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Patras: Europe’s lively Capital of Culture July 3, 2006

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

Europe’s lively new Capital of Culture has an unpretenious charm that is hard to resist.

For most tourists, Patras is just a big noisy port on the northern coast of the Peloponnese – a hop-off point for ferry trips to the islands and Italy. Few linger. Not even Byron; he first set foot in Greece here, then promptly left.

But there is a reason to stay. Patras, Greece’s third largest city, is European Capital of Culture for 2006. And as Christos Roilos, co-ordinator of a year-long programme of music, exhibitions and street theatre, explained: “We have 1.5 million visitors passing through each year, so our strategy is to use this event to help us become somewhere people will want to remain.”

It has to be said that although nearly €135 million have been earmarked for regeneration, the work is significantly behind schedule. My walks during a visit earlier last year were punctuated by the sound of pneumatic drills and the sight of potholes and cordoned-off pavements. Yet this noisy mayhem didn’t entirely mask what is an authentic and vigorous city, and one with some surprises.

First stop: an exhibition of old film clips. Shots of local houses devastated during the Second World War and streets swamped by the floods of 1997 painted a moving portrait of a city accustomed to reinvention. And there are echoes of this renewal wherever you go.

Escaping the noisy port area, I climbed the hundred steps from pedestrianised Aghios Nikolaos up to the old town. Here, the Byzantine ruins of the old Kastro preside over a delightful district of calm, narrow lanes. Traffic noise gives way to bird-filled orange groves, and office blocks to country-style villas. A neighbouring odeon, built in AD 150 and seating 2,300 spectators, still stages classical plays and rock concerts. The mountains to the north are a backdrop to the blue expanse of the Gulf of Corinth, with distant silhouettes of Cephalonia and Ithaca.

At St Andrew’s church, you can see remnants of the diagonal crucifix on which this apostle of Greece and Asia Minor was martyred. His skull is preserved in an ornate reliquary.

Nearby is a café-studded square, Plateia Psila Alonia. Shady umbrella pines, cool bars and tremendous views have made it the trendiest spot in Patras. Yet even here the past is present. There’s a sizeable chunk of old Roman wall beneath its southern end, and in the 19th century, when the currant industry brought prosperity, fruit were dried and sorted here.

The homes of the European currant merchants can be seen throughout Patras – grand, pastel-painted neo-classical villas with ornate balconies, many of which are being renovated as part of this year’s cultural programme. But one merchant’s involvement with currant affairs led to something more lasting than dried fruit.

Spotting the potential in the rolling hills of Achaia, Gustav Clauss, a Bavarian, set up Greece’s first commercial bottling plant. His winery, Achaia Clauss, is now famed for Demestica, and Mavrodaphne, the second oldest sweet wine after port.

The winery’s mementoes include handwritten orders from Bismarck and Liszt, and a note from Alistair MacLean thanking the producers for naming one of their wines “Navarone”.

Back in the city, Patras’s huge student population flocks to innumerable bars, from the sugar-pink retro-chic of Si Doux on Patreos Street to the stylish cafes flanking Aghios Nikolaos. There is not a Starbucks in sight. From the terrace of Palaion bar, I watched a tipsy parade of pre-carnival revellers decked out in tricorn hats, velvet cloaks and fancy ball-gowns, swaying in time to the strains of a bouzouki, before stopping at a nearby bar to refuel.

In contrast, Ichthyoskala, a no-frills fish shack located by the port, had me settling into the real Greece. Gnarled fishermen eyed me with curiosity. The waitress looked baffled. Not a tourist in sight. Yet I soon felt perfectly at home. Having chosen my fish from a wooden crate, I enjoyed a delicious supper of grilled sole, halva smeared with honey and a complimentary carafe of Mavrodaphne.

If you like Greece to be gritty rather than pretty, Patras takes some beating.

Patras basics

Stay in Patras at the boutique Primarolia Art Hotel, 2610-624900, www.arthotel.gr/primarolia

For details of the Capital of Culture programme see www.patras2006.gr.

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