In Georgiou I square, just in front of the architectural masterpiece of the Apollon theatre (designed by Ernst Ziller and built in 1872 ), a group of shirtless young men are doing tricks on their skateboards. On Gerokostopoulou street, a dog and his owner are people watching. At the fishing harbor, smoking fishermen gaze at us from their boats as we pass by.
Down by the beach, people swim and sunbathe against the backdrop of the enormous Rio bridge that links the Peloponnese to mainland western Greece. At the new port tourists watch the ferries as they prepare to set off for Ancona, Bari, and Brindisi, while at the farmer’s market that operates every Thursday, small farmers call at you to admire their goods; figs from Diakopto, potatoes from Achaia.
Even in the late summer heat when we visited Patras, the city was full of life. And the best way to get to know it is on foot. Like most sizable Greek cities, Patras is more of a fall or winter destination than a place to spend summer vacations. However, the city seems to be entering a new phase, becoming more accessible thanks to the new Olympia Odos highway that extends along the northern coast of the Peloponnese, and has now replaced the old road from Athens that was a dangerous mess. Now it only takes one-and-a-half to two hours to get here from the capital, and the journey is infinitely safer than before.
Patras still has an aristocratic air that calls to mind a different age. One can see it in the gorgeous neoclassical buildings that are scattered throughout the town; one building on Aghiou Andreou street – the home of a gym now – looks like it’s been stolen straight from a Dickens novel. One can see it in the architecture of the churches – from the pompous but beautiful Aghios Andreas to the measured frugality of the Anglican church.
This enchanting side of Patras is also there in the taxicabs that are painted an old-fashioned burgundy, the retro bottles of “tentura” (a local digestif made with with cinnamon and cloves), and in the store windows full of Patras’ famous loukoumia (Turkish delight).
That said, this old-fashioned atmosphere also sometimes seems to be holding the city back. On first visiting Patras, one senses that it may be clinging to an old image of itself; one that perhaps makes it difficult to progress forward and find its place in the modern world.
Of course, one advantage that Patras has over other major Greek cities is its intimate connection with the sea – via its ports (the old and the new), its marina and its southern seaside park where locals go to relax, jog and ride bikes.
Whether one is talking from a business, tourism, or aesthetic perspective, a city built by the edge of the sea is fortunate. Regardless of the ups and downs its may experience, it will always have the potential to improve, to grow, and to evolve.
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