One of the worst things to experience on a vacation is a death. Whether it’s the death of a fellow traveler or watching the death of a nation, it’s still an unwelcome intrusion into the mock reality of a holiday.
Today we stopped in Patras, Greece. This country is in the process of defaulting on its obligations to the world, and has an economy that is horribly diseased. Patras is not on the normal Eastern Mediterranean cruise itinerary — in fact, we were originally scheduled to go to Itea, up the Gulf of Corinth. On this new, large ship, we’re now blocked from Itea thanks to the Rion – Anterion Bridge North of Patras, so the itinerary was changed to stay in this city of 250,000.
Patras is not the most attractive city in the Eastern Mediterranean. It’s located in front of some nice tree-covered hills, but the city reached its peak many years ago. Looking at it from the port, you see an attractive and relatively new port facility with the typical tourist amenities, followed by rows of rather dreary apartment blocks. On the hills to the east are the omnipresent Euro wind turbines, which seem to be the hallmark of any nation that’s trying to show that it is “green” and “forward thinking.”
Barb had done quite a bit of work trying to find what we could do in Patras. The main things we heard about were the New Church of St. Andrew (Greek Orthodox), the Clauss Winery, and the Archeological Museum in the city. Barb had found a pair of friends who were both well-educated ladies near retirement who were now in the travel business … or so we thought.
Melina (not her real name for reasons that will become obvious) is a middle-aged woman who is a physicist by training. She’s nearing retirement, and formed a “club” with a number of colleagues to create a tour company. They’re not yet licensed and could probably get into deep trouble if they got caught, but they are looking towards a future where their government pensions may not necessarily be available. She teaches at a local university with her husband.
When she picked us up in her old Fiat Punto, she was immediately apologetic. She had let us know that we were going to be in this older 4-door car, so we had no issues. Then she told us that she was not officially licensed as a tour guide, which was also fine with us. Once we agreed to say that she was our “friend” and not our tour guide, we headed off to our first stop — the New Church of St. Andrew.
We briefly wandered through the “old church” right next door, but the highlight was the new church. It is literally a work in progress — one section is still unpainted with frescoes, awaiting funding for the work. Some of the dazzling sacred mosaics are only 7 to 12 years old! The floor of the church is made of beautiful inlaid marble showing animals of the land and sea, as well as the Byzantine double-headed eagle.
Melina, being a devout member of the Orthodox Church, pointed out many things that we were not aware of — paintings of Christ and the various saints are in a particular hierarchy at the front of the church, and the Madonna always dominates the background. As with some of the other churches we’ve visited so far on this trip, we took a little time to light a candle. The other day, it was for the victims of 9/11. Today, it was for the people of Greece.
After leaving the Church, we went to the Achaia Clauss Winery, which was founded quite a few years ago by a German expatriate and has won a number of awards over the years. The winery is up on the hillside overlooking Patras, and we had a wonderful view of the city. We tried a glass of a sweet wine (tasted quite a bit like a port) and ended up buying a bottle — for €5! What a deal.
Melina took us to a local market, which was wonderful — all sorts of fresh fish, fruit, and vegetables by the block. We ran into an Australian who is about to move back to his native land. As he said, “There is no hope here.” That’s sad to hear, but it is incredibly true. The unemployment in this city is rampant, and the people are more likely to strike and protest than to work for better conditions. Throughout the city we saw ominous signs of a rally tomorrow being held by the Communists. Delightful – they’re thinking that communism is the answer? If that’s their idea, these people are sadly mistaken.
After leaving the winery, we went to a restaurant that overlooks the city as well. The sad thing was that it was almost empty — none of the locals can really afford to eat there, and Patras is off the beaten path when it comes to tourists.
After the visit to the market, we went to the Archeological Museum in Patras, a new facility that was empty — not of treasures, but of visitors. Most of the time we were there, the three of us (Barb, myself, and Melina) were the only visitors. This museum is filled with treasures dating back to the 18th Century B.C., and has the best Roman mosaics we’ve ever seen. We spent about an hour and a half in the museum, and were in awe of some of the items we saw on display. Two sad things — first, as visitors we got to see the exhibits for free, and second, there were more museum staff present than there were visitors.
In the States, they’d be looking to make money off of this museum. Cut the staff, charge visitors a reasonable (€20 would not be out of the question for what we saw) entrance fee, and heavily market the museum to cruise ships or any other visitors to the city. Here, it’s obvious that they’re losing money. The lights in the bathrooms were turned off to conserve money, the outside reflecting pool was empty, and the staff seemed anxious.
Seriously, the items in the museum are some of the best I’ve ever seen, so it’s doubly sad to know that the Greeks — who are going broke as we visit — are so incredibly short-sighted as to let these treasures go to waste. Instead, they move busloads of visitors to old ruins. Sigh.
Once we were done with our museum visit, Melina had a couple of places she wanted to take us to. We first drove by the university where she and her husband work. She told us that the students are currently “on strike” protesting some change in the laws. Basically, they’re not attending classes or letting the professors into the facilities. Brilliant, kids — throw your future away protesting instead of learning something that can make you a living in the future.
Our final visit was to a tiny restaurant on the waterfront that was near the Rion – Anterion Bridge. It’s owned by a friend of Melina’s and has a beautiful view of the clear waters of the bay as well as the bridge and the hills off in the distance. Melina wanted us to try the lovely Greek liqueur — Ouzo! Sure enough, she had her friend bring over some ice cubes, some bottles of water, a couple of glasses, and some bottles of ouzo.
The liqueur has the taste of anise, and turns from a clear liquid to a milky white when you add ice or water. The first few gulps were a bit nasty, but we quickly got the hang of drinking this Greek favorite. Note to self — get a bottle of ouzo for the freezer at home. We had some nicely fried cheese balls, some tasty meatballs, and a lovely salad of cucumber, tomato, onion, green pepper, and feta cheese. Not long before we left, the proprietress brought another delicacy — a small octopus that had just been caught and grilled. It was awesome – a delicate smoky taste and not chewy at all.
With that, Melina took us back to the port. She gave us several bags full of local products — figs, olives, and similar things — and wouldn’t accept a tip that we wanted to give to her. When her business goes legit, we’ll gladly give her an endorsement. Heck, we’d even endorse her without the benefit of proper licensure.
It was a memorable day with a lovely person in a town that appears to be dying. Let’s pray for hope for the city of Patras.