather and tough terrain that this is requires an almost missionary level commitment. While your first beer (on our arrival it was Litovel Maestro) arrives, trust me when I say it slips down with as much guilt as pleasure when thinking about the poor sods lugging the kegs up the mountain! But after a while you have to get used to it, you have paid for it after all.

If you feel too guilty to partake, then make contact with the Poprad Lake Mountain Hotel who will be delighted to offer you a range of packages to take to the hut (weighing you down further on your ascent) which you can exchange for a free tea or soup at the hut by way of thanks. This way you can personally experience a fraction of the sacrifices they make every year.

They also have contracted their own label beer, courtesy of Pivovar Nymburk in Czechia, which you can buy in cans at the hut itself, testament to its iconic status in the region.

The food here is simple – warming and hot – and definitely Slovakian. Cabbage, dumplings, soup, goulash. Prices are as fair as you can expect given the supplies have been delivered on foot up a mountain. When you are up here, nearly everything they offer feels somewhat of a charity, even when you are paying for it.

Once you are fed and watered, there may be an occasion where nature calls, and here, the fun really starts. Clamber 150 metres along a rocky slope to visit Chata Pod Rysmi’s ‘Panorama Toilet’!

This outhouse boasts a full perspex window on the valley below, as you are seated on the throne. Anyone feeling constipated will soon find their digestive passage easing. During the night, this trip can be annoying as it is outright dangerous in bad weather to be visiting the toilet, and yet they are fairly strict about ensuring the gentlemen staying over don’t simply relieve themselves nearby. There are rodents around, you see…

The experience of visiting a clifftop outhouse at 2 am with a weather system drawing in up the valley is certainly ‘one to tell the grandkids’.

So, onto the “pub itself”, you will note the communal area looks to all intents and purposes like a Slovakian pub. Communal wooden tables, rustic and simple decoration, and a bar area. Whether you’re drinking spirits or beer, you take your seats in the same way you would a pub, drink in the same way you would a pub, and chat in the same way you would a pub. It’s a pub. A pub with an enormous green ceramic heater, for good measure.

As the light fades, the staff bring out oil lamps, where the atmosphere increases even further. Lit by lamp and the occasional glint of moonlight, sit and enjoy your warm food and your beer in good company, a one off unique experience yet one that feels like a familiar throwback to simpler times, especially as there is no music unless someone picks up the guitar or sits at the piano which has also, extraordinarily made its way up here. There is no electricity (for the guests at least), no wifi, no phone signal.


If you get up in the middle of the night to answer the call of nature (requiring, for safety and good health that you get fully clothed and booted each time) you can see the staff jovially drinking and chatting among themselves in their breakout area, something which reminded me that after all, pubs are about socialising and human contact. With the usual trappings of modernity out of action it puts you in touch with the simple pleasures – with a side helping of bracing outdoor toilet usage for good measure.

All the same, without internet for 12 hours, I was gagging to find out the cricket score in the Ashes when we got off that mountain….

You can’t find somewhere like this place just anywhere, it goes down as not only one of my best pub experiences but best life experiences.

Bar Marsella, Barcelona

Carrer de Sant Pau, 65, 08001 Barcelona, Spain

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

Het Galgenhuis, Ghent

back to Belgium

Groentenmarkt 5, 9000 Gent, Belgium
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks – 8/10
  • Style and Decor – 8/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 9/10
  • Amenities & Events – 7/10
  • Value for Money – 7/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  8/10

Galgenhuis, ‘The Gallows House’ is Ghent’s most central and historical pub, occupying a small but nevertheless fascinating and lurid position in the city’s heritage. Set on a corner by the Kleine Vismarkt bridge, and strapped onto the  striking Groot Vleeshuis, the uneconomically modest size never gives the impression of being a likely pub venue.

It’s name stems from a medieval pillory based on the rear of the roof, used in those days to shame criminals. A former fish stall, tripe house, then schandstraffen, Galgenhuis has seen its fair share of fishy doings, both before and following its conversion into a pub during the 1700s. There is some terrific writing about the history of the building to be found here and here.

All the same, it’s 2019, so what’s the place like now? Well, you enter via steps down off the street, past a small patio area. Upon entering you’re greeted with a one room bar with arched ceiling, barely larger than a shed. They believe it is one of, if not the smallest pubs in Ghent.

 

The bar room fits a row of bench seats on each side, and just enough space in the middle to congregate if they are full. There is also a very cosy little mezzanine area up steps behind the bar. The terrace area on the square is very probably bigger than the standing area in pub itself. You will enjoy a great view of the square, sure, but you’ll be getting that the moment you leave anyway – it isn’t really the same as being in a pub, is it?

