Sea, rivers, mountains, lakes and caves

September, 2016  Peloponnesus, Greece

Here you can have it all! Starting at the seaside and ending up high in the mountains, at an area, which will be transformed into a ski resort in winter time.

A Greek friend of mine is taking me for a day tour into the backcountry, starting around Akrata and following the extremely quiet and curvy road higher up into the mountains. While driving, we pass the sign of a monastery and looking up, we see beside a new constructed building, also the remains of the old and very small monastery, tucked half into the rocks. Even my Greek friend has never seen this “not well-known” historic site! We decide to drive up and take a look.

The road goes like a snake up and down the mountains. No villages and barely any houses. No tourists with campers and not even a normal Greek car! We are driving towards lake Tsivlos and the river Krathis, on around an 800 meters altitude on the Helmos mountain slopes. The lake was formed in 1912 by a landslide. Its depth sometimes reaches 80 meters, depending on the annual rain rate. There are a few cabins around the lake and I could imagine me staying here for a couple of days, away from everything…….

There are apple and nut trees around the lake and even rodia trees or pomegranate; a very decorative fruit and a symbol for the New Year. It is one of the most ancient of fruits and it has many mythological and biblical meanings; good luck, fertility, love, beauty, a happy marriage and many more…….dsc06306

From here, we go further up the mountain and reach the tiny village of Agridi, with gorgeous views over the Helmos mountains. You can not imagine that you are just a couple of hours away from Athens, the capital of Greece.

Higher up on the mountain, the leave trees change to needle trees and after, when we arrive to the entrance of the “ski slope”, it is a bare landscape with only grazing sheep. By now the temperature dropped to 10 degrees and we are shivering in our shorts!!!

We decide to visit the “Cave of the Lakes”, which is another 17 km. from Kalavrita. This is the only cave in the world where ponds are layered on three separate levels. Here you can not only see stalagmites and stalactites, but also immense boulders, small waterfalls and tiny lakes. The colours are amazing and it is like you enter a fairy tale. I have never seen such an amazing place and so worth to visit! Too bad they do not permit any pictures taken.

After, we return to the valley of Kalavrita, where the temperature is 16 degrees, also a bit colder than last Saturday. Seemingly, the people are prepared with their warm sweaters, coats and long trousers and you realize that winter is around the corner.

My friend explains that he now feels relaxed. I didn’t notice he was stressed, so I asked him why? He then tells me that going down, he could run the car easily into the petrol station, as he was driving on a (nearly) empty tank!!! So grateful he didn’t tell me that before, as it would have been a very long walk from up the mountains down to Kalavrita, in the cold and in shorts!

We go for lunch in the small village of Skepasto, where the owner of the only taverna welcomes us with a big smile. This is way better than one of the touristic restaurants in Kalavrita. Immediately, the fire is on and our paidakia (lamb chops), moshari (beef), xorta (greens), xoriatiki (Greek salad), tzatziki, patates and psomi (bread) are prepared. I forget to take first a picture of my favorite Greek food, as we didn’t eat the whole day and attack our food immediately!

Our last stop in between Kalavrita and Diakofto is close to Zachlorou, where a Greek investor built some very interesting and affordable rental apartments; http://www.montagesuites.gr

Not only the layout is very attractive, with views over the mountains, the bordering river and the monastery Mega Spileo, but also the way the apartments are built. They are all built according to a different movie theme;  inside you will find decorations from famous films and you feel like you enter another world! Rocky, Braveheart, Out of Africa, Eyes Wide Shut, English Patient, you can find it all, complete with a cozy fire-place! I have never seen such a remarkable apartment hotel! It is called “Apartments Montage” and you can not miss it, driving up or down the main road.

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Aghia Lavra and the market in Kalavrita, Greece

24th of September, 2016

Again, I am house sitting in Diakofto, Peloponnesus, Greece. This time the sea is warmer, but the days are shorter and the evenings colder than in May. I am not as energetic as in May, tired of renovating my house in The Netherlands and just enjoying some tennis and swimming. Still, there are some excursions on my “to do”list and one of them is “The Monastery Of Aghia Lavra”.

