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Patras, this year’s European Capital of Culture June 28, 2006

Posted by grhomeboy in Greece Mainland, Patras Caltural Capital 2006.

Look past the industrial waterfront of Patras, this year’s European Capital of Culture, and you’ll find some great open-air drama and all the tumbledown romance of a city with a glorious past.

As you roll off the boat from Italy, Patras offers an unprepossessing welcome to the glories of Greece. Rusting cargo boats, dredgers and ferries and an industrial quayside seem very far from the white cottages and blue-domed churches you may have been expecting. There’s a strong temptation to push on through to prettier parts, as I did the first few times I got off the ferry here.

But hold on: there is more to Greece’s third city than first meets the eye. Patras’s new landmark, the Rio-Antirio road bridge, for example, is one of Europe’s most beautiful pieces of engineering – a swoop of pylons and cables poised above the narrows of the Gulf of Corinth, linking Patras, on the southern shore, with the northern mainland.

As so often happens with grand Greek projects, the plans to rejuvenate Patras for its big year as European Capital of Culture have – for the time being – run into the sand: the waterfront is still undergoing improvement. It was this area that made Patras wealthy. In the years after independence, when the dried grapes of the Peloponnese were the Greek republic’s only cash export, they were shipped from the Gulf of Corinth to the west’s markets.

“Corinths” became “currants”, and the wealthy currant merchants endowed Patras with the pastel-painted, neo-classical townhouses that were the trademark of Greece’s 19th-century nouveaux-riches.

You’ll find plenty of these houses as you escape the ruckus of the waterfront and climb the flights of steps into the old quarter, capped by the tumbledown ramparts of the Kastro, a Byzantine-Frankish-Turkish fortress. Press on to the top for one of the great Greek panoramas. Out to sea, Cephalonia, Ithaki and Zakynthos look near enough to touch on a clear, summer’s day. North, across the Gulf, you’ll see the sierras of the Sterea Ellada. South and east, ridge after ridge of misty blue summits rise towards the Erymanthos range.

A Roman theatre with seats for more than 2,000 stands outside the Kastro, and a grandiloquent basilica – a 19th-century extravaganza that always looks to me like a miniature Kremlin – holds the skull and bones of St Andrew, martyred in Patras, along with fragments of his saltire cross.

But the real reason to go to Patras now is its Capital of Culture programme, which features reinterpretations of ancient drama in the Odeon and other open-air venues, along with contemporary music, theatre, dance and cinema.

Culture-capital pretensions aside, Patras is a lively town, fuelled by a big student body (more than one in 10 of its 200,000 population are students) and happily free of the need to pander to tourism.

Pedestrianised Plateia Agiou Nikolaou is the hub of the city’s café society, with indoor and outdoor bars and restaurants in and around the terraces of its grand neo-classical buildings. Beneath the Kastro, Plateia Psila Alonia, with shady trees and wonderful views, is one big mass of tables and the best place to watch the sun set.

Worth a visit four miles west of Patras is the Achaia Clauss winery. Gustav Clauss – one of the carpet-baggers who came to Greece at the behest of the modernising King Otho II, scion of the Bavarian royal family – may have been the first of the “flying winemakers”.

His winery, founded in 1861, introduced modern mass production to the vineyards of Achaia. To blame for two of the world’s best wines – Demestica and Maphrodaphne – Achaia Clauss still makes 30 million litres a year, and its mock-baronial hilltop winery is worth a visit if only for a reminder of how much Greek wines have improved.

Hopelessly, romantically incongruous, Chlemoutsi (a short distance from Kyllini, where hydrofoils and ferries from Cephalonia and Zakynthos dock) is the outstanding relic of the brief Frankish princedom of the Morea, ruled by the Villehardouin dynasty through most of the 13th century. Ignored until the 1980s, restoration now reveals it as one of the great medieval castles of Europe.

I don’t think I’d want to spend a week in Patras – but this summer it’s going to be well worth making time for a trip from Athens or the islands for a taste of one of Greece’s best-kept city secrets.

Patras basics

For independent travellers, trains and buses from Athens run along the south shore of the Gulf of Corinth (via Corinth) and take about three hours. From the Ionian islands, ferries run daily from Cephalonia and Zakynthos (both via Kyllini).

From Corfu, there’s a ferry to Igoumenitsa and an express bus (four to five hours).

From Kalamata and the southern Peloponnese take the bus (around four hours) or the train (around five hours).

Staying there

Primarolia Art Hotel, Othonos Amalias 33 (0030 2610 624900; www.arthotel.gr 170€-260€ double or suite ) a boutique hotel with its own art gallery occupies an elegantly restored 19th-century building; Hotel Byzantino, Riga Feraiou 106 (2610 243000; from 80€).

Further information
Visit www.patras2006.gr/en for details of the Capital of Culture programme.

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