Despite the limited space in the main room, Galgenhuis boasts ample space in the cellars by virtue of the tunnels built under the Groot Vleeshuis for fishermen and greengrocers back in t’ day. There were, by some accounts, historical problems with the moisture, restricting its usage, but these days they boast of a refurbishment and as you may notice, the cellar can now be rented out for parties and suchlike.

Galgenhuis counts in my book as a ‘brown café’ due to the traditional furnishings and genteel down-to-earth atmosphere in the main room; very much a Flemish pub, but the history of the venue means it has been bestowed with additional historical features that predate the style. Cast your eyes over the impressive painted tiled walls and beamed ceiling painted with some rather threatening gallows-appropriate slogans in gothic lettering. This in my view takes it to another level. Our level.

However, while I love all of that, unfortunately the whitewashed exterior and the splashing of an – in my view – rather bland logo across the wall of the building sticks out a mile in front of some grand stepped-gable houses by the water front. I’m afraid the signage is not really in keeping with the tradition or the interior making the place look far more bland than it actually is. That’s disappointing, as they previously had Gothic signage, but it’s a matter of personal opinion.

This isn’t a concern once you’re inside however, as it can’t be seen. Believe me, if you’re lucky enough to find a seat in here you’ll feel like remaining for the duration. Perhaps it’s the modest size that makes it feel like the centre of the action, being so close to the water nearby and the goings-on in the street, it really does feel like being inside a capsule, one that might even detach itself from the town and leave you up to your neck in the Leie.

Perhaps this is because the bar area is set a half-level down from the street, and so with plenty of windows facing at ground level, it gives the impression of a grotto. In actuality this was to assist bargemen unload their wares – today it is merely an attractive quirk.

If you strip back the numerous eccentricities that add to the charm of Galgenhuis, you will still find a fundamentally sound pub that does the simple stuff well. A cosy room, jovial atmosphere, and during the evening that classic golden glow that emerges from time spent in a well-decorated friendly pub room and careful application of beer.

Speaking of beer, there is a small but decent selection of Belgian ales on tap, from Tongerlo (an excellent though not always common option) down to Primus lager, while hardly Pilsner Urquell in lager stakes, nevertheless preferable to Jupiler and is an acceptable fallback option if the dubbels, tripels and quadrupels are getting on top of you. Prices are as you’d expect for a pub in the middle of an affluent city centre in Northern Europe (ie. belt up), but the manager reminds me that a glass of Primus costs €2.20, in itself a very reasonable price for the city centre.

The bar staff carry out their job with pride, clearly in the knowledge they are playing their small part in the continuation of Galgenhuis. I also felt they were among the more friendly Ghent servers, while considering the places I visited. By contrast, the forgivably wonderful Den Turk (follow the link for our full review) boasts about its ‘Ghent arrogance’: impressive in print, but reflected in fairly charmless service in person. Thankfully  basic pleasantries are still deemed fashionable here at Galgenhuis.

The central location means you can shoot off from here to half a dozen other bars and pubs within minutes, making it suitable for a pub crawl, but the high demand for seating puts the experience itself at a premium. If you are lucky enough to grab a table, why not bed in for a full afternoon session and get drinking?

Have you been to Galgenhuis? Agree or disagree with our take on it? We’d love to find out what you think – please drop us a line in the comments below or join the discussion in our Facebook group!

 

Roncsbár, Debrecen

back to Hungary

Csapó u. 27, 4024 Hungary
  • Quality and/or choice of drinks –5/10
  • Style and Decor – 10/10
  • Character, Atmosphere and/or Local Life – 10/10
  • Amenities, Events & Community – 9/10
  • Value for Money – 8/10
  • The Pub-Going Factor –  10/10

While ruin bars may be synonymous with Budapest, other cities in Hungary quickly taken inspiration from the design and ethos – it was inevitable they would create their own version. Gázfröccs in Sopron and Csillag EzPresszó in Győr both prove that the bar has been raised. Roncsbár in Hungary’s 2nd city Debrecen, is the most convincing example yet that it’s worth leaving Hungary’s megacity to explore the nightlife in the provinces.

While I love an old boozer, such as Wichmann’s in Budapest, it must be said the standards of décor, atmosphere and amenities in Hungarian pubs have shot up dramatically since Szimpla et al arrived on the scene. Roncsbár (Roncs, meaning Wreck) immediately showed that its up to the task.

