Mount HELMOS (Part 1)
and the long-suffering town of Kalavryta
(last updated: September 2021)
Mount Helmos (Chelmos-Χελμός), also known as Aroania, is a legendary mountain in the southeastern Achaia Prefecture (Peloponnese) mainly associated with the historical town of Kalavryta and the Styx spring which originates near one of its summits. In the folk tradition, Chelmos has been associated with the tragic 19th century bucolic story of “Tasos and Golfo”.
I always try to escape on the mountains during hot Greek summer months, at least on weekends. Kalavryta (site of the ancient city of Kynetha) is an easy-to-reach and enjoyable destination. It is located about 190km from Athens (about 2 and a half hours driving) at the northwest slopes of Helmos. The town is really crowded during the winter months as it is the closest town to the ski resort on Helmos, but summer is quieter and the perfect season if you want to explore the beautiful villages of the area. And what is important night temperatures drop low enough to forget air-conditioning!
I have been several times in the area, and I have stayed in many hotels. I would recommend two of them, which are pretty different from each other, both of them in Kalavryta.
The first is an economical hotel in the very heart of the town of Kalavryta. Nice big rooms with balconies: Kynaitha Hotel.
Azanias Chalet Hotel is more expensive and is located a couple of kilometers from Kalavryta, overlooking the town. It has nice apartments/rooms with a view of the mountains and the town and a small pool. The proprietors of the place are a friendly couple with two little children and a wonderful dog called Millou.
I have also stayed at hotel "Helmos" (see below).
Kalavryta (Καλάβρυτα) is a popular winter destination and the most important town in the area. The town is built on the right bank of the Vouraikos River, 35 km (40-45 minutes drive) south of the coast (Gulf of Corinth) on an elevation of about 800 m. Kalavryta is the southern terminus of the Diakopto-Kalavryta rack railway, built by Italian engineers between 1885 and 1895.
The town is very tidy and clean, and everything looks in perfect harmony with the beautiful mountainous environment. The Germans destroyed Kalavryta during the WWII occupation, so very few old houses remain in the town. The town is located on a plateau, and thus it is flat and easy to walk around.
the Genocide of Kalavryta
Today Kalavryta is known for its ski resort, but what has made it known worldwide is a very tragic event during the German occupation of the town during WWII. It is one of those “unnecessary” atrocities during the war killing innocent civilians: At the end of 1943, near Kalavryta, 81 German soldiers, led by Hauptmann Johannes Schober, were captured by Greek Partisans. Four Germans were killed on the spot. Three were taken to hospital at Kalavryta but were later shot by the furious partisans. The rest were initially treated as prisoners of war until most were shot dead, and some plunged over the cliff from the force of the shots. Two German prisoners survived the execution and raised the alarm on the following day, 8 December 1943. On 13 December 1943, in retribution for the killing of the captured German soldiers, what is commemorated as the Massacre of Kalavryta (or the Genocide of Kalavryta), German troops ordered all male residents of Kalavryta, aged 13 years and up, to gather in a field just outside the village.
There, in that field, they machine-gunned down 696 of them, and only 13 survived. After that, they burnt down the town before they left, and the next day they burnt down the Monastery of Agia Lavra, the birthplace of the Greek War for Independence. Post-war, the Federal Government of Germany offered gestures of atonement in the form of free school books for the high school, scholarships for orphans of the massacre, and the building of a retirement home. However, no German commanders (e.g., Major Ebersberger, who carried out the destruction of Kalavryta; Hauptmann Dohnert, who led the firing party), were ever brought to justice for their crimes.
I have to highlight my opposition in using the word Nazi instead of German when it comes to all destructions, killings, and other crimes done by Germans during the two World Words. This is made to expiate and clean the name of a nation responsible for the most significant crimes in Europe, and beautify the ugly face of crime does not help the criminal to repent. Besides, what were the Nazis, if not Germans, who supported a killing machine in their majority?
The town has many restaurants, cafés, and patisseries.
The place is a paradise for meat lovers, and the dining choices are many during the weekend. But during the weekdays, most restaurants are closed.
I tried a couple of restaurants while there, but in general, I cannot say that I was happy with the food in the town. Maybe I expected too much. However, if I had to choose one, this would be the "Peri Orexeos" (Περί Ορέξεως) Tavern. The tavern is located at the southern end of the central road, and during the summer months, it serves on a small square under giant plane trees.
I also had dinner a couple of times at the "Stani" (Στάνη) Tavern (located at the other end of the same street). The variety of food here is impressive. But, never trust a restaurant with a vast menu! Nevertheless, "Stani" is the best choice for the weekdays, as it was almost the only open restaurant in the town center.
