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
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
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