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Patras > Cultural Capital of Europe 2006 June 2, 2006

Posted by grhomeboy in Greece Mainland, Patras Caltural Capital 2006.
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As this year’s Cultural Capital of Europe, Patras is making room for actors, artists, musicians — and an influx of visitors.

Once again, Europeans have chosen a relatively obscure spot as the Cultural Capital of the continent.

For two decades, the European Union has shown a fondness for conferring this annual designation on lesser-known locales. While London, Vienna and Rome remain absent from the list, Krakow, Bruges and Salamanca have all held this title in recent years.

This year, it’s Patras’s turn. Throughout 2006, this Greek city of 200,000 on the western end of the Peloponnesian Peninsula will host performances and exhibitions that will make it more prominent on tourists’ itineraries.

Patras is far from a tourism-driven fabrication — and that’s both a strength and a weakness. There are a few ancient ruins (the site has been inhabited for at least 4,000 years) scattered about the town, a Turkish bath, a cozy little museum and the grand Cathedral of Saint Andrew. However, much of Patras is fairly modern — and the buildings along the arcaded commercial streets range from stylish and immaculate to near collapse. Being a university town, there’s a lively club scene, and good shopping, especially for leather and jewellery.

There’s no major airport, though, and cruise ships don’t call there. But Patras isn’t hard to reach. It’s about four hours by road or rail from Athens, and can also be approached via the spectacular new Rion-Antirion bridge spanning the Gulf of Corinth.

As well, Patras is connected to Brindisi, Italy, and other Adriatic ports by ferry. All these factors have made the city an important transit point, so there’s no lack of hotel facilities. Yet for most of the year, Patras tends to be a place people go through, not to.

The exception is the annual carnival, which runs from late January to early March, attracting visitors from all over Greece. For 170 years, this pre-Lenten celebration has grown to become one of the largest carnivals in Europe, full of street parades, music and a masked ball called the Bourboulia. And this year, Cultural Capital events have been piggybacked onto the festivities, giving the six-week party a cosmopolitan flavour.

Patras’s Carnival ended on March 5 with fireworks and the ritual burning of the Carnival King. The Cultural Capital programming, however, offers themed events spread over the rest of the year.

May and June will feature Contemporary Approaches to Ancient Drama, a series of interpretive productions of classics such as Aeschylus’s The Libation Bearers (May 19-22), Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex (May 26, 27) and Euripides’s Bacchae (May 30-June 6). Many performances take place in the ancient outdoor theatre, the Odeum.

From June through September, music is Patras’s cultural agenda. Maxim Shostakovich (son of Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich) will lead the Orchestra of Patras on June 29, renowned conductor and cellist Mstislav Rostropovich will bring the National Orchestra of Lithuania to town on July 19, and the Pittsburgh Symphony will pay a visit on Aug. 28.

November is “Religion and Art” month, with an exhibition on St. Andrew — Patras’s patron saint and one-time resident — and a performance by the Greek Byzantine Choir Nov. 3. December’s theme is “Children’s Art.”

When you’re in Patras, you can always drop by the city’s information centre on Othonos Amalias Street. The staff are friendly and knowledgeable, and they’ll even lend you a bicycle, free, to tour the city. (I took one up to the ruins of the medieval castle, where there’s a fine view of the sea and snow-capped mountains.) Their expectations are modest: They offer brochures on how to best spend a few hours, or perhaps a day, in the city.

Will the Cultural Capital designation and programming attract a different kind of tourism to Patras? “People from Greece will come,” said one hotel manager, shaking his head. “But not from other countries.”

And perhaps it is a bit much to expect for this Greek city to suddenly transform itself into a major destination. But if you’re in Greece this year, stop by. In 2006, Patras is well worth a day — or maybe even two.

For more information, visit http://www.patras2006.gr or http://www.infocenterpatras.gr.

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