Patras: The King of Greek Carnivals

The Patras Carnival is the largest event of its kind in Greece and the biggest in Europe. It has more than 160 years of history.

The carnival of Patras is not a single event but a variety of events that includes balls, parades, hunting of hidden treasure, kids’ carnival etc. Its apogee is in the last weekend of Carnival with the Saturday evening parade of carnival groups, the extravagant Sunday parade of floats and groups, and finally the ritual burning of king carnival at the St. Nikolaos Street wharf in the harbour of Patras. Its characteristics are spontaneity, improvisation, inspiration and volunteerism.

Most people agree that starting event of the Patras Carnival was a ball given in the residence of the merchant Moretis in 1829. However the carnival, as most carnival events in the Mediterranean and the Balkans, is connected with ancient pagan rituals, as those to honour Dionysus. According to these traditions, in the heart of the winter, the faithful invoke the deity with special feasts and he is reborn in order to bring spring once again. In modern period, French troops of general Maison stationed in the city after its liberation from the Turks, may have played a role in the creation of Patras Carnival as they may have brought carnival customs of their homeland and the carnival way of amusement which was adopted by the locals. Of decisive contribution in the development of the institution is considered to have been the influx of islanders to Patras from the Ionian Islands after their reunification with Greece in 1864. It is believed that with their mirth, their inventive disposal and their liveliness, the islanders altered the meaning of carnival celebrations in Patras, that at that time took place in taverns and cafes. Moreover, the location of the city itself with the flourishing of its harbour and the frequent contacts with the West and especially with Italy, with its eminent carnivals as that of Venice contributed to the configuration of carnival, so that even today it incorporates enough Mediterranean and western like characteristics.

Later on, the carnival festivities take a more regular nature.The first carnival floats appeared in the decade of 1870s. Then the floats were exclusively creations of individuals, only later did the Municipality of Patras undertake to construct a large number of them. In the same decade, in 1872, with contributions of rich raisin merchants the celebrated “Apollo” Theatre is built, and it entertains carnival dances, as it does precisely today, because the theatre continues to have a central role in the carnival celebrations.

The developments of the following decade were not favourable for the carnival; the continuous wars and conflicts (Balkan wars, World War I, Asia Minor campaign) send the men in the war front and brought economic crisis and desolation to the city. In the first postwar years the situation does not improve perceptibly, only some scattered events testify the arrival of Carnival.In the beginning of the 1950s the first hesitant thoughts for a resurgence of carnival are expressed. The pioneer musical groups “Orpheus” and “Patraiki’ Mantolinata” lead the effort. The Patras Carnival returns in the lives of the citizens of Patras but also all Greeks, especially those that could afford to travel in Patras in order to participate in the carnival, as in its famous Bourboulia balls.

In 1966 the carnival was reorganized. The journalist Nikos Mastorakis introduces the Hidden Treasure Hunt in which 94 citizens of Patras and visitors with their cars take part. The first prize was won by a team led by a friend of the carnival from Thessalonica; his name was Alkis Steas and he presented the game starting from the following year. Thus, the late Steas became for decades the legendary presenter of the carnival, which was broadcasted by ERT and was watched by all Greek TV viewers. The presenter’s expressions such as “the Carnival city of Greece”, when he referred to Patras and “be happy” and “keep dancing!” when he referred to the carnival groups, remain historical. In 1974 the modern phase of the carnival begins, as the revelers are convinced to abandon their cars and parade on foot in the streets (until then only floats paraded). Since then each year the spectacle climaxes, the carnival has become gigantic and hundreds of thousands of visitors flock to Patras to witness the proceedings.

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