Pizzeria "Mamma mia", located next to "Stani", is a sincere solution if you want to dine on something different than meat!
If you have a sweet tooth, you will not get disappointed in Kalavryta. The place is famous for rose petals jam, the perfect dessert for topping on thick local yogurt. "Hermidis Confectionary" (Ερμείδης) is the name behind rose petals preserve and has produced this delicacy since 1922. There are two Hermidis stores on the main road.
The area is also famous for good-quality honey, mostly honey from pine trees or/and oak trees. Try, if possible, to find organic honey and especially the variety called 'vanilla'.
If like me, you are one of those who believe that roses are to be smelled and not to be tasted (I really cannot stand the taste of it 🤨), then you have to visit the famous “Gri-Gri” (Γρι-Γρι) creamery and patisserie.
This creamery, located just opposite the main entrance of the Holocaust Museum, is famous for “galaktoboureko”, “ekmek” and “baklava”… enjoy all three together with a thick Greek coffee.
On the main road of Kalavryta, there is a patisserie that takes you back into the 70'. The "Τζούρας-Αβραμοπουλος" (Tzouras-Avramopoulos") traditional patisserie offers all those cakes and sweet goodies we remember since our childhood. It is one of those places you do not often find nowadays.
Visit the place for your full of sugar (a bit more than necessary) cakes and pastries like kok, ekmek, baklava, galaktoboureko, karydopita, eclair, karioka, ergolavos, kataifi, sokolatina, pontikaki, profiteroles, amygdalota, etc. If you do not know the name, point at the window. They also serve icecream and coffee.
What to see
The town's heart is the central square and the pedestrianized road that crosses it, where most shops, restaurants, and cafés are. Here, stands the Cathedral dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. The church was burned twice during its relatively short history; first in 1826 by the Ottomans and again on the 13th of December 1943 by the Germans.
The church has two belfries, each of which bears a clock. The clock on the left belfry shows the time of the Germans' execution of all male inhabitants, so people never forget that sad day. The façade, just above the entrance, displays a giant mosaic depicting the Virgin Mary with Little Jesus. On either side of the Virgin is shown the Place of Sacrifice and the Monument to Heroes of the 1821 Revolution.
Opposite the central square, there is a pretty lovely small memorial park (Petmezeon Square-Πλατεία Πετμεζαίων), built in honor of the Petmesas family. With their origin from Hpeiros, they settled and lived in the broader area of Kalavryta and played an essential contribution to the freedom struggle of the Greeks and the 1821 Revolution. The square hosts several boosts of Petmezas family members, as well as the chapel of Agia Paraskevi.
Just some meters from the main square (on Agiou Alexiou str) stands a 15th-century fascinating building. Kalavrita was a vital cultural center during that period. 'Paleologina's Mansion' was probably built by Thomas Paleologos, and it was owned by his brother Konstantinos. Konstantinos Paleologos presented the Mansion to Princess Catherine Paleologos (Catherine Zaccaria), from whom the mansion took its name.
Princess Catherine was the daughter of the last Prince of Achaea, Centurione II Zaccaria. In September 1429, she was betrothed to the Byzantine Despot of the Morea Thomas Palaiologos and married him in January 1430 at Mystras. She remained in the Morea as Thomas' consort until the Ottoman conquest in 1460, after which she fled to the Venetian-held island of Corfu. There she died on 26 August 1462, being buried in the Monastery of Jason and Sosipatros. By marriage with Thomas, she had four children: Andreas and Manuel and the daughters Helena (wife of Lazar Branković of Serbia) and Zoe (wife of Ivan III of Russia, aka Ivan the Great).
Despite all the adventures the Kalavrita suffered during wars, 'Paleologina's Mansion' has survived all the disasters of the town. The last owner of the building, Vasilios Tsaparas, offered it (in 1977) to the Municipality of Kalavrita to maintain and save it. Nowadays, Paleologina's Mansion is used as a cultural center, where take place meetings, lectures, and other activities.
Just opposite the train station stands the Museum of the Kalavryta Holocaust. Visiting the Museum is a must. The Museum is housed in the old primary school (since 2005), the same school where all town residents gathered that oblique day to be separated later and most of them killed. The Museum contains artifacts of the German occupation of the town and documents the massacre. It is a very well arranged and informative museum, but it is impossible to hold your tears, especially when you see the door (locked permanently today) from which exit all men above 13 years old to get killed or the list of all victims. The entrance to the museum costs €3 (€1.5, the reduced fare).
