After I visited Patra for the primary time, I used to be baffled. Driving in from Athens by means of the trendy sprawl alongside the coast, I couldn’t perceive how the third largest metropolis in Greece may very well be so missing in allure. The place had been the string of seafront eating places that I used to be anticipating, the sixth-century fortress and the museum? The 2 photos that I took away then had been of a kitsch lodge modelled on a fortress, full with crenellations: its home windows had been boarded up and weeds grew from the doorway. It was like one thing from a nightmarish, deserted Disneyland. After which there was a tragic, rusting ferry languishing within the port, its identify, Ionian Queen, solely emphasising the sense of a misplaced however wonderful previous.
On a return journey final yr, although, I discovered one other facet to this metropolis. In Patra, as in so many Greek cities and cities, magnificence lives cheek by jowl with dereliction. Neoclassical nestles subsequent to 1970s. To like Greece, it’s a must to embrace moderately than despair at this chaos, typified by the crumbling mansions, the black sheets at their home windows flapping within the breeze. These buildings are funereal, dramatic, precarious, ready to be saved, however even now including to the town’s fascinating texture.
On that second go to, I approached the town from a distinct path. It was through one of the crucial stunning bridges I’ve ever seen. The swish curve of the 2km Rio-Antirrio suspension bridge, which hyperlinks the Peloponnese with mainland Greece, makes an exhilarating strategy and, at nightfall, when lit, is much more magical. It was accomplished simply in time for the 2004 Olympic Video games and is without doubt one of the most spectacular legacies from that point. Maybe the night was a greater second to reach, with every little thing illuminated and the streets and squares thronging with individuals, strolling and socialising. Patra has a large scholar inhabitants that provides to its liveliness (in addition to protecting costs noticeably low in bars and eating places).
At evening, the big central sq., Plateia Georgiou, has an actual magic and insanity. It’s a large acreage of clean, shiny marble, framed by a combination of practical five-storey 1970s blocks, 19th-century mansions and one of many prettiest buildings in Greece: the beautiful 19th-century Apollon Theatre designed by Ernst Ziller. Earthquakes have frequently broken buildings in Patra and the survival of this jewel within the centre appears a miracle. One night after I was there, an viewers was spilling out after a play so I went in to take a look at the gold and red-velvet inside, the 5 tiers of wood balconies forming a neat symmetrical cocoon.
There was one other inside that I’ll always remember. A couple of minutes’ stroll from the centre is the most important church in Greece, St Andrew’s Cathedral. Inaugurated in 1974 and nonetheless dazzlingly white on the surface, it’s devoted to the saint who was martyred in Patra. His relics lie inside, together with a big part of the saltire cross on which he was crucified. Normally while you go to church buildings in Mediterranean nations, you go from gentle into darkness, however right here my eyes needed to regulate to the brightness of the inside, not its gloom. It’s spectacularly vibrant and optimistic, filled with photos not simply of saints but additionally of nature. All the pieces is exaggerated (together with the five-metre-long gold-plated cross) however its cheerful flamboyance fully charmed me. There was additionally a river of piped orthodox chant that by no means ceased, a sound solely interrupted by a cleaner answering her telephone. Earthly and divine appeared to fulfill on this house.
The church isn’t merely a large reliquary. It’s a residing respiration place with a relentless stream of locals coming and going with their procuring in hand, kissing icons and scribbling notes for the priest, together with guests marvelling on the artwork and sheltering from the cares of the world within the inside sunshine. All the constructing is a festivity of life.
Ultimately, I additionally discovered the Roman stays I used to be anticipating, in addition to an excellent archaeological museum and a number of other beautiful Byzantine church buildings. The numerous cafes and bars near the centre (and close to the ocean) had been additionally alluring. Aptaliko serves improbable trendy Greek meals, and my favorite place for espresso is Discover Your Way, a superbly designed, very trendy cafe inside a bookshop, the place you possibly can learn or use laptops for so long as you need.
I’m not certain that my newest e book, Cartes Postales, would exist with out Patra. This can be a metropolis that represents the extremes of Greece and the underlying chaos of all of it, contrasts of magnificence and ugliness, the chic and the mundane, an limitless supply of shock and fascination.