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.

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.