A Summer Saved in Kalavrita
How 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
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
My 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.
It 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.
On 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.
|I 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.
|I 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
|The 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.
|Beyond 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.
|In 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.
|The 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.
|Across 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
|From 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
The white stones spell out the words "Peace"
and "No More War".
|Kalavrita 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.
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.
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.
|Just 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
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.
of the Lakes
From 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.
|Despite 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.
|There 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
The monastery is an hour walk from the
village of Zachlorou and from there many people walk down through the gorge
|When 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.
|We 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.
|George... 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
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.
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
. 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
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
Enjoying 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.
At 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 Apartments
These 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
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
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