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Kalavrita

A Summer Saved in Kalavrita

heatwave in GreeceHow does one salvage a summer that has been lost?

July of 2000 was the hottest Greece had known in over 100 years. We were hit by a 2 week heat wave that kept the temperature over 100 and sometimes as high as 115 degrees Fahrenheit. Then a week of beautiful unseasonably cool weather followed by another heat wave which lasted a week and closed out the month. During this period there were forest fires that destroyed miles of pine trees, olive groves and even some villages. 
It was a shitty July.

We were prepared for it and did not suffer as much as others. We made sure the hotels we stayed at were air-conditioned, near the sea, and had a pool for our daughter. But I didn't come to Greece to sit by the pool or spend all afternoon in my air-conditioned room watching CNN. I had come to Greece to visit some more interesting places to add to my web site and so far the month of July was a washout. When my family mutinied and begged me to change our tickets so we could return to the states I was in no condition to fight back. The heat had kicked my butt. I knew it would also be hot in the USA but for $150 I could get the baseball package on TV and spend the rest of the summer being a true American, eating chips and bean dip, watching the NY Mets and getting fat. At this point it did not seem to be much different than what I was doing in Greece, except in the states Andrea could not drag me to some village during the hottest part of the day to look at ruined houses to buy and restore. True, I would miss the nightlife of Greece, going out to dinner, meeting new people and trying new dishes, but never underestimate how much enjoyment can be found in a well played game between two playoff contenders.

So I gave in. I agreed to leave Greece early. Not quite as early as Andrea wanted to leave (the next day if not sooner), but I figured a week in Athens would be enough to satisfy any lingering desires.

The problem was I had not done anything new this summer. OK, I had gone to Monemvasia one hot day during the first heat wave and walked around like an idiot taking pictures while it was 115 degrees. And on the way back from the secret hidden village I spend my holidays we stopped in Githeon and I took some pictures there. And I did get a few great shots of the Ag Theodoros forest fire just before they had to close the National road on the way into Athens. But besides a few new restaurants and several hundred photos of the food we ate, I had done nothing that I could add to the website. I felt like a failure and the summer was a waste of time.

Enter George The Famous Taxi Driver

george's taxiMy cell phone rang at dinner in a tavernaon Fokinos Negri. It was George the famous taxi driver.
"You want to drive to Kalavrita in my new Mercedes?" I was anticipating a hangover the next morning and I knew that George likes to get an early start. Well, early for me which means before nine or ten, so my impulse was to say no. Plus, I knew my family would not be interested since they were already mad at me for not wanting to leave sooner. But I also knew that Kalavrita was my last opportunity to salvage this miserable summer. So I agreed.The next morning George called me from in front of the Attalos where his new state-of-the-art Mercedes was parked and I grabbed my bathing suit and digital camera and came down to begin the journey. Because everyone in Athens goes on vacation during the month of August the city was empty and it took no time at all to get to the National road and then to Corinth.

Kalavrita trainIt was a little more than 2 hours from Athens to the coastal town of Diakofto where George dropped me off at the station of the small train that goes to Kalavrita, known in the past as the 'tooth-train'. This little train is well known to train lovers worldwide because its journey is one of the most spectacular of any railroads. The narrow gauge tracks follow the stream bed of the Vouriakos river through a narrow gorge up into the mountains, through tunnels, over water-falls, along cliffs and through forests of pine and oleander. Built by the Italians in 1885 the train travels around 22 kilometers and takes about an hour to get to Kalavrita.

Kalavrita trainOn the grounds of the old railway stationis locomotive number 8003 which served this route for 70 years and has now been preserved as a monument after traveling over two million kilometers, back and forth to Kalavrita. The new train is a bit more modern but still dated and as it sat outside chugging, waiting to begin the trip I went in to stand in line to get my ticket. I assumed it would wait for those of us on line but just as I heard the woman in front of me ask for two tickets to Patras I realized that this was also the ticket line for the other train between Athens and Patras and that the little train to Kalavrita was leaving the station wthout me.
kalavrita trainI ran out of the station and jumped throughthe only open door which happened to be the engineer's compartment. But since this was the second car of two, there was no engineer and I had the compartment to myself. A blessing because I could move from side to side to take pictures. A curse because the windows were small and filthy.

