When I visited Patra for the first time, I was baffled. Driving in from Athens through the modern sprawl along the coast, I couldn’t understand how the third largest city in Greece could be so lacking in charm. Where were the string of seafront restaurants that I was expecting, the sixth-century fortress and the museum? The two images that I took away then were of a kitsch hotel modelled on a castle, complete with crenellations: its windows were boarded up and weeds grew from the entrance. It was like something from a nightmarish, abandoned Disneyland. And then there was a sad, rusting ferry languishing in the port, its name, Ionian Queen, only emphasising the sense of a lost but glorious past.
On a return trip last year, though, I found another side to this city. In Patra, as in so many Greek towns and cities, beauty lives cheek by jowl with dereliction. Neoclassical nestles next to 1970s. To love Greece, you have to embrace rather than despair at this chaos, typified by the crumbling mansions, the black sheets at their windows flapping in the breeze. These buildings are funereal, dramatic, precarious, waiting to be saved, but even now adding to the city’s fascinating texture.
On that second visit, I approached the city from a different direction. It was via one of the most beautiful bridges I have ever seen. The graceful curve of the 2km Rio-Antirrio suspension bridge, which links the Peloponnese with mainland Greece, makes an exhilarating approach and, at dusk, when lit, is even more magical. It was completed just in time for the 2004 Olympic Games and is one of the most impressive legacies from that time. Perhaps the evening was a better moment to arrive, with everything illuminated and the streets and squares thronging with people, strolling and socialising. Patra has a sizable student population that adds to its liveliness (as well as keeping prices noticeably low in bars and restaurants).
At night, the enormous central square, Plateia Georgiou, has a real magic and madness. It is a huge acreage of smooth, shiny marble, framed by a mixture of functional five-storey 1970s blocks, 19th-century mansions and one of the prettiest buildings in Greece: the exquisite 19th-century Apollon Theatre designed by Ernst Ziller. Earthquakes have regularly damaged buildings in Patra and the survival of this jewel in the centre seems a miracle. One evening when I was there, an audience was spilling out after a play so I went in to look at the gold and red-velvet interior, the five tiers of wooden balconies forming a neat symmetrical cocoon.
There was another interior that I will never forget. A few minutes’ walk from the centre is the largest church in Greece, St Andrew’s Cathedral. Inaugurated in 1974 and still dazzlingly white on the outside, it is dedicated to the saint who was martyred in Patra. His relics lie inside, along with a large section of the saltire cross on which he was crucified. Usually when you visit churches in Mediterranean countries, you go from light into darkness, but here my eyes had to adjust to the brightness of the interior, not its gloom. It is spectacularly colourful and optimistic, full of images not just of saints but also of nature. Everything is exaggerated (including the five-metre-long gold-plated cross) but its cheerful flamboyance completely charmed me. There was also a river of piped orthodox chant that never ceased, a sound only interrupted by a cleaner answering her phone. Earthly and divine seemed to meet in this space.
The church is not simply a giant reliquary. It is a living breathing place with a constant stream of locals coming and going with their shopping in hand, kissing icons and scribbling notes for the priest, along with visitors marvelling at the art and sheltering from the cares of the world in the interior sunshine. The entire building is a joyful celebration of life.
In the end, I also found the Roman remains I was expecting, as well as a superb archaeological museum and several exquisite Byzantine churches. The countless cafes and bars close to the centre (and near the sea) were also alluring. Aptalikoserves fantastic modern Greek food, and my favourite place for coffee is Discover Your Way, a beautifully designed, very modern cafe inside a bookshop, where you can read or use laptops for as long as you want.
I am not sure that my latest book, Cartes Postales, would exist without Patra. This is a city that represents the extremes of Greece and the underlying chaos of it all, contrasts of beauty and ugliness, the sublime and the mundane, an endless source of surprise and fascination.