Patras, Beyond the Porthole

Greece’s third largest city is the European Cultural Capital

By: Amanda Castleman

The bulky, white boats wallow at the docks. Their bellies swell with tourists, lured by exotic dreams, the siren songs of Captain Corelli in Cephalonia and la dolce vita in Italy. Many travelers see Patras as a dim station a smear of ticket booths and cheap cafes, a grungy working port no more than a stopping place en route to somewhere else.

But Greece’s third largest city has blossomed into a sophisticated center, adorned with leafy arcades, vibrant squares and neoclassical architecture. Cafes, tavernas and bars sprawl into Patras’ broad streets. Business is brisk. Boutiques gleam on every corner, peddling chic clothing and dazzling chrome gadgets.

Small wonder the European Union is honoring this hot spot in 2006. Patras is the third Greek Capital of Culture, following in the footsteps of Athens and Thessalonica. The plan inspired by Hellenic muse Melina Mercouri, the late actress and activist is to sponsor events ranging from classical drama to graffiti exhibitions.

High Jinx and High Spirits
Patras’ renown is partly due to its carnival. One of the world’s largest after Venice and Rio de Janeiro, it attracts some half a million people mid-January to mid-March. The Treasure Hunt remains a highlight: Hundred-strong teams many with goofy names like “Blue Flames” or “Golf Sexperience” comb the city for hidden prizes. Balls and concerts abound as well, along with a confetti fight and “chocolate war.” Karnavalos, the king puppet, leads the final, wild procession on the day before Orthodox lent. After a solemn farewell, he is burnt on the city pier, as fireworks light up the night sky.

Also in Patras, the “nymph of the Patrasikos” lies on the northern coast of the Peloponnesus, close to the ancient sites of Delphi, Epidaurus and Olympia. Settled around 1100 B.C., this rich coastal area fell to the Romans a millennium later.

The first apostle, Andrew, introduced Christianity to Greece there, and the Emperor Nero martyred him where the cathedral now stands. Finished in 1974, St. Andrews houses up to 8,000 worshippers.

Archaeology buffs delight in the Roman Odeon, the most important of its kind after Athens’ Theater of Herod Atticus. Reconstructed and swathed in marble, it still hosts summer performances.

Patras’ castle dominates the hillside nearby. The massive fortress, built in the 6th century over the ancient acropolis, was used until World War II. The site is now a rambling, shady park with views of Zante and Cephalonia. A wild swath (known as dasyllio, the small forest) stretches west. To the east lies Plateia Psila Alonia, the “balcony of Patras.” Locals gather there by the slender palms and splashing fountain to sip coffee and watch the port below.

Intrepid travelers venture farther uphill to the Achaia Clauss winery, where sweet, purple Mavrodaphne is made. Gustav Clauss, a Bavarian, founded the wine estate in 1861. The stout walls and towers were not for show but to ward off bandit attacks. Now Clauss’ blends are more likely to attract celebrities than brigands. Franz Liszt, Aristotle Onassis and Margaret Thatcher all visited the “imperial cellar,” home to 128 rare barrels worth millions of dollars.

The winery is an unexpected gem, like the city itself. Patras will never distract from its sirens, Italy and the Ionian Islands, but perhaps tourists might give this neglected nymph a chance to shine.


Patras is a smooth, pleasant drive from Athens, about 130 miles along the coastal E65 highway. Greece’s second largest port services the Ionian Islands and Italian destinations, such as Brindisi, Ancona, Bari and Venice.
Clients can climb the 193 steps crowning Agiou Nikolaou to Patras’ castle (26-1062-3390; closed Monday). The Roman Odeon lies on the corner of Germanou and Sothriadou streets (26-1022-0829; closed Monday).
Travelers can also visit the Achaia Clauss Winery, a 10-minute drive outside town on Patron-Clauss Avenue (2610-368100).

European Capital of Culture festivities

Patras Carnival information

Patras Tourism Information