The main car was full of Greeks and tourists and the windows were wide open. Every so often people would jump to their feet and ooh and aah, pointing and taking pictures of some spectacular site or maybe some wild animal, while I tried to peer through the narrow dirty windows to see what the fuss was all about. It didn't seem fair really. I had a purpose. And it was not my fault that I had not read the Lonely Planet Guide I always carry with me which said to get a first class ticket because the seats have the best view.

view from kalavrita trainI needed to see beautiful landscape toinspire me to sing the praises of the journey from Diakofto to Kalavrita but all I could do was point my camera out the window and hope for the best. To make matters worse the windows had bars on them too so I could barely squeeze my camera out. But every so often we would stop and a conductor would get on (don't ask me where he came from) and he would leave the door unlatched and I could peer through the crack at the magnificent surroundings. Ocassionally we would pass people hiking down the gorge and the train would slow down to a crawl while the pedestrians hugged the walls of the cliffs and I could see the tops of their heads. I did manage to capture this shot of the stream, a lucky shot really because I didn't see it with my own eyes.
Zachlorou train stationThe train stops in the small village of Zachlorou where there are rooms to rent and many people who hike the gorge begin or end the trip here. This beautiful village on the banks of the Vouraikos river was burned by the Germans in December of 1942, who executed eighteen men, foreshadowing the massacre of Kalavrita a few days later. This area of such incredible beauty endured much suffering during the Nazi occupation of the Second World War and the atrocities committed by the Germans here are known to all Greeks. There is a restaurant in one of the station buildings where a bunch of people were eating grilled steaks, drinking wine and having a wonderful time. I would have liked to stay and join them. They looked like local forest rangers and fire-fighters or railroad maintenance guys and were on a first-name basis with the restaurant owner.

Kalavrita

KalavritaBeyond Zachlorou the valley gets wider and you pass farms and some houses before arriving in Kalavrita site of the ancient city of Kynetha. The station has a small cafe and the climate up this high is pretty comfortable. George and his taxi were waiting for me, having just arrived a minute or two before the train. "There are many bends in the road" he explains to me. By now we are both pretty hungry so we drive to the main square where there are several restaurants. We pick the worst one. We order goat and it is full of fat, not only because they specialize in it but because they are out of everything else we ask for.
"How can a goat have so much fat?" George wants to know. "They climb up and down mountains. They are active all day. They are not like sheep. This is not fresh goat. It is either from New Zealand or else it is a sheep." But the restaurant was full of Greeks, none of them complaining. Not about the fat goat, or the withered french-fries, or the tasteless sadziki. But we decided this was a good thing because at least next time George came up here with a client he would know where not to eat.
The Drama of KalavritaIn a small bookstore I find a copy of "The Drama of Kalavrita" by Dimitris Kaldiris which tells the story of the massacre when the Nazis in retaliation for the execution of some German soldiers by the Greek resistance, executed over 1200 boys and men from the ages of 13 to 70 and then burned the entire village to the ground on December 13th 1943. The book is an eyewitness account of the murders and contains interviews with some of the survivors. Reading this book is a sad experience but one that is essential for understanding the area. The book is a memorial to those who died that day and a tribute to those who survived the harsh winter that followed, with no food, homes or heat. You should be able to find it in one of the shops in Kalavrita but if not you may be able to order it from Greece-in-Print.
Ag Lavra MonasteryThe Monastery of Agia Lavra is a couple miles outside of town on the side of a pine covered mountain. This is where the first flag of freedom was raised by Bishop Germanos of Patras when the Greeks rebelled against the Turks in March of 1821. At one time the monastery held 1000 monks. It has been burned down three times. Twice by the Turks in 1585 and in 1827. It was burned down again in 1943 by the Germans who executed the four monks and the caretaker who were too old to escape into the mountains along with the younger monks. The execution took place beneath the same Platanos tree where the flag of independence had first been flown.

Of course the Monastery was closed for lunch when we got there. Try to arrive before 1:30 or after 5:30.