This Saturday, I take the train of 8.45 to Kalavrita again and it is one of those cooler, late summer days with just the right temperature for a hike up the mountain. Once in Kalavrita, I quickly put my sweater on, as it is at least a difference of 5 degrees or more with Diakofto. I can’t remember I have ever been here on a Saturday and it seems the many restaurants are preparing themselves for a very busy day. People started roasting the lamb and pork outside on big barbecues and on one of the main streets a market is taking place, with a variety of produce. The Romani Gypsies are also well represented, selling their clothing ware. One of the clocks of the cathedral is still giving the time of the executions during World War 2.

I decide I just have to buy something again, as a memory of this pretty town and this time it is a string of little goat bells on a chain with the “matia yia kali tixi” (the famous blue eyes for good luck) in between.

After a strong “cafe Elliniko” and a fresh tiropita (cheesepie) in the backpack, it is time to start walking up the road towards the Monastery. I quickly find the road just outside town and walk for a while together with a talkative Greek lady, until she returns home. I am now on my own and the only one I meet is a shepherd with his goats. I wonder where all the tourists are, as I even don’t see any buses or other cars. Looking down the hill, you see the valley of Kalavrita, with on the other side the tall cross of the Memorial, which I visited in May. The walk goes steep up the mountain and takes at least one hour. I have a short break, as it is quite a climb and finally arrive at around 12.30, while the Monastery closes at 1.00 for the two-hour siesta. So just on time!

One of the monks is sitting at the entrance of the Monastery, welcoming the people to the church and museum. The other part of the building is where the monks are living and no visitors are allowed there. Also, once inside, you can not take any pictures. I have a little chat with this very nice man and he was surprised that I walked on my own up the mountain. Not many people come to visit by foot he tells me and definitely no ladies on their own!

The monastery has a long history. It played a very important part in the Greek Revolution for Independence against the Turks. It is right here that the Archbishop “Paleon Patron” Germanos raises the Holy Labarum, the very first flag of the Greek Nation, in March 1821.

In 1826, Ibrahim Pasha set the Monastery ablaze. Only the “Katholikon”, the historical church, escapes full destruction. All the other buildings are burned down.

Another tragic event takes place in 1943, when the German occupation forces kill all the monks they can find, one day after the massacre in Kalavrita. The killings are taken place right under the huge plane tree, towering above the front yard.

The church is very small, but impressive with all its icons, lanterns and wall paintings.

Also the museum is tiny, but surprisingly full with interesting artifacts, Holy vestments and books, dating back to the 11th and 14th century.

By now it is 1.00 p.m. and siesta time for the monks. I wander around for a while in the garden and slowly start walking back down the mountain, which is way easier than going up. This time it only takes me around 45 minutes to reach Kalavrita. I see the train arriving at the station and decide to change my ticket and leave Kalavrita earlier than planned. This way, I can make a stop at Zachlarou, where I would like to have lunch in my favorite taverna from last time. As soon as I arrive, the owner comes towards me. He remembers me from last time! I wish I could go back many more times, but this time I had to pay the full fee for the train (19 euro’s) and that is pretty pricy.

Other hikers are joining me and we all go back down the gorge, with the last train of the day.

Sunrise and sunset in Diakofto, Greece

June, 20016

Sometimes no words can express a moment. It is on those moments, that you better just watch, enjoy and indulge the beauty of nature………

 

 

 

 

The sound of water and goat bells

The 23rd of May 2016, Mega Spileo, Greece

One of my last outings in Diakofto is a visit to the Monastery Mega Spileo, tucked away in the rocks on the way to Kalavrita. For a visit you can take the car or a bus, but I decide the take once more the train towards Kalavrita and getting off earlier, in Zachlorou. It is an early Tuesday morning and this time no screaming school children, but  just a handful of tourists, all going to Kalavrita. One more time I can enjoy the great scenery and I even leave my camera in my bag and relax. In Zachlorou only some locals and two German tourists are leaving the train. The two Germans are immediately starting to walk back to Diakofto along the railway and I start looking for the path, which will bring me finally to the Monastery. The entrance of the path is just beside one of the tavernas, where I will end up on the way back.

