Of Pints and Paintings: Travel Suggestions for the Cultured Drinker

Alexander Butcher 31 January 2019
Source: Pixabay

I generally receive very little criticism for my efforts in journalism, not so much as a reflection of its quality (for even I have my doubts about that), but rather because very few people read it. Amongst that little criticism I do receive, however, is the charge that it isn’t very relevant to the typical student. ‘It’s all well writing about visiting Havana, Alex, but I’m not going to take a couple of weeks off just before my exams to blow a few thousand pounds just for the pleasure of eating flavourless beans and catching Dengue fever’ – I hear you cry. And you may well have a point.

What students want are results: short, cheap, accessible trips that pack in enough alcohol units in three days to hospitalise an entire fleet of Russian sailors. With this in mind, and always willing to please, I helpfully set about compiling a list of some of the world’s finest drinking locations. It wasn’t long before I had a moment of crisis, however. Typing away between sips of a particularly refreshing Tetley’s smooth (it’s important for the writer to really get inside his subject material), it suddenly struck me that what I was creating was starting to look ominously like a Tab article. Now that is not to say that I have any thing against the writing in the Tab, on the contrary, my life would be a lot simpler if all I had to do to meet my weekly article quota was compare things to crisp packets or some such. But TCS readers are a demanding bunch: they seek erudition in all things, and might frown upon my efforts. So in order to please all, I have sought to combine the pleasures of cheap alcohol with a vague effort at seeming cultured (isn’t that what Cambridge life is basically about?), and selected three of the best holiday destinations for the ‘thinking drinker’.

Belgrade, Serbia

Despite a benighted history in which it has been destroyed and rebuilt more than 40 times, Belgrade still has much to offer. Excellently situated on the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers, and possessing a fascinating mix of western and Slavic architectural styles, Belgrade has done much in recent years to establish itself as a leading cultural centre. The significance of the wildly popular annual FEST film festival is eclipsed only by the popularity of the city’s annual book fair, which draws almost 200,000 literary enthusiasts a year, while the imposing National Theatre has long committed itself to offering a wide range of performance of both theatre and opera, remaining open even when the rest of the city was being pounded by NATO aircraft during the 1990s. Art is another speciality: both the National Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art contain fine collections with strong representations of both domestic and international artists. Also worth a visit is the city’s battle scarred fortress: a two millennia old relic that has passed thorough the hands of the Romans, Byzantines, Ottomans and Austrians to name but a few, the fortress is the perhaps the perfect embodiment of the city’s troubled (but entirely fascinating) history.

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a people somewhat over accustomed to the strains of war, Belgrade also plays host to a sturdy drinking scene. The local sauce is Rakija, a fruit brandy of particular potency (alcohol contents can creep up to a paint-stripper emulating 65%) that no Serbian celebration is complete without. If you find the prospect of going blind irrationally frightening, however, there are always plenty of other options, and with the city possessing some of the lowest alcohol prices in Europe, you won’t have to stretch yourself very much to get hold of it.

Return flights from £150.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Chisinau, Moldova

As the capital city of a country that is small, landlocked and burdened with the lowest per-capita GDP in Europe, Chisinau is sadly assigned a low profile amongst Europe’s tourist destinations. This is a shame for a number of reasons. The city is genuinely well worth-visiting for its eclectic mix of classical, Russian revivalist and Soviet brutalist architecture, arranged around an urban space that combines large amounts of greenery with a stately mix of public monuments and wide boulevards. It also hosts a number of fascinating museums accommodating a wide variety of interests: not to be missed is the National Museum of Moldovan Art, whose styles represent the attempts of numerous artists to navigate the complex cultural transitions Moldova has had to make over the last two centuries.

The City is also an alcoholic’s delight; in fact the whole country is. With the highest per capita alcohol consumption in the world you will be hard-pressed to out-drink the locals, but you can try your best to emulate them. This should be perfectly possible, for half a litre of domestic beer can be had for less than a pound. What’s more, Moldova is home to a flourishing wine industry: one quarter of the population is involved in the wine industry in some way or another. Especially good are the much lauded wines produced by the Fautor winery, which utilise the indigenous Rară Neagră grape to provide an especially light-bodied pallet (if that means anything).

Return flights from £123.

Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Sofia, Bulgaria

That I’m choosing to reverse the established formula of this article and dive right into the Sofian boozing scene should not be taken to mean that the city is a cultural lightweight, quite the contrary, actually. It’s just the city is a drinker’s paradise. The city has repeatedly been found to have the cheapest unit prices in the whole of Europe: a magical land where pints can be had for a liver-eviscerating 50p or less, a price that wouldn’t even get you the head of a beer in a run-down London pub where you’re mates with the barman. But beer is only the start, the city also does a good line in summer drinking. Especially good is Menta – a mint based liquor, which is often combined with other beverages to form a good cocktail.

If you have managed to soak this all up (and if you have, you are made of stronger stuff than me), and are still in the mood to broaden your cultural horizons, Sofia has you covered. The city has an immensely storied history that reflects numerous transitions between Roman, Hunnic, Bulgar, Ottoman and Soviet rule, to name but a view. Although brutalist architecture is all to well represented in many parts of the city, the Russian revivalist, neo-gothic and Baroque revival edifices can be found in abundance. More excitingly, the city has managed to cling on to some of its ancient Roman architecture: the fetching 4th Century church of St. George is one of Europe’s oldest churches and contains several magnificent Byzantine mosaics, whilst the 6th Century church of Saint Sofia remains one of the best-preserved examples of monumental Byzantine church construction away from Istanbul or Ravenna. Both of these churches are dwarfed by the enormous St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, a late 19th Century colossus that is not only one of the largest examples of Orthodox church architecture anywhere in the world, but of church construction in general. If churches are not really your scene (and if you are the sort of person who is obsessed with cheap alcohol, they may well not be) then you can always check out the National Gallery Square 500, a complex of art galleries that accommodates a huge variety of foreign art alongside Bulgarian work.

Return flights from £50.

Source: Max Pixel