Kalavrita war of Independence memorialAcross the road on another mountain is the monument that commemorates the heroes of the War for Independence. It's a huge statue with three giant figures: the  priest, signifying Bishop Germanos and the role of the church, a klepht, one of the freedom fighters, and on top is a statue of a woman who symbolizes Greece being freed from her chains. From this mountain there is a spectacular view of the whole valley which is surrounded by pine covered mountains.

"When the Turks first came to Greece and conquered the Peloponesos, the people of Kalavrita went to Italy and founded the town of Calabria" George informed me. That's pretty cool, I thought, because there was an Italian-American basketball player at Carolina named Dante Calabria, now playing in Italy. If George was correct that means Dante Calabria is Greek!

The Massacre in Kalavrita

massacre memorial, Kalavrita, greeceFrom Agia Lavra we returned to Kalavritaand then followed the road to the memorial where the villagers had been executed. There is a large white cross on the top of the hill overlooking the town and massive stone monuments which list the names of the dead and their ages and tell the story of the massacre in what was then known as Kapis' field. 

The white stones spell out the words "Peace" and "No More War".

memorial sculpture, kalavritaKalavrita has always been known for its beauty and because of the birth of freedom here in 1821. The Germans who wanted to destroy the resistance but were unable to catch or kill many of its members decided to vent their frustration on the civilian population. When several Germans soldiers who encountered a contingent of the Greek resistance were taken prisoner and later executed, the frustrated Nazis decided to take it out on the city of Kalavrita and the surrounding villages. They murdered and burned everything, including monasteries, priests, shepherds, women and children. When they got to Kalavrita they listened to the villagers who told them that the partisans were gone and that the villagers just wanted to live in peace. Then they gathered all the men and boys and took them to Kapis' field and made them watch as they burned the city house by house. Then they opened fire with machine guns. When the shooting stopped they walked around and shot anyone who was still living. Some escaped death but few unscathed and the eyewitness accounts from the book The Drama of Kalavrita are haunting.

widows of Kalavrita The women and children they locked in the schoolhouse where they watched their village burn around them. Were it not for a German soldier who disobeyed orders and unlocked the door allowing them to escape perhaps they too would have died. The soldier never returned home. The women looked for the men. Some said they had been put in box cars and taken away by the tooth train. Some said they heard they were locked up somewhere. It was not until late afternoon that they found them in Kapis field. By then the Germans had escaped.

orphans of kalavrita To stand and look at the monument and think of the tragedy is one thing. But to read the accounts of the survivors opens up a door of sadness that gives life to the scene and the surroundings and I encourage anyone visiting this site to read this book first. The pain the women of Kalavrita must have felt when they came to the field and found the bodies of  husbands, friends, neighbors, fathers and children is unimaginable. And what about the suffering they must have gone through in that first terrible winter after the massacre, their homes in ruins and all food, animals, valuables and oil taken away by the Germans on the little train that has chugged up and down the mountain for 100 years.

Around Kalavrita

kalavrita skiJust 14 kilometers from town is the Kalavrita Ski Center, said to be one of the best in Greece. Complete with modern facilities it is a great place for skiing, snow boarding or hiking the many trails. Few people realize that a skiing holiday will cost a fraction of what it will cost in other parts of Europe and the snow is just as white. These same trails are alive with wildflowers in the spring and early summer and with a guide you can visit the dark waters of the river Styx and the Mavroneri Waterfall, where Achilles was baptized by his mother and from where he gained his immortality, (with the exception of the spot on his heel from where his mother held him). Also nearby is the Monastery of Makkeleria and the miraculous tree of the Virgin Plataniotissa where an imprint of the Madonna appeared in a hollow plane tree after an icon was taken there for safe keeping. The tree itself can hold as many as 15 people and is used as a church. There are also several archaeological sites scattered throughout the hills and mountains around Kalavrita.

If you are coming to Kalavrita in summer or winter and planning to stay overnight you should book in advance since rooms are scarce during these seasons. There is a Ski Center office in Kalavrita and ski shops in the area.