This is not a hike for people, who are not very mobile! Also, you better have your walking shoes on! The first part is like a goat trail. That is also the only thing you hear;  goat bells! Nothing else. Oh….and the sound of water running. Always……

The path is not marked very well. You have to look for a red arrow or a blue/green triangle. At a certain point there is a choice between three trails. Nowhere a coloured arrow or other mark! I choose to follow the goatshit and that turned out to be the right choice. Being just on my own in the mountains felt amazing. I only realized that if I would fall and break a leg, nobody could hear my screams.

Once up on the main road, I walk to the entrance of the Monastery, but before climbing up the next hill, I treat myself on a frappe and a tiropitakia (well, tiropita, so huge) in the only restaurant/cafeteria there is. Very touristic, as all the buses park here, but with an amazing view over the mountains.DSC05575

Mega Spileo is built against the rocks, with a stunning view. The original building has been destroyed many times before by fires (in 1400, 1640 and 1934) and later by the Germans, during the second WW, who killed all the monks and visitors and threw them of the cliffs. Only a few escaped and could hide with some of the valuable treasures of the church.

Mega Spileo is supposed to be the oldest Monastery of Greece, originally from 362 AD. It is built at a height of 924 mt and it is told that the Icon of the Virgin Mary was found in a hole in the rocks by a shepherdess. Therefore, Mega Spileo is known as a pilgrimage for not only the Greek people, as well as many foreigners. The museum, where a very old monk is supervising today, contains many valuable icons, manuscripts and other treasures. In the 17th century church you will see frescoes and a mosaic floor and a bronze door.

After my visit to the inside of the Monastery, I stroll around the gardens and discover a small graveyard at the far end of the rocks. There is nobody here and I don’t even know if I am allowed at this part of the grounds of Mega Spileo. Here the view is amazing and I sit for a while taking it all in.

Around 12.30 I return back, down the mountain to Kato Zachlorou, but first visit the little chapel at the side of the road.

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Going down is even more difficult, as at times the pebbles make the trail slippery. Once back in Zachlorou, I stroll around in this small mountain village and just enjoy the scenery and the smell of the herbs. On one of the back streets, I encounter a very big snake, but although my camera is hanging around my neck, I am too slow or the snake too fast, to take a picture.

It was time to have lunch. There are a few tavernas in front of the train station and I choose to sit at taverne “Zachlorou” right above the small waterfall and overseeing the bridge. The sound of the water is relaxing and the raki, the owner gives me as a welcome drink, even more! I am glad I took the early train, as now I have time enough to enjoy a late lunch. I am the only guest at this time, but the barbecue is started and soon the home-made “loukaniko” (Greek sausage) is filling the air with a delicious smell. I never had such a tasty Xoriatiki (Greek salad) in all the 10 years I lived in Greece. A few more customers are arriving and the children of the owner of the taverna are brought home from school by taxi, as there is no school bus which goes to this tiny village.

I sit here for two hours and just loving it. Dogs and cats around me and later the German tourists arrive back for a quick-lunch. Adonis and Pollie Triantafillo, the owners of the taverna, let us have a peek in a box…….so cute……..one day old kittens!

The train to Kalavrita is passing by and it is the same train which will pick us up on the way back. So we relax a little bit more, while sipping some more tasty Greek wine. What a gorgeous day!