Established 2013, Roncs is both a cosy pub, a concert hall, a garden terrace and a arty streetfood courtyard, delivering the alluring appeal we love about ruin bars – a combination of rooms to explore as well as cosy areas to congregate. Unlike unsuccessful attempts to export these to the West, it doesn’t feel the least bit corporate, even when you add bouncers and plastic cups (we’ll get to that in a minute).

There is no shortage of ways to spend your evening here, whether that be for a quiet drink, for food, for music and partying, or games. What’s better, the bar is designed in such a way that it never feels like those people are clashing with each other.

While not as enormous as the likes of the Fogas Ház ‘party complex’ or the ruined mansion of Szimpla, there is a fair expanse of space, and just like those it’s exciting to walk through it all for the first time.

Entering via the front door of the pub, you could be fooled for thinking that’s all there is. It is very pleasant – nothing negative to report – the area is focused on drinks and socialising rather than food – fine by me. You’ll find exposed brick and slightly ramshackle wooden tables. The ceiling appears to be studded with cymbals from drum kits (or was I wrong?). There’s a lively atmosphere and if that was it, then Roncsbár would probably warrant inclusion on our website as an 8/10 pub.

But after you’ve taken in the indoors, have a wander around and look for a side door – this will take you into the entrance way for the ruin-pub aspect proper. The design suddenly explodes into an eclectic whirlwind of bric-a-brac and, if you pay attention, some finely-crafted artwork. The cherry on top of the cake is, in this case, a wrecked (get it?!) aeroplane which looks like it has been hung, interior contents an all, to the inside of the roof.

What’s better, is this is heated in the icy winter and well-ventilated, keeping the place comfortable at all times.

Carry on past the stalls to find a courtyard seating area which will appeal to anyone wanting to watch some sport (big screen, of course) and a terrace garden area – closed on my visit due to the snowy weather – but definitely a further area to spread out in spring and summer. Barbecue? Yes please.

Drinks are about on standard with most Hungarian bars, however their website boasts they have their own-label beer from Rendelkezik (Reindeer?) which I must admit I didn’t see. It’s still possible to get a standard lager for a fair price and nothing here, be it beer, wine or spirits will offend most local or foreign wallets. If you’re outside you will be made to drink it in a plastic cup – on the upside no-one has to worry about broken glass.

Service can be a bit rushed and impersonal in that way all popular places end up being, but that isn’t a reason to mark this place down.

Unlike Budapest, there really is only one place like this in Debrecen, certainly making it stand out. There will always be one or two people of a contrary or conservative nature who take a dislike to these bars. You can’t please all of the people all of the time, but Roncsbár comes pretty damn close.

I love being able to dip in and out of events that are happening, be able to get some fresh air, or have a sit down, and still be in the same place, and still have something interesting to look at.

Please note that Debrecen has a very lively, albeit dispersed nightlife and there are several pubs of a very different style that are also worth visiting. Please see HERE.

There are only a few bars that have earned our 10/10 score, and so congratulations goes to Roncsbár. Long live the Wreck!

 

A Baiuca – Fado Vadio, Lisbon

back to Portugal

Rua de S.Miguel nr.20, Alfama, 1100-544 Lisboa, Portugal

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

Although you may read reviews referring to A Baiuca as a restaurant, the homely open-kitchen style, late-night drinking and the music-focused atmosphere make this place definitely worthy of the name pub – indeed the doors themselves present A Baiuca as a ‘Taberna’, which is near enough to meet my threshold.

That said, there is an entrance fee which covers the flow of wine and ginjinha and the musical main event, Fado, dramatically mournful Portuguese folk music which translates as ‘destiny or fate’, but symbolising a bohemian, or vagabond lifestyle, signposting what you might expect in the performance.

 

This may seem off-piste so far considering the beer halls and pubs covered on the blog, but be aware I have offered a degree of latitude to this venue on account of the authenticity and character, and I am seeking to provide a broad range of options.

Lisbon’s traditional working class neighbourhood the Alfama is the perfect setting for a place like this. Wandering up and down the maze of winding streets on the hillside is atmospheric at any time of year.

 

 

 

A Baiuca is not the easiest to spot at night – I remember we ended up locating it by peering through a metal garage door which seemed to correspond to the co-ordinates after wandering around in a circle. The front door itself was shut, but after a couple of knocks the owner met us at the door and arranged our seating, only after payment was made.

At the time of the visit our fee was 10 euros which at the time seemed very reasonable considering the wine and music were both very good.

We gathered on a communal table in a small room, most places taken already, and were made to feel welcome with a couple of glasses of red wine. There is no stage, and the musicians simply perform in the corner of the room. Each song is dramatic and passionate and the performers looked extremely well practiced at the style. An overkill of maudlin music doesn’t seem like the basis for a night out, but the songs are short, melodic, often intense and were received enthusiastically by the room.