The 'Place of Sacrifice' is located east of Kalavryta, 500 meters from the center, on Kapi hill. On December 13, 1943, all men were led here and executed by the German conquerors. Today, there is a big white cross on the hill, and a bit lower stands an impressive monument: columns surround the central area on which the names of the families of the executed are listed, and a catacomb where small chandeliers are displayed, each for every family suffered an execution.
Next to the catacomb dominates the stone sculpture of the afflicted mother, an emblem of the Municipality. Every year on December 13, after the memorial at the town's cathedral, the mourning procession ends at the Place of Sacrifice, where a memorial service and a dead men's invitation are held.
One can visit the place of sacrifice on foot following a path starting near the schools and the cemetery area in the northeastern town. Alternatively, you can drive up to the monument exiting the town towards the ski resort.
At the southern part of central Kalavryta stands a beautiful and all-green “Eleftherias Square” (Freedom Square). Τhe square is also called the “Square of the three Old men” (Τριών Γερόντων) because here stands the centuries-old plane tree, under whose shadow, according to the tradition, met three important figures and fighters of the 1821 Greek Revolution: Zaimis, Petmezas, and Fotilas.
Here in this same square, in September 1943, the Germans hung from a tree the 21 years old Konstantinos Pavlopoulos, a member of the Resistance. The Germans forced the villagers to watch the execution.
The "Helmos Hotel", built in 1922, stands south of the square and has stood proud on this historic square since then. In 1943 it was burned by the German troops some days before the Kalavryta Holocaust. In the period 1952-1953, it was reconstructed, and it was declared an architectural monument.
Once again, 'Helmos Hotel' was renovated in 2004 so that every room has a bathroom and modern amenities. It operated as a 4-star hotel for ten years, but it fell into some neglect when the owners decided to run it themselves. Even though today, the hotel is not what it used to be, it offers clean, quiet & comfortable rooms. I recommend it for long weekends, but not for longer periods.
Karagiozis, the shadow puppetry
A Saturday evening arrived in town a traveling “shadow theater” (shadow puppetry). The Greek traditional shadow theater is called “Karagiozis” and took its name from the primary character. Karagiozis was very popular in the past, but today not that much. They set the stage in the main square, and for 5€ we watched the play “Karagiozis the Wrestler”. Needless to say, that I was the only adult (besides some parents accompanying their very young children) watching it.
The name Karagiozis or Karaghiozis (Καραγκιόζης) is borrowed from Turkish Karagöz 'dark eye'. Several stories show how shadow theater was established in Asia Minor, and many argue for a Mediterranean origin in the Egyptian shadow puppet tradition. Whatever the case, it is worth mentioning that shadow theater became more widespread around the 16th century among the Muslim Turks regardless of religious restrictions. Initially, his popular appeal was his scatological language and protruding phallus. It is still performed in Turkey, especially during Ramadan celebrations, under the same name.
During Ottoman rule, Karagiozis came to mainland Greece, probably from Asia Minor (Anatolia) in the 19th century. Karagiozis was Hellenized in Patras, Greece, at the end of the 19th century by Dimitrios Sardounis, alias Mimaros, who is considered the founder of modern Greek shadow theater. The genre became fully integrated, though adapted, amongst the Greek population. But there are several legends as well as studies surrounding Karagiozis's arrival and subsequent popularity in Greece.
Some stories say that Greek merchants brought the art from China, and others say that it was a Greek who created the "legend" during Ottoman rule for the entertainment of the sultan. Yet others believe that it originated from actual events involving two masonry workers named Karagöz and Haci Ivat working in the construction of a mosque in the city of Bursa, Turkey, in the early 14th century.
The main character of the shadow theater, Karagiozis, is a poor hunchbacked Greek. His right hand is always depicted long, his clothes are ragged and patched, and his feet are bare. He lives in a poor cottage (παράγκα) with his wife Aglaia and his three sons (κολλητήρια), during the times of the Ottoman Empire. His cabin on the left occupies the scene and the Sultan's Palace (Sarayi) on the far right. Because of his poverty, Karagiozis uses mischievous and crude ways to find money and feed his family.
Folklore studies divide Karagiozis' tales into two major categories: the 'Heroics' and the 'Comedies'. The Heroics are tales based on tradition or real stories involving the times under Ottoman rule, and Karagiozis is presented as a helper and assistant of an important hero. Puppeteers devise their original tales. However, many 'traditional' stories have descended orally from earlier puppeteers and are accepted as 'canon' with slight alterations between the players. Most of them are formulaic and often involving interaction with the audience. All plays start with Karagiozis appearing in the scene with his three sons dancing and singing; he welcomes the audience and comically dialogues with his children. He then announces the title of the episode and enters his cottage.
