Kalavryta: a town for all seasons

It’s renowned for its spectacular train journey, but this historical Peloponnesian destination has so much more to offer than a day on the tracks. From skiing to hiking to caving, Graham Wood explores the region’s sporting options.

  One of the most breathtaking rail journeys on Earth, stunning natural beauty, enough outdoor activities to shake a hiking stick at, impressive monasteries, underground cave lakes, a historic past and a ski centre: Kalavryta just about has it all. With such an impressive portfolio of options, fewer places in Greece can match the Peloponnesian mountain village and the surrounding region as a complete, year-round travel destination.

  Most visitors head to Kalavryta via the Odontotos, or ‘tooth-train’ (rack railway) in English, which is widely regarded as one of the most unique experiences in the country. Built by the Italians and completed in 1896 - the same year the first modern Olympics took place in Athens - Odontotos starts from the small railway station at the unassuming, chilled-out coastal town of Diakopto. On boarding the humble little Decauville train, there is little hint of the spectacular journey ahead as you chug slowly out of Diakopto.

  I must admit, the first and only time I sampled this journey I was more than sceptical, having previously experienced a trip on the well-known Burma railway close to the bridge over the River Kwai in Thailand. But this experience is more than a match, as the train winds its way through the Vouriakos gorge up into the mountains, through tunnels, over water-falls, along cliffs and through pine and oleander forests, arriving at Kalavryta within an hour after a distance of 22 kilometres, rising to 750 metres above sea level.

  There are some great stops along the way, a personal favourite is the small village of Zachlorou, where you can grab a coffee and go for a wander to marvel at the quaint stone houses and tavernas while listening to the aquatic sounds of the river below. If you decide to stay the night at one of the small guesthouses, it is also well worth taking a short hike up to the monastery of Mega Spilio (Monastery of the Great Cave) which is perched spectacularly on a cliff-face above the town. For those not too keen on hiking the steep, rocky path, don’t worry, the monastery can also be reached by road. Among many impressive finds exhibited at the monastery is an ornate cross, which took a monk seven years to make, and then the poor fellow went blind - so says the description.

  So what’s the first port of call once you arrive in Kalavryta? After a quick amble around the rustic surroundings and cobbled streets close to the village square, most people head to the memorial which was built to honour the victims of the infamous Nazi massacre which took place during WWII. Kalavryta undoubtedly has its place assured in the hearts of all Greeks for its association with that atrocity as well as for its role in the national struggle against Turkish occupation in 1821. The massacre was Nazi retaliation for the execution of some German soldiers by the Greek resistance. Around 1,200 boys and men from the ages of 13 to 70 were executed on that December 13, 1943, and then the entire village was burned to the ground. A further poignant reminder of the tragedy is found in the shape of an old schoolhouse which has been converted into a museum dedicated to the memory of those killed which is well worth a visit.

  Another important part of the area’s history is the Monastery of Agia Lavra, which is just a few kilometers outside Kalavryta set in beautiful surroundings on the side of a pine-covered mountain. It is here where the first flag of freedom was raised by Bishop Germanos of Patras when the Greeks rebelled against the Turks in March of 1821. There are a plethora of guesthouses and small hotels to accommodate most tastes in Kalavryta.

  After you’ve taken your fill of Kalavryta’s history and culture, the ski centre is a great place to inject some adrenaline if you are of the winter sports persuasion. Kalavryta offers great on- and off-piste runs with 12 trails in total, accounting for a range of difficulty from beginner to the very difficult Stiga 1 and 2 trails from the 2,340-metre summit - where on a clear day skiers are treated to a sea view - offer exhilarating powder runs among clusters of pine trees. Kalavryta has free lifts for beginners as well as student discounts, while the always-lively chalet at the base of the mountain hosts memorable parties in the evening. Equipment can be rented on the mountain but there are several rental outlets in and around the town where prices are more reasonable. Accommodation can be found via the website, while those seeking a more luxurious option can look to the recently opened Castle Resort perched above the town. Also, for those keen on imitating everyone’s favourite spy James Bond, Kalavryta has the bonus of snow-mobiling. Fewer experiences could be better than whizzing around scenic routes through the forests around the base of the mountain.

  Round off your trip with a visit to the area’s final ‘must-see’: the Cave of Lakes. Situated a few kilometers west of the ski centre, the cave’s promotional literature boasts of being “a rare creation of Nature”, and the string of cascading lakes and labyrinth of stalactite formations are truly a sight to behold. The cave is essentially an old subterranean river which visitors can explore up to 500m courtesy of specially constructed metal walkway. On meandering through you’d be forgiven for thinking you had stumbled onto the set of Star Trek in its heyday, as you pass through dark passageways and gawp at the oddly-shaped rock formations. Thankfully there are no weird monsters lurking under the icy-cold waters; at least not to my knowledge. Visitors are invited to leave their comments in a guestbook at the exit and as I flicked through the pages one message in particular from an enthusiastic visitor seemed to aptly sum up not only the cave lakes but the Kalavryta experience: “I have seen so much of Greece’s well-known beauty, but I never knew this country had such hidden wonders.”

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