The Cave of the Lakes

Cave of the LakesFrom the site of the massacre we continuedup the mountain, past the ski slopes and the mountain hotels to the other side where there was a large valley and the small towns of Ano and Kato Lousi. There are several archaeological sites in the area including the site of ancient Klietor, near the town of Klietor which has hotels, restaurants and bars. The village of Planitero near the source of the Aroania river is famous for it's beautiful stone houses and for the trout and salmon which comes from there and is served in the restaurants. The mountains which surround this area are pine covered and beautiful.But the Cave of the Lakes is a true wonder of the area. Having never been in a cave before I am perhaps easily impressed. But with the temperature outside in the mid nineties, the cool damp air of the cave was like a gift from heaven and the walls and surroundings looked like it could have been the inspiration for the spaceship in the film 'Alien'. There is a walkway built of metal that follows the string of cascading lakes and climbs through the subterranean passageways for about a quarter mile. The cave is what remains of an underground river that cut through the soft rock and the lakes are what remains of the winter an spring snow and rain which has found its way through the mountain. Quiet in the summer, the lakes are said to be quite spectacular in the winter and spring when there is much more water and the lakes are transformed into a fast-moving river with waterfalls. Even so I found it pretty enthralling, in fact I could have spent a couple days down there with a good book and a little more light. The climate was perfect and is always the same whether it is summer or winter. The walls are ornamented with colorful stalagmite and stalactite formations while giant chandelier like stone formations hand from the ceiling. Tours are taken through the cave every half hour or so and the guide speaks in English and Greek. You can't go by yourself and you are not allowed to take pictures, but the postcards they sell at the small snack bar are good enough, as is the espresso.

The Return

Monastery of Mega SpilionDespite my inability to get any decentphotos on the train trip up to Kalavrita I decided to drive down the mountain road with George. Maybe the road and train track would cross paths and I could get a couple decent shots and pretend I took them on the way up. But they never did cross and in fact I was never quite shore of where I was in relation to the train. However I did see some interesting things and take some nice pictures along the way. Perhaps the most spectacular site was the Monastery of Mega Spileon (Monastery of the Big Cave) built as you may have guessed, in a giant cave. The monastery was supposedly built in 326 AD and is full of wonderful frescoes, mosaic floors and other treasures, and the monks will show you around. You can drive right up to it and into the courtyard.
Monastery of Megalo SpilionThere is a trail that leads from the monasterythat the monks use to get water from a spring. If you follow the path you will come to a hole in the rock, formed by thousands of years of erosion of the limestone and the source of a mysterious whistling sound that you can hear on a windy day. There is also a fantastic view of Mount Chelmos, Mount Petruki and the Ladopotamos river. Unfortunately you also see evidence of the forest fires which ravaged the country during this hot summer of 2000. There are literally miles of burnt pine and I was filled with a great sadness when I realized that these once lush mountains and hills may in a few years resemble the barren Cyclades islands as the winter rains wash away the topsoil because it is no longer held in place by the trees and vegetation.

The monastery is an hour walk from the village of Zachlorou and from there many people walk down through the gorge to Diakofto.

diakofto, greeceWhen we finally reach Diakofto again, we head straight for the sea. George is reluctant to go swimming and I don't know if it is because he feels embarrassed about being seen in his bathing suit (he has put on weight since he got famous) or because he does not want me to get sand all over his new Mercedes. I drop a couple hints about the perfect ending to a wonderful trip to Kalavrita being a refreshing swim and perhaps a snack and a drink at the beautiful little fish taverna on the beach. But I don't push it because after all it is George's 'day-off' and I am not really a paying customer. But if you do this trip with George try to leave enough time for a swim and a drink.
ship in salaminaWe got back on the road to Corinth, withthe sea on our left and the mountains on our right and in a couple hours we were back in Athens. As we passed the straits of Salamina George pointed to a ship anchored a half mile off shore. "Do you see that ship Matthew? This is the ship my wife Lula and I took to Australia when we emigrated there thirty years ago. When we drove by here last week Lula saw it and started to cry."
I thought about George working in some factory in Australia, or cooking at his restaurant in New York, or driving his Good Humor ice-cream truck through the Bronx in the hot summer. Now here we were in his beautiful new air-conditioned E-270 Mercedes having just seen the beautiful mountains, streams, waterfalls, caves and history of Kalavrita, a trip George will probably take many times as he introduces travelers to the area and maybe even changes a few lives.
no more warGeorge... I don't want you to take this in the wrong way. But your talent was wasted in Australia. You belong here, doing what you are doing, showing people things they won't see on the big tours. And when you finally retire the Greek Government should thank you and build a big statue of you standing in front of your taxi in Syntagma sguare.