Vouraikos River & Gorge.
The Vouraikos River in ancient times was called Erasinos. Its source is on Helmos near the village of Priolithos. It flows past the towns of Kalavryta and Diakopto, and flows into the Gulf of Corinth near Diakopto. It is only 37.5 km long. Its name derives from Boura, a mythological daughter of Ion and Helice. Hercules fell in love with Boura, who according to legend opened the gorge in order to get close to her. This is the Vouraikos Gorge, which has a length of about 20 km. In the gorge the river passes along dense vegetation and steep cliffs, waterfalls and caves. The legend also says that there was a cave on the banks of the river which was dedicated to Hercules. There pilgrims came to read their fate in the Tables of Knowledge, as they were called.
"Ododotos" rack railway.
More than 120 years ago, the Odontotos rack (cog) railway started from the seaside town of Diakopto parallel to the river and climbed to Kalavrita through bridges and tunnels crossing 22km of beautiful scenery. The construction of the network started in 1889, and it was inaugurated on 10 March 1896. Since then, the Vouraikos River and Odontotos have gone together. The railway incorporated so well into the natural environment that it seems it had always been there. The way it was constructed did not put a strain on the ecosystem of the gorge. Using stone and wood from the area, the technicians' work is so perfect that someone may think nature worked independently. Odontotos is not just a train. Vouraikos gorge and Odontotos rack railway Diakopto – Kalavrita is a unique attraction in Greece. The railway has been recently renovated, and the trains are all modern and pristinely clean. The train runs 3-5 times a day and costs 9.5 € one way. There is an "Ododotos" Museum at the Diakopto railway station.
The famous Voraikos Gorge trekking path runs alongside the old railway line, hailed as the most scenic route in the Balkans.
Many tourists get on/off at Kato Zachlorou (about 10km from Kalavryta), located at the most beautiful and narrower part of the Voraikos Gorge, midway to Diakopto. Kato Zachlorou is a village built inside the Vouraikos Gorge over the river. The village has some touristic infrastructure, as much in terms of accommodation and restaurants and tavernas/cafés. It is highly regarded as a tourist attraction for its surroundings as for the rack railway that goes up the gorge. The place could be a 'paradise', but unfortunately, it looks neglected and dirty and does not meet the expectations—a shame.
Kato Zachlorou is a good starting point to cross Vouraikos Gorge towards Diakopto, walking along the railway track (13km 31/2 hours). It is also worth walking the old footpath that connects the village with the Mega Spilaio (25-40 minutes). Ano Zachlorou is a small mountain village 230 meters higher than Kato Zachlorou, without permanent residents and of no interest.
Mega Spileo Monastery.
Just above Zachlorou train station, on the eastern steep ravine of the Vouraikos River, stands the Monastery of Mega Spileo (Μέγα Σπήλαιο). This admirable historical monument is built in the shade of a rock at the opening of a large natural cave of the Helmos mountain range, at an altitude of 950m. It took its name (Spileo = cave) from the cave where the icon of Virgin Mary was found. This eight-floor Monastery captures even the most indifferent visitor.
It is located 10kms north of Kalavrita, on the road connecting the town to the coast. You can visit it either by car or on train and then on foot, by following the path from Zachlorou train station. The car can be parked just outside the monastery, and after that the visitor has to climb some stairs to the courtyard of the monastery.
There is a shop here selling books and memorabilia. Next to the shop, at the northern side of the courtyard, there is a big gate made of limestone leading inside the monastery. On both sides of the gate stand two marble lions. The lintel of the gate supports a beautiful mosaic depicting the Virgin Mary surrounded by angels as well the founders of the monastery Simeon and Theodoros, as well as Saint Efrosini. Behind the door there is a big room, in the middle of which stands an icon depicting the Assumption of Mary.
Do not stop here: climb the stairs you see on the right and you will see a huge meeting room with impressive frescos covering all walls. The door you see in the middle of the hall is the entrance to the katholiko (church). The katholikon of the Monastery dug into the rock, is a cross-shaped temple, with two narthexes (vestibules). The church has wall paintings dated from1653, remarkable marble floors and a wood carved temple. Narthex frescoes date back to the early 19th century.
The Monastery of Mega Spileo was built in 362 AD by the brother monks Simeon and Theodoros who were from Thessaloniki. The legend says that each of them separately saw a vision and they were both ordered to go from Jerusalem to Achaia and find the icon of Virgin Mary that was made of mastic and wax by Lucas the Evangelist. After wandering, the two brothers met a young shepherdess, Efrosini, who led them to the cave where the icon was.