 

 

 

 

Kalavrita, a mixture of beauty and sadness

May 2016

The train ride from Diakofto to Kalavrita is spectacular. It takes about an hour to go up the mountain and until Zachlorou we are going through the Vouraikos Gorge with impressive views and stunning rides over ridges and through tunnels. Last time, I walked along the train track back to Diakofto. This time I take the train and go all the way up to Kalavrita, which is situated on the banks of the Vouraikos river at Mount Chelmos. On the way up, the train is fully booked with 40 school children, screaming  “wows” the whole journey. It is hard to make nice pictures, sitting in the front wagon with the windows closed.  There are signs everywhere that you are not allowed to open the windows, as the air conditioning is on. On the way back I suddenly noticed that we all have an assigned seat and mine is in the last wagon, according to my ticket. We are with three people and immediately we open up the windows, trying to get some nice shots, while hanging out of the train. You do have to watch carefully, when the train is entering a tunnel or going over a bridge, as the track is very narrow and you could end up beheaded or without a camera!

I visited Kalavrita before, but always in winter time and always for an outing in the snow. I have always known the story about the terrible suffering of the people here, during the Second World War. This time I want to know more about the history of this sad story, which is considered one of the cruelest atrocities of the WW2 in Europe.  I will visit the Holocaust Museum in Kalavrita and later the monument on the hill of Kapi ridge.DSC05350

At the end of 1943, 81 German soldiers, led by Hauptmann Johannes Schober, were captured by Greek Partisans near Kerpini village. Four Germans were killed on the spot and three were taken to the hospital at Kalavrita, but later shot by furious Partisans. All the others were treated as prisoners of war. Two prisoners escaped and raised the alarm. On December the 8th, the German troops destroyed the villages Kerpini and Pogi and killed their male population. Soon after this took place, the Greek resistance executed the German prisoners. During the following days, German troops entered Kalavrita to look for the Greek resistance soldiers. Although the villagers affirmed them that the Greek forces had left, the Nazi troops ordered on the 13th of December 1943 all the residents to the school building. They separated men and boys from the women. All the male residents of Kalavrita, aged 13 years and older then had to gather in a field on Kapi hill and they were gunned down. From the 468 people, 13 survived. After the Massacre of Kalavrita, the German troops burned down the town and the next day also the Monastery of Agia Lavra, birthplace of the Greek War of Independence.

The Cathedral in Kalavrita was later rebuilt, but the left clock remains stopped at the time, when the crime began; at 14.34 p.m.DSC05367

In total more than 1200 civilians were killed in Kalavrita and it’s neighbouring villages and around 1000 houses were looted and burned down.

The Monastery of Mega Spileo, around 10 km outside of Kalavrita, was burnt by the German Nazis and all 22 monks and staff members were killed and their bodies were thrown over the cliffs.

The Holocaust museum is small, but very impressive and informative. Interviews, with the survivors of the Massacre, can be seen on a television screen. Various photographs of the people of this town, taken during special occasions, are displayed. Personal items of the fallen and German objects are also demonstrated.

The last room has one big wall covered with pictures of the fallen and I am standing there looking at all those faces, who once lived peacefully in this tiny town in the mountains. A Greek man, who came to visit for the first time, is looking for a relative who was among the fallen. One of the staff members helps him finding the picture which belongs to the name.DSC05347

After my visit to the museum I walk out of town up to Kapi Hill, from where an enormous cross is overlooking the valley of Kalavrita. Underneath are the monuments with the names and ages engraved of the men and boys killed on the 13th of December, 1943.

I am the only visitor at his moment and it a beautiful sunny day. I sit myself down at the bottom of the cross and look over the valley and the  mountains and stay for quite a while………It is difficult to imagine all what happened here, on this very spot, on the 13th of December 1943.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Walking along the railway track, Greece

May, 2016

On Sunday, May the 8th, I join hundreds of Greek hikers from all over the place, to walk from Zachlorou to Diakofto, along the “Odontotos”(tooth train) railway. This month, the 120th Anniversary of the train from Diakofto to Kalavrita (750 mtr above sea level) is celebrated and the opportunity is given to bring people by bus to Zachlorou in the mountains and walk along the railway, for around 4 hours, back to Diakofto. The weather is superb for a hike, not too much sun and a cooling breeze. The buses were fully booked and I was lucky to be on my own, as I just booked a few days ahead at the municipality of Diakofto and  “kiria Olga” told me she could “squeeze me in”. That meant a place right in the front of the bus, beside the chauffeur, from where the views were amazing! The road up the mountain is very curvy and narrow at times and my chauffeur didn’t wear any seatbelts and was constantly talking with a microphone in his hand with the girlfriend probably (or his mother……). I wished he had both hands on the steering wheel! This is the road to Kalavrita and we drove it in the past on various occasions, to let the children have some fun in the snow, as this area is a favorite ski resort also. Next week I will visit Kalavrita as well, but then by train.