There are a great many corporate joints in the city centre offering Fado performances in a large restaurant with a full sit-down meal, and while there is always a place for that, this is where to go for the real McCoy, stripped back, homely and raw, following an unbroken folk tradition.

After considering the experience overall, I think aside of the entrance fee, it occupied a very similar social space as going to a pub, both in terms of the homely working class surroundings and manner of drinking.

Our visit extended long into the early hours of the morning leading to a very uncomfortable wake-up call the following morning to the airport!

There are a few other traditional Fado venues in the Alfama, which I am sure warrant exploration, but I can strongly advocate visiting here if you prefer real and rustic above sheen and pretension. Finding this place on our final night in Lisbon more or less made our holiday.

P.S – I would recommend reserving tables if there are more than two of you, or if it’s the off-season with it being such a small space.

Have you visited A Baiuca? Please let us know!

U Zlatého Tygra, Prague

back to Czechia

Husova 228/17, Staré Město, 110 00 Praha 1, Czechia

Nearest Square: Staroměstské náměstí

Nearest Metro Stop: Staroměstská

Hours: 15:00 – 23:00, Monday-Sunday

Reservations: +420 222 221 111

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

Anyone with a mild interest in the European bar scene or the city of Prague will no doubt have heard of U Zlatého Tygra (At The Golden Tiger), the historic Czech pub and city institution based slap-bang in the tourist hub of Prague’s old town.

Reading about the pub’s stories, its literary connections and seeing the photos of Bill Clinton and his ilk tucking into schnitzel and beer sat among locals may generate a degree of excitement alone, but I will be up front with you about the good – and not so good – aspects of U Zlatého Tygra.

 Let’s begin with the good stuff first, of which there is plenty!

The pub signage with its bas-relief tiger and gold lettering is striking and one of Prague’s true icons. The sign indicates not only the business but also the historical identity of the building, which pre-dates its current use. The interior has hosted various previous operations such as a patriotic café and reading room before the second world war, and undergone rebrands such as U černého tygra (The Black Tiger), U kopáčů (The Dice), and U Kraftů (The Craft) in the past. Its literary leanings continued through the 20th Century, not least due to the patronage of writer Bohumil Hrabal, (now made permanent life President) who had a favourite area of the pub in which he would hold forth on the topics of the day, and just as often sit there quietly absorbing the atmosphere and consumed in his own thoughts. Hrabal passed away shortly before the turn of the century, but the pub keeps his memory alive in the best way possible, with tributes that are lovingly well-pitched but don’t turn the place into a shrine.

The entrance is based down an alleyway rather than on the street-front which I generally quite like as this increases a sense of cosiness and clandestine activity, vital for building the atmosphere in traditional venues like this. Heading inside, the design and layout is an archetypal Czech pub with communal tables, bench-seats installed along the walls, wooden panels, cream (going on yellow) walls and those curved arches so typical of the pivnice style. The stained glass windows (with tiger insignia) allow light in but effectively block out activity from the busy street, creating that cocoon-like feel that most of the best Czech pubs offer.

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Look around and note many framed photographs which present the three key themes of the pub – tigers (of course), famous patrons from sport, art and politics and, as could be predicted: Pilsner Urquell. This lager, while brewed by Plzeňský Prazdroj in Pilsen, not in Prague, is nevertheless synonymous with Prague and  Czechia due to its ubiquity. The Golden Tiger was only the second pub in the city of Prague to secure a contract to service it so there is a long-standing connection not likely to be severed or altered any time soon.

When you consider the old town mean average price for a half-litre of Pilsner Urquell, the prices here are fair-to-middling given the central location, and the first pint of it arrives without your say so (as does a second and a third unless you make a point of putting the mat over your drink). Beware, if you turn up thirsty you could easily find yourself processing several glasses in short order. This is one of those pubs where it’s virtually impossible to leave without at least two.

A slight quirk is an insistence on using 0.45l glasses meaning they gain 10% on each beer. Annoying and cynical, but not worth fussing over too much.

The place sells very little else to drink (see their menu here), and even has a policy of not serving spirits! Highly unusual as nearly every other pub in the country will offer you at least Slivovitz, Becherovka or Fernet Stock.