The two monks took the icon out of the cave with great piety and cleaned this sacred place by removing the plants. When they burnt the branches, the heat made a dragon that was living in the cave to jump towards the exit of the cave …the dragon was killed instantly by thunderbolts without causing any harm to the two brothers.
After that, a lot of pilgrims started to come to the region. A lot of cells were built and gradually the Monastery started to flourish and became a center of Orthodoxy and Hellenism through the centuries. It played an important role in the Greek Revolution of 1821 and it was an inexpugnable fortress for its conquerors.
In December 1943, the Germans burnt the Monastery and killed 16 people, among them visitors, underlings and monks. They threw them down from a high rock.
The icon of Virgin Mary is Apostle Luca’s work. It is believed that it was given from Apostle Lucas to his spiritual son, the ruler of Achaia Theophilos together with the Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles. Theophilos handed the icon down to his descendants. During the period of the persecutions, they hid it in the cave. When they died the icon remained forgotten in the cave until it was miraculously discovered by Saint Efrosini. The icon is embossed and it is 3 centimeters thick. It is made of wax, mastic and other materials. On the icon, you can see Virgin Mary sitting, while her head bends slightly on the right side. her hand touches Christ who sits on her knees.
In the Monastery, are kept important relics. The Monastery celebrates on 15 of August that is the feast Day of the Dormition of the Virgin.
One can have the best views of the monastery from the yard of the chapel of Saint Efrosini located at the position Galatas at the Ano Zachlorou settlement. Saint Efrosini is a beautiful, nicely restored little church, which has 3 plane trees cast their thick shade uppon the courtyard (one was planted in 1901, the other two in 2006 & 2008 respectively). A white-brushed spring welcomes the visitor.
Kalavryta is also associated with a very important page of the Greek History: the declaration of the 1821 Revolution that took place at the Monastery of Agia Lavra.
Agia Lavra Monastery ("Holy Monastery") is located 4km west of Kalavryta. It was built in 961 AD, at an altitude of 961 meters, and can be described as the symbolic birthplace of modern Greece. It stands as one of the oldest monasteries in the Peloponnese. That original position is about 300 m away from the current location where only the old katholikon (church) has survived today.
The monastery burnt to the ground in 1585 by the Turks and was rebuilt in 1600 (to its present location) while the frescoes by Anthimos were completed in 1645. It was burnt again in 1715 and again in 1826 by the armies of Ibrahim Pasha of Egypt. In 1850 after the rebirth of modern Greece, the building was completely rebuilt. The monastery was burned down once again by German occupation forces in 1943 and all its monks executed.
It is famously linked with the Greek War of Independence, since it was here that the call for Eleftheria I Thanatos (Ελευθερία ή θάνατος = Freedom or Death) was first heard on 25 March 1821, launching the revolution against the Ottoman Empire. That day, Bishop Germanos of Old Patras performed a doxology and administered an oath to the Peloponnesian fighters. The revolutionary flag was raised by Bishop under the plane tree just outside the gate of the monastery. According to many this story is just a popular legend.
To this day, the vestments of Germanos, documents, books, icons, the Gospel of Tsarina Catherine II of Russia, sacred vessels, crosses, etc. are preserved in the Monastery's museum, along with the holy relics of St Alexios, given by Byzantine emperor Emanuil II Palaeologus in 1398. Pieces of embroidery, made with gold or silver threads woven in pure silk materials in Smyrna and Constantinople, are also possessions of the Monastery and they date from the 16th century.
But the most important exhibit is certainly the revolutionary flag, a must see by every Greek.
note: pictures are not allowed inside the museum... so no picture of the flag! 😠
The monastery is very popular and easily accessible by car. There is a big parking lot outside the gates, but you can bring the car closer to the monastery if there is a reason. Such reason could be the visit to the Monument to Heroes of the 1821 Revolution, which is built on a hill opposite the monastery looking down upon it. You can bypass the Agia Lavra to visit the monument on the car, coming from Kalavryta, but it is shorter to visit it while in the monastery grounds by exiting from its north gate. This monument is unique of his size in Greece and reminds monuments we are used to encounter in Eastern Europe made during the communist era.
The Monument inaugurated on March 25, 1971, celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Revolution and the Millennium of the Agia Lavra monastery.
In its present form, the monument consists of a composition of three statues representing the participation of the clergy, of the secular fighters and the Freedom of the Greek Nation.