In Zachlorou we are with many starting the walk, but on the way down, there are a few villages and some people decide to quit.

The first thing you notice is the overwhelming scent of herbs, especially oregano (rigani). People start picking bunches of different kinds and the yellow flowers are favorite, as they seem to make a good balsam for pains and aches and also as a tea for an upset stomach.DSC05214

The walk goes through the Vouraikos Gorge and the Vouraikos river is flowing along the railway track with numerous of waterfalls along the way. The beauty of the rock formations in stunning and reminds me from time to time of Meteora, in Northern Greece.

Although we are going down, it is not an easy walk, as you have to watch your step constantly. I admire a guy “at age”, who is walking as if he is going to church. In a suit and on normal shoes and so easy………DSC05164

Nobody informed me about the numerous of bridges we have to cross (6 or 8) and if I would have known, I probably never joined this hike! My fear of heights is of a concerning level and the bridges are simple from construction and the cliffs are steep! I try to concentrate on the “bum”of the hiker in front of me, as that level seems to be a good concentration point. It works for a while, until one of my “front hikers” decides to jump to the left. A tour guide starts shouting at him to go back and I am totally freaking out, as I lost my focus point! The good thing is that there is no way back, so I do have to continue and the last bridges are getting easier to cross.

In Mega Spilaion the “souvlakia” are ready for the hungry hikers and many take the opportunity to have a break. I want to go on. I even didn’t have one sip of water, as I don’t want to end up in the bushes……

I start following an older Greek guy, as he didn’t go slower, like most of the other hikers. His step is firm and we have a simple conversation. My Greek is not totally back on the same level, as 13 years ago. I knew the question would come; “where is your husband?” I told him that there is no husband. Stupid. I never should have said that! He got all enthusiastic and saw many opportunities, but after arriving in Diakofto later on, he suddenly was gone. Later, I saw him with a woman walking to the station. Probably, his wife! No, things didn’t change one bit in Greece………

Where did April go?

 April 2016

Just settled in my new holiday home in the eastern part of the Netherlands, hoping to enjoy some long walks and bike rides and exploring more of the other Hanse towns.  It all came to an end, as I suddenly made the decision to buy this cute, 1890 home in a small town, close to a few of the famous Hanse towns. Although the upstairs floors are so crooked that you have the feeling to walk on the waves of the sea, I fell in love with the lay out, the coziness of the house and the cute garden and above all, the neighbourhood. I can walk to the town, with its many restaurants and pubs and even the tennis court is on the other side of the street! It doesn’t mean that the travelling is history; my suitcase will be waiting patiently in the corner of the room. It just means that I finally can have all my luggage at one place and my container from Canada can be emptied.DSC04772

Within two weeks time I get the keys of my new home and during another 14 days I clean and paint and run around different villages to look for secondhand stuff for my new home. Later in the evening I rush back to my holiday home, where at least a clean bed is ready and some food is in the fridge. My family is coming over to help me, as they understand that it is all somewhat overwhelming. The movers arrive with a lot of stuff I never can use anymore! As I didn’t know where I would settle down, all kinds of electronics moved with me, but they are of no use in Europe. Waste of the space…….DSC04784

My new neighbours are throwing me a welcome party on the evening I move into my new house and they make me feel at home. I suddenly realize that my son and his girlfriend from Canada are visiting for a couple of days and I don’t have beds. A few days later I have a bed, a dining table and chairs to sit on! All found in barns in the countryside, from neighbours and via the internet. Somebody gives me cups and glasses and another one a coffee machine and lamps. My sisters are coming with their cars loaded with stuff.

