and the long-suffering town of Kalavryta
(last update: summer 2020)
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”.
During hot Greek summer months, I always try to escape on the mountains, at least for the weekends. Kalavryta is an easy to reach and very pleasant destination. The town is really crowded during the winter months as it is the closest town of 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 spend three days in the area. My base was Kynaitha Hotel in Kalavryta. A very central and beautiful hotel:
Day 1: Kalavryta and the Vouraikos gorge
Day 2: Kalavryta-Lousoi-Lake Caves-Kleitoria-Kertezi-Kalavryta
Day 3: Kalavryta-Mesorougi-Zarouchla-Agia Varvara-Tsivlos Lake
Note: Day 2 and Day 3 are described at the page named Mount Helmos, GR -2.
Kalavryta (Καλάβρυτα) is a popular winter destination and the most important town in the area. It is located about 190km from Athens (about 2 and a half hours driving) at the northwest slopes of Helmos. The town is built on the right bank of 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. Kalavryta was completely destroyed by the Germans during WWII occupation, so there are 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 heart of the city is the central square and the pedestrianized road that crosses it, where most of the shops, restaurants and cafés are.
At the central square is located the Cathedral dedicated to the Assumption of Virgin Mary. The church was burned in 1826 by the Ottomans and again on 13/12/1943 by the Germans on the day they burned the whole town and executed all male residents. The church has two belfries, each of which bears a clock. The clock on the left belfry is stopped and shows the time of the execution, so people never forget that ill-starred day. At the façade, just above the entrance there is a big mosaic depicting Virgin Mary with Little Jesus on either side of who is the Place of Sacrifice and the Monument to Heroes of the 1821 Revolution.
The town has many restaurants and cafés. The place is a paradise for meat lovers. During the weekend the dinning choices are many, but during the weekdays most restaurants are closed.
We tried a couple of restaurants while there and I can recommend the “Peri Orexeos” (Περί Ορέξεως) Tavern. The tavern is located at the southern end of the central road and during summer months it serves on a small square under huge plane trees.
We also had dinner twice at the "Stani" Tavern (located at the other end of the same street). The food was not that good, but on the weekedays it was almost the only open restaurant in the center of the town.
If you have a sweet tooth you will not get disappointed in Kalavryta. The place is famous for rose petals jam which is the perfect dessert as topping on thick local yogurt. “Hermidis Confectionary” (Ερμείδης) is the name behind rose petals preserve and produces this delicacy since 1922.
If like me, you are one of those who beleive 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.
Kalavryta is known for his ski resort, but what has made it known worldwide is a very tragic event during the German occupation of the town during the WWII. It is one of those “unnecessary” atrocities that took place during the world 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. 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, 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 the use of 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 biggest crimes in Europe. Beautify the ugly face of crime does not help the criminal to repent. Besides, what were the Nazis if not Germans, who in their majority supported a killing machine?
Visiting the Museum of the Kalavryta Holocaust is a must. The museum is housed in the old primary school (since 2005), the very same school where all residents of the town 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.
Entrance to museum costs €3 (€1.5, the reduced fair).
The “Place of Sacrifice”, is located east of the city of Kalavrita, 500 meters from the center, on the hill of Kapi. This is the location where on December 13, 1943, all men in the area were led 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.
You can visit the place of sacrifice on foot following a path starting near the schools and the cemetery area at the northeastern part of the town. Alternative 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.
To the south of the square stands the "Helmos Hotel", which was built in 1922 and since then stands proud on this historic square. 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. This beautiful hotel today is closed, waiting to open soon its doors to the lucky guests.
Karagiozis, the shadow puppetry
While in town, a Saturday evening arrived in town a travelling “shadow theater” (shadow puppetry). The Greek traditional shadow theater and very popular (especially in the past) is called “Karagiozis” and took its name from the basic character. The set the stage in the main square and for 5€ we watched the play “Karagiozis the Wrestler”. Needless to say, that we were the only adults (besides some parents accompanying their very young children) watching it.
The name Karagiozis or Karaghiozis (Καραγκιόζης) is borrowed from Turkish Karagöz 'dark eye'. There are several stories of how shadow theater was established in Asia Minor. Many argue for a Mediterranean origin in the Egyptian shadow puppet tradition. Whatever the case, it is worthwhile to mention that regardless of religious restrictions, shadow theater became more widespread around the 16th century among the Muslim Turks. Originally, his popular appeal was his scatological language and protruding phallus. It is still performed in Turkey, especially during Ramadan celebrations, under the same name.
Karagiozis seems to have come to mainland Greece, probably from Asia Minor (Anatolia) at the 19th century, during Ottoman rule. Karagiozis was hellenized in Patras, Greece in the end of 19th century by Dimitrios Sardounis alias Mimaros, who is considered the founder of modern Greek shadow theater. The genre became a 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 real events involving two masonry workers named Karagöz and Haci Ivat working in the construction of a mosque in the city of Bursa, Turkey in early 14th century.
Karagiozis is a poor hunchbacked Greek, his right hand is always depicted long, his clothes are ragged and patched, and his feet are always bare. He lives in a poor cottage (παράγκα) with his wife Aglaia and his three sons (κολλητήρια), during the times of the Ottoman Empire. The scene is occupied by his cottage in the left, 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.
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 Odontotos rack 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 go together. The railway incorporated so well to 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 that the nature worked on its own. 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 pristine clean. The train runs 3-5 times a day and costs 9.5 € one way.
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.
With great piety, the two monks took the icon out of the cave and cleaned this sacred place by removing the plants. When they burnt the branches, the heat made a dragon that was obviously 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.