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.

Jazz Kocsma, Szeged

jazzkocsma

Kálmány Lajos u. 14, 6721 Hungary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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