In Europe, on any given night, pubs, beer halls, patios, even streets, ring out with alcoholic revelry. Drinking establishments are focal points for communities. By spending time in a local bar, you’ll feel the pulse of the community.
During the summer, many European cities take on a festive atmosphere. The social aspect of drinking is as important as catching a buzz, and the general conviviality is contagious.
When my friend and I left for Europe with only the scantiest of itineraries, we knew we wanted to see the requisite cultural sites – the Sistine Chapel, the Louvre, the Acropolis and dozens of other musts that fill the pages of guidebooks. But we also wanted to mingle with the locals – what better way then in their drinking establishments. So began our European pub crawl.
Our first stop, London, plunged us into an impressive drinking culture. Despite years of training, even we were shocked by the magnitude of drunkenness. It was only a little past lunchtime, yet the Underground was teeming with shouting, laughing, shoving drunks. Emerging from Piccadilly Circus station, we saw people brandishing huge Union Jack flags and talking excitedly about football. Ah, now it made sense, we had been plopped down in the middle of London during the World Cup.
By evening the partying had settled down, but the pubs still drew large crowds. People of all ages mingled together at the bars. At every pub, we were drawn into conversations, and had drinks bought for us; in England it’s customary to trade off buying rounds. Politeness often leads to excess since you can’t stop before you’ve bought your round. Having more than we intended, we heaved up our glasses for a final “cheers", then lurched back to our room.
We arrived at Rome’s bustling Station Termini in a foul mood. The day long train ride had been devoid of food, and what’s worse, water. We settled on splitting a warm Moretti beer, which was far from thirst quenching. Potential pickpockets were everywhere, so we hastily grabbed our bags and exited to the excitement of the streets.
We walked everywhere, even in the heat of the noonday sun, while others were sensibly tucked indoors. Streets in Rome defy logic, in frustration we discarded our maps. Somehow, though, we stumbled upon what we wished to see – the Coliseum, the Fountain de Trevi, the Vatican, the Pantheon and, most importantly, great places to imbibe.
In Rome, socializing and drinking isn’t confined to bars or restaurants – it spills into the streets. Little carts, stocked with beer and other alcoholic beverages, roam the streets on summer nights. We bought a bottle of Chianti once, and picked out a spot to sit on the Spanish Steps. People all around us were sipping from similar bottles, relishing the ambience.
As summer evenings are predictably warm in Greece, patios crowd with people of all ages, and are an important component of Greek nightlife. Here the dinners are leisurely and the smoke hovering around the tables is intense.
You can’t pass through Greece without having a sip of the lethal national drink, Ouzo. It’s made from pressed grapes, herbs and berries. Each shot of the licorice tasting liquor is accompanied by a toast and is often served with small savory snacks. Though potent, Ouzo is generally not drunk merely to get a buzz; rather the social aspect of drinking is what’s so crucial to the Greeks.
Beer is served by the liter in Germany, half-liters are available for those faint of heart. Two beers and even an experienced drinker will feel at least a little looped. The beer is usually on the lighter side – pilsners and hefeweizens predominate – but not of the watery American variety. Germany takes its beer seriously. There’s even a German Purity Law, which dictates how beer should be produced and served. Germans consume around 115 liters of beer per capita a year – a lot of brews.
There are roughly 1,200 breweries crammed into Germany. Some of the best reside in Munich – Paulener, Spaten, Lowenbrau, Hofbrauhaus and Augustinerbrau, to name a few. Judging from the packed beer gardens at midday, it’s socially acceptable to drink at all hours. The atmosphere changes at night, when people move from the brilliant sunshine of the beer gardens to the cavernous beer halls.
In the beer hall we hung out in, archetypical beer maids, gripping several steins in each hand, served the beer. Drinkers, packing the long wooden benches, swayed to the polka beat, as German beer songs were belted out. We couldn’t understand a word of the songs, but their sense of joy pervaded the hall. Swaying to the music, we hefted our beers, clinked steins with those sitting next to us and slightly slurred the German toast, Prosit.
Dublin is a sophisticated city filled with trendy bars, but fortunately the dive pub has survived. Some of the older pubs are divided into two sides – a bar for men and an adjoining lounge for women. Nowadays, of course, women and men are found on either side. Music, sports, craic (loosely translated as good conversation), bizarre flavors of crisps – steak and pickle are a popular one – and pints of velvety Guinness are essential to any Irish pub.
In the summer, the distinctly Irish and amazingly brutal sports, Gaelic football and hurling, pack the pubs on Sunday afternoons. Hurling looks like a cross between field hockey and lacrosse, but more violent. Gaelic football resembles something in between rugby and soccer. These sports are an extreme point of pride, not only for the players, but also for the 32 Irish counties they represent.
Right Up Your Kilt
Teetotalers are rare in Scotland, and thankfully my aunt, who became our local guide, is no exception. Drink is a major part of the Scottish identity. Even its greatest export proudly bears the nation’s name. There are dozens of whisky distilleries within Scotland, whole stores are dedicated to the sale of the “water of life".
The rolling hills of Scotland’s Speyside region are dotted with distilleries. The tiny town of Dufftown boasts five preeminent distilleries – Glenfiddich, Balvanie, Dufftown, Mortlach and Glendullan. One afternoon while walking on the outskirts of town, we bumped into Mr. Strathdee. He was in his eighties and, as the broken blood vessels around his nose attested to, fond of the drink. He invited us to his place for a dram (a rather hefty shot of whisky). He poured the drams from a massive bottle of Glenfarclas, with his grinning picture on the label – an eightieth birthday present from the owner of Glenfarclas. After the first sip, my cheeks flushed and my throat burned. On our walk back to the hotel, for the first time since my arrival in Scotland, I didn’t feel the bone-chilling dampness.
Whisky isn’t the only alcohol widely produced and enjoyed in Scotland. Scotland also makes several world class beers – many in the capital, Edinburgh, which gives the city a distinct smell of hops. Partaking in too much, whether whisky or beer, is not unknown. On weekend mornings the disgusting evidence of the previous night’s revelry can be found on many sidewalks.
Two months later my plane touched down in San Francisco. Aside from a bottle of Glenfarclas, a passport filled with exotic stamps and an emerging beer belly, I brought back few physical mementos from my travels. But even now, as I sip a pint of Guinness or glass of Chianti, or let a shot of Ouzo slide down my throat, the memories of that summer come flooding back to me.