It is nearly the end of April and I have to get ready for my trip to Greece. I promised my friends there, to look after their house. The tickets are long booked, even the airport hotel is arranged, but my clothes are still in boxes and the packing is hectic. I have to leave my house “as is” and I am grateful for the wonderful neighbours, who are willing to look after everything and the handyman, who will continue finishing some urgent upgrades.

A last “goodbye” meeting with my son and girlfriend in Amsterdam, on the evening before my very early flight leaves for Athens. It is the day after “Kingsday” and the weather is surprisingly sunny and loads of people are filling the streets of the inner city of Amsterdam. After some “pub hopping” and some real Chinese food on the Zeedijk, I take my train back to Schiphol and after, the shuttle to the hotel.

29th of April, 2016

My flight to Athens is fully booked, as it is Greek Orthodox Eastern weekend. I arrive on a quiet airport and find my way to the station on the other side of the road, from where my train is leaving to Kiato, Peloponnesus. A very helpful Englishman is helping me with my luggage and at this point the train is still very quiet, which will change quickly, after arriving in the suburbs of Athens. Certain things didn’t change one bit here in Greece. People are still loud! Still crazy busy with their cell phones and if they are not called within 5 minutes, they will call their mother, just to have somebody to talk to! Everybody can enjoy their conversation and they will not do any efforts to be less loud. No, nothing changed……..

At Kiato station, my friends are waiting for me and we have a pleasant drive along the inner coast road, with a coffee stop (Greek Alpha beer stop for me) on the way to Diakofto. I have been at their house before and it is situated right on the Gulf of Corinth, with a view on the other side of the mountainous region of the mainland. In the east it is bounded by the Isthmus of Corinth, where also the famous Corinth Canal is situated. In the west, you will find the in 2004 newly built Rio-Antirio bridge.

From the house, you walk along the water into town and on the day of my arrival, the two churches are having their special service for Eastern and after, the walk through town with the Lambada candles, which we will observe from behind a coffee and ouzo…….

On Saturday we go to Aigio for some shopping and the terraces are filled with people drinking (crisis? what crisis!) and some barbecues with “oxtapodia”are set up in the streets. I am told that the last things the Greeks are giving up, is their coffee, beer or ouzo on one of the many terraces.

Good Friday is in Greece a real sacred day called “The Epitaph Mass”. Eastern Saturday is known as Anastasis (The Resurrection) and on that day many Greek kitchens are cooking the Magiritsa soup, which they will eat after midnight. Again people are going to church late in the evening and just before midnight the lights in the church are closed in symbolism of the darkness that Christ had to endure, as he passed through the underworld. The moment after they close the lights, a priest is holding a Holy candle, from which others have to light their Lambada candles and give the light to their neighbours and so on. This is one of the most significant moments in the year for the Greek people. The Resurrection is proclaimed and there is firework and the clinging of the church bells. People say “Christos Anesti” (Christ has risen) to each other and the answer will be “Alithos Anesti” (He has truly risen). Then all are returning home to eat the traditional soup, but they have to take their burning candle with them and first make a cross in the air with the smoke of the burning candle, above their door and then light an oil candle inside the home. If you make it home with your candle still burning, it will bring you luck for the whole year. Even better, trying to keep your oil candle burning during the whole year! Something we never tried during our 10 years stay in Greece, but we did indeed manage to go home with burning candles in the car (and two small children!).

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Eastern Sunday the air is filled with the smell of lamb and kokoretsi (the internal organs of lamb or sometimes goat), all prepared on hot coals.DSC05033 Wine is flowing and there is loud Greek traditional music and dancing. We walked around the town and there were two big gatherings, where people had their own lamb on the spit (soufla). We used to have our own Eastern gatherings at home in the same way and with a group of friends. The smell brings back good memories…….

And even after all these years, I  still could join the dancing again!