U Zlateho Tygra was for decades and up until the war a bit of an all-boy’s club, refusing women service and directing them to find the nearest cinema while the menfolk held forth in the pub. However, this culture was broken in fittingly macho fashion by a woman called Lady Helenka, as the tale goes:

“She came here with her fiance Vaclav Prymek, who was an officer and an army pilot. When Lady Helenka was stopped at the door, she promised to keep track. And when the waiter counted the lines on the bill, there were 44 of them. Lady Helenka managed 22 beers that evening, as did her future husband. The waiter laid a white napkin in front of Helenka on the floor, kneeled down and said: Madam, this seat by the counter will always be yours, even if the Egyptian king Faruk comes in.”

22 pints? Sounds crazy but you wouldn’t rule it out.

Now some bad stuff. A famous pub is, as you’d expect, a popular one, with the problem that it cannot accommodate locals and tourists at the same time without losing its appeal pretty quickly. Therefore they have struck some form of compromise.

You may or may not be aware that Czech pubs permit reservations even for the right to perch on a bar stool. This system, so unlike the first-come-first served approach in English pubs can result in disappointment. At U Zlatého Tygra you may as well forget even trying to turn up in the evening unless you have reserved your spot well in advance, though it may be worth enlisting a Czech friend to help secure that.

In the evenings, as there are reservations it feels almost like a private member’s club where you need to stay all evening to get full value for the exclusivity.

Here comes the compromise: there is a way in but it relies on your being prepared to begin drinking mid-afternoon, not always everyone’s favourite starting point. Turn up at 2.50pm, 10 minutes before opening time, join the queue (which at this point may be snaking around the front of the building), and if you’re in the front 30 or so you should be assured of a seat unless you’re in a large group. If you see people pushing in at the front then choose whatever retribution you see fit.

This may not be a concern of yours, but I feel a certain duty, given that I am waxing lyrical about the place, to point out that U Zlatého Tygra is not a museum, and the enduring appeal is because it is not spectacular but authentic and traditional. Even though there is some nice stained glass and a sturdy preserved atmosphere, it’s hardly La Sagrada Familia. Therefore, treat it as the pub it is meant to be – eat, drink and be merry. If you show the staff the respect you would show a host who invited you in, you will not be badly treated.

Inevitably, the authenticity can be occasionally vandalised by some tourists who believe it to be a fairground ride instead of a pub. Their behaviour is offset in amusingly curt fashion by the servers who adopt an uncompromisingly stony-faced approach to anyone who isn’t their mates and anything they regard as bullshit (quite a long list).

This is – depending on your point of view – chauvinistic, deeply cynical in order to maintain their asset, or their absolute right as publicans.

While this can be intimidating, consider it a pushback against the place being overrun with tourists and gentrified, as it surely would be without a little resistance.

While it is easy to have a pop at tourists, in one sense their custom helps keep the philosophy of the place alive –  people from all walks of life sitting around together and enjoying themselves. The pub website explains further through this anecdote:

“There is the story, in which the pre-war French Prime Minister Herriot visited U Zlatého Tygra. He was accompanied by the section chief of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a permanent guest U Zlatého Tygra. They bought pork neck with bread and mustard and fitted incognito in the beer hall . While Herriot was drinking, showed to the opposite side and said : “There is sitting the chair of the Chamber of the Deputies of the Parliament Malypetr, but the gentleman sitting next to him I do not know . ” – The section chief said: ” There is sitting a master of painting from Melantriška. ” Herriot greeted again and then whispered : “But there is sitting the president of the Administrative Court , but the gentleman next to him I do not know. ” Also the guide did not know. Then their neighbour to the right said:” This is a manufacturer of funeral lamps from Karlovka. ” – Surprised Herriot turned to that neighbour and asked : ” And who are you ? “That gentleman raised up his glass and answered” I am a caretaker from Skořepka, please . ” – Then the Prime Minister declared : ” Gentlemen, fault! Democracy is not in France but here ! “

Once the crowds are seated, and after their first beers have been extinguished the atmosphere inside quickly gets going. Among them, comfortable and surrounded by the excitable friendly crowd, with dishes of hot food emerging from the kitchen, it really feels like the place to be.

Whilst seated you will note a stout tapster working flat out to replenish glasses, pausing the flow only to greet and converse with the stamgasty whose presence ensures this most Czech of pubs stays that way.

Due to the tourist trade it’s not somewhere I would choose to go every week – there are other places to go in Prague for an authentic traditional pub experience, without the hype and tourist hordes (Hostomicka Nalevarna, for example, which you can read about by following the link), but there’s no doubt the Golden Tiger has a certain sprinkling of magic borne from its history and ultimately its significance. Try it on different dates and times of day in order to work out when to absorb the most local flavour. As hackneyed as it is to say, you can’t really miss out on a pint in U Zlatého Tygra while in Prague. Which, as discussed above, means two.  This really is a pub to be reckoned with.