This could have been a fruitless summer but instead my eyes were opened to one of the most beautiful places in Greece, with a most tragic history.

Practical Information

There are frequent trains from Patras and Athens to Diakofto. The trip from Athens takes about 3 hours. The train to Kalvrita leaves Diakofto at 8:48 and 11:25am and in the afternoon at 1:30, 3:27, 5:19 and 7:10. (Last time I checked)

If you are planning to rent a car and drive from Athens to Kalavrita or around the Peloponessos check out Swift Rent-a-Car . They will pick you up at your hotel and drive you to the National road and let you by-pass the notorious Athens traffic. See their website at www.greektravel.com/swift

IMPORTANT READER UPDATE: The restaurant in Kalavryta named "SPITIKO" has great food great drinks very very reasonable prices. (from Basilis)

For more on the Peloponessos see www.greecetravel.com/peloponessos

Hotels in Kalavrita

Here are a few hotels in and around Kalavrita. You can click on the name to see more photos, get more information, see the hotel location and to book the hotel.
Montage Suites Hotel 4 stars

Photo Montage Suites HotelEnjoying the dramatic background setting of Vouraikos Ravine and Helmos Mountain, Montage Suites Hotel offers a tranquil sanctuary, featuring rooms inspired by famous films.
Details from classic films, including The Godfather and Gone with the Wind, have been thoughtfully applied to the style and decoration of the suites. Each Montage Suite offers a different ambience to its guests, with stunning views of the natural landscape and unique furnishings from the era related to the film.
Guests can enjoy a tasty breakfast in the magnificent lobby, which has drawn inspiration from the famous Greek film company, Finos Film. The lobby also sets the stage for live music evenings and film nights, with movies taken from the large collection at Montage Suites Hotel. Guests can admire breathtaking views of the canyon from here.
Surrounded by a large area of natural countryside and a river, this hotel is a charming venue for large family gatherings. It also offers a respite to solo travellers who enjoy the peace and calm of nature. Those who need to stay connected to the world can enjoy free wired internet access.

Hotel Filoxenia 3 stars

Photo Hotel FiloxeniaAt only a distance of 190 km from Athens, this small hotel is surrounded by luscious greenery, high above the Helmou Valley.

The Filoxenia Hotel Kalavrita has 26 recently renovated rooms. We have combined traditional hospitality with a modern service-orientated environment to provide a comfortable and pleasant stay. In the winter you can relax in the lounge by the log fire while in the summer you can sit on your own private balcony and admire the mountain view.

In this mountain setting you can enjoy many adventurous outdoor activities, such as orienteering, archery and rafting on the Ladona River. For something more relaxed, we recommend a tour of the caves where you can discover the stalactites and stalagmites and beside the small lakes that shape the majestic surroundings.

Wireless internet is available in the entire hotel and costs EUR 5.00 per hour.

Daphne's Club Hotel Apartments0 stars

Photo Daphne's Club Hotel ApartmentsThese charming apartments are situated next to Sykia Beach and the unique Pefkias pine forest in Xylokastro. Daphne’s provides quality facilities for the whole family, including free internet access.

Each of the apartments is fully equipped with modern amenities, including air-conditioning and kitchenettes. Children have countless options for entertainment, including an outdoor playground and an excellent indoor playgroup. Adults are also well catered for and can even join in with the hotel’s workshops, including yoga and belly dancing.

The doors to the lounge open onto the beautiful hotel gardens in the summertime. Guests can admire the surrounding scenery of sea and mountains from the delightful rooftop garden. The pine forest and the beach are just 30 metres from the hotel, creating an exciting place for the whole family to explore.

Wireless internet is available in the entire hotel and is free of charge.
Wired internet is available in public areas and is free of charge.

You can find hotels in Kalavrita by location, price, whether or not it has a swimming pool, and see photos and reviews by using this link to Booking.com. Excellent prices and many hotels you can book and then cancel with no cancellation fee. For those who want to book without using a travel agency this is the best way to do it.

You can find more hotels by request from Dolphin Hellas Travel and Fantasy Travel

Hotel Attalos, Athens, Greece

  

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