I am no red-nosed tippler, but I like bars. When I travel, a bar or pub has a way of cheering me up. It is a modern-day tavern for the traveller, offering shelter from the storm of stimuli of a day spent sightseeing. It’s where I slow down and gauge a city’s vibe, its friendliness, food, and musical tastes. Choosing the right kind of bar has always been an important part of my itinerary making.
For instance, in the magnetic Swiss city of Lucerne, I found an old-fashioned British pub a few metres from the 600-year-old Kapellbrücke bridge. This bar festooned with football flags became my favoured spot for my two nights in the city. I sat at the tables on the pavement outside, watching passers-by feed swans floating on the Reuss River. Inside, there was happy cheering as a favourite team scored a goal. When I ducked in for some warmth and a refill, the cheerful bartender took me under his wing. He handed me free tumblers of various brews, and kept an eye out for any overenthusiastic barflies. As the night stretched its long limbs, I struck up friendships with members of a young British rock band and itinerant consultants. Many a song was sung and that evening, in a very English bar in a very Swiss town, I felt the spirit of joie de vivre with a bunch of strangers.
In Amsterdam a few years earlier, two friends, my husband, and I spent three days admiring van Gogh’s work, ambling by skinny townhouses, and feeding ducks at the lush Vondelpark. But our evenings were reserved for an atmospheric bar with an unpronounceable name in the charming Jordaan district. We found it quite by chance while looking for an escape from the crowds at Dam Square, and it became one of the highlights of our trip. Occupying the same little table each evening, at the very edge of a canal, we downed pint after pint of locally produced craft beer. We revelled in the nostalgia of college days and discussed future plans. One of our friends used the Hindi word mahaul to describe our mood and that bar—a combination of a great setting, good company, and a feeling of comfort or cosiness. And this bar was indeed all mahaul. It gave us the space for heart-to-heart chats as well as the chance to pause in companionable silence and admire the city’s centuries-old buildings. It drew us into the neighbourhood, giving us a window into a city that we had just a short time to explore. And, more than anything, it brought us closer to each other.
On a trip to Paris, my aim was to follow Hemingway’s trail, and find his historical stomping grounds in and around Saint-Germain. Instead, the city’s diverse charms held me in their thrall, and I went about making my own Paris memories. In the gentrified working class neighbourhood of Belleville, I found Aux Folies, a grungy, lively joint where painters, poets, and students gather. Tables are shared, as are jokes and the occasional carafe of vino, and as the night progresses, the place fills up with Parisians and visitors searching for their own moveable feast.
All through my travels, I always find a bar that later reminds me of the place and vice versa. An alternative graffiti-scrawled bar in downtown Jerusalem was an eye opener. I sat among bearded 20-somethings quaffing beer and learnt much about the conflicted politics of one of the world’s most ancient cities. On sun-bleached Havelock Island in the Andamans, there was a terraced bar where my husband and I, on our honeymoon, spent many evenings. Through a canopy of leaves, over the rim of tropical martinis, we looked at the orange sun dip into the sea and imagined our happy future. The gregarious Italian owner cooked us a freshly caught lobster which we ate in soft candlelight. The soundtrack of crickets, the distant roar of waves, a low hum of conversation, and the love in our young hearts made this an island bar we will always remember. In Cairo, a city of many teetotallers, I found a bar in Zamalek where men and women mingled freely and danced with abandon outside of the dicta of regressive regimes.
I think there is a reason why so many jokes begin with “A man walks into a bar…” This is a space of merriment and mirth, where strangers are rendered less strange, and a city becomes less alien. And every time I am far away from home, it is a bar that always grabs a little piece of both my liver and my heart.
Diya Kohli is the former Senior Associate Editor at National Geograpic Traveller India. She loves the many stories of big old cities. For her, the best kind of travel experience involves long rambling walks through labyrinthine lanes with plenty of food stops along the way.