Times change. Tastes change. Once, the thing which would have lured me into a bar would have been the fact it sold alcohol, no matter that it was a dingy, underground dive where the carpet was stickier than sticky the stick insect, or that vinegar fleas added a certain je ne se quoi to the cider.
These days I’m pickier. A bar has to work to lure me in with promises of something different, surroundings which will sate my eyes and not just my thirst. Last time I visited my home town of Rothesay on the Isle of Bute, the painted out windows of many bars frowned at me. They didn’t say ‘come on in and enjoy a Scottish welcome’. They growled ‘come on in if you think you’re hard enough’. I know they’re not like that at all once you step inside (well, maybe some are), but I looked at them the way a first time visitor would and they were not inviting places.
On a one night stopover in Athens recently our feet screeched to a halt outside a tiny bar where rows of brightly lit bottles lined the old-fashioned shelves on one wall, oak casks covered another whilst inside the door stood an old copper vat. It looked interesting, cosy, fun, inviting; the sort of place we just had to enjoy a tipple in. So we did.
As I sipped a decent Greek red, Madrid popped into my head; specifically the tapas bars lining streets around the Plaza de Santa Ana area where there were many bars that enticed me. If you imagine Santa Ana as a big top, the bars lining the spokes leading from the plaza are the sideshows – each gaudy, risqué, artistically tiled facade bellowing theatrically “roll up, roll up” to wide-eyed wanderers such as me.
Where tapas menus varied little, the painted tiles hugging doorways and window frames gave each bar a unique personality, occasionally adding a burlesque art gallery element to casual meandering.
Some hinted at a throwback to times when you’d park your steed, and pop inside to drink ale from a tankard.
Others had the appearance of inns whose mission was once to cater for weary pilgrims, although interior images suggested that in days of yore ‘catering’ consisted of possibly more than just food and alcohol.
Many looked like the sort of drinking establishment you could set up your ancient Olivetti and begin typing a story of love, betrayal and redemption inspired by atmospheric surroundings and a constantly changing swirl of characters who temporarily propped up polished, scarred wooden counters.
And then there were those establishments which really did seem like part of a circus sideshow – enter if you dare. No apto para beatos (not suitable for the blessed), a bar for sinners only. Barman, pour me another.
Many had a few characteristics in common – apart from imagination-prodding facades, huge glass windows revealed warm, individualistic interiors; drinking dens which still repelled the march of homogeneous international blands… sorry, brands.
The trouble with places like these is they raise – apologies for this – the bar, making too many gin joints in other locations seem like dullards which make you want to do a Dionne Warwick rather than enter their premises.