Orzo Bruno, Pisa

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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.

Bar Pastis, Barcelona

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what’s this all about then?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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