The road wound higher and higher into the mountains south of the Gulf of Corinth. Each bend showed us a new and more exciting view of the mountains,
blackened in many places by the fires that had ravaged much of Greece in the summer of 2007. The Gulf, a blue wedge topped by the reddish-tan mountains
on the opposite shore, grew ever smaller as our bus climbed higher. Finally, the road leveled out and the vegetation grew thicker and greener as we headed
along the side of the Vouraikos Gorge toward the town of Kalavryta in Greece’s northern Peloponnese.
We had intended to take the rack-and-pinion railway from Diakofto on the gulf shore along the bottom of the gorge, often recommended as a not-to-be-missed
part of any visit to Kalavryta. When we had arrived in Diakofto the day before though, we learned that the roadbed in the gorge had been damaged, and the
train would not be running for several months. Now leaning over in our bus seats, we could at times catch sight of the tracks far below as they meandered
through the bottom of the gorge. Then, for the last few miles before Kalavryta, the tracks and our road ran side by side.
Kalavryta, along with the nearby Agia Lavra and Mega Spilaion monasteries, holds a prominent place in the history of the struggle for Greek freedom, and
like them, has sometimes paid a terrible price. My wife Celeste and I had decided to spend a few days in the area as part of our trip around the Peloponnese.
We looked forward to breathing the mountain air in Kalavryta after our stay in smoggy Athens and planned to take day trips out to the two monasteries.
Kalavryta sits in a valley surrounded by hills and mountains, thanks to which the town becomes a booming vacation destination during the winter. The nearby
Mount Chelmos Ski Center, one of the leading ski slopes in Greece, attracts large numbers of ski enthusiasts, mainly Greeks.
After getting settledl, we strolled the streets to orient ourselves. We found a town with an unhurried atmosphere and the amenities in demand by visitors, but without the tourist shlock so often found in other resort towns. The main shopping
and dining area centered around the town square is closed to vehicle traffic, lending itself to window shopping among the many shops selling bundled herbs, honey,
arved wood, locally made pasta and fruit preserves.
Close to the center of town, the long, low railroad station looked forlorn because of the breakdown on its only line. On a siding, a French steam locomotive
made in 1892, one of the original engines that worked the route into the 1960s, poses for photographers.
Unlikely Staging Area for Rebellion
A four-mile (6.5 kilometer) taxi ride into the hills the next day brought us to the monastery of Agia Lavra, famed as the springboard of the Greek Uprising of 1821.
Here in March of that year, Bishop Germanos of Old Patra administered the oath of loyalty to Greek freedom fighters. They then gathered under the plane tree
next to the main gate before moving on to liberate Kalavryta, starting the revolution that was to free the rest of Greece from Ottoman rule. Victory did not come
cheap however, as a Turkish punitive expedition burned the monastery and much of Kalavryta in 1826.
The monastery stands on the side of a wooded hill. Across a cobblestoned square from the monastery gate, a statue of Bishop Germanos holds a banner inscribed
“Freedom or Death” in one hand and with the other gives, his blessing to the freedom fighters.
The monastery’s museum displays the banner upon which the freedom fighters took their oath, and muskets, pistols, and swords that they carried. We met the
museum’s caretaker, Fr. Panaretos, and asked if we could see the church, which we noticed was under renovation.
“There’s nothing there worth seeing,” he said to our surprise. “Wait a moment and I’ll take you to the old church.”
After he locked the museum, he led us out the gates to the small church we had passed on our walk in from the parking lot. Choosing another key from his key
ring, he opened the thick wooden door and let us in.
“This is where the heroes of 1821 swore to free our country from the Turks or die doing it.”
We were amazed at how small the church was, considering the importance of the event. Fr. Panaretos went about tidying up as we studied the faded frescos on
the walls and ceiling. Dating to 1689, we later read, it was one of the few buildings to have survived the monastery’s destruction in 1826.
As we were leaving, we thanked him and posed one last question: “How many monks live here?”
“There are just seven of us now. Life as a monk can be hard for many people.”
A short walk out the back gate, down a cypress-lined avenue, then across a valley and along a road spiraling up a cone-shaped hill brought us to a monument
dedicated to the heroes of the 1821 revolt, an austere gray plinth holding statues of a woman, a warrior and a priest, symbols of the forces that together brought
freedom to Greece.
The Great Cave
The next day, another taxi ride took us to the Mega Spilaion (Great Cave) Monastery, which overlooks the Vouraikos Gorge from the side of a cliff part way along
the road from the coast. Built over a cave, it gives the impression of a multistoried apartment building growing out of the face of the rock. Tradition dates
its founding to the fourth century, making it perhaps the oldest monastery in Greece. It has been rebuilt several times and at present is undergoing further
From the entrance we climbed stairs to the main floor and emerged at a long, rectangular hall brightened by arched windows looking out over the gorge.
At one end of the hall stands a display of four antique cannons – incongruous at first glance, but closely tied to the monastery’s history: during the Greek Revolution,
the monks here, as at Agia Lavra, took an active role in the nation’s struggle for freedom from Turkish rule.
The hall accommodates feast-day crowds overflowing from the monastery church. The columns of the church’s vestibule frame the figured bronze doors that open onto
a dazzling black and white opus sectile floor dating to the 14th century, which stole our glance from the rest of the sparsely lit church.
We walked to the far end of the hall and down the steps leading to the grotto where the monastery began and from which it received its name. We enjoyed the cool
water pouring from the ancient spring on the grotto’s lower level, where figures portray a scene from the monastery’s founding.
Returning to the ground floor, we visited the gift shop, always a must for us. From among the large selection of books, mounted icon prints in assorted
sizes, and small bags of incense, we chose a copy of an antique engraving depicting the monastery. As we were paying for our purchase, it occurred to us that
we had missed one feature recommended by a local guidebook.
“Could you tell us where the display hall is?” I asked the attendant, a tall young man with penetrating brown eyes and luxuriant black beard and hair.
“It’s closed for repairs,” he said in a disarmingly deep bass voice. “That whole wing, as you can see from outside, is under construction because of damage
from falling rocks. It’s too bad, because there were some interesting vestments, sacred vessels and documents on display. It will be closed for a year, maybe two.”
The Price of Resistance
The Kalavryta area’s role in Greek history reached another milestone under Nazi occupation. The area had emerged as a center of the Greek resistance movement.
And so, in December 1943, the Germans sent army units to converge on the town of Kalavryta to stamp out continued resistance; these units stormed towards the town,
burning villages and killing their inhabitants along the way.
The Mega Spilaion Monastery was burned and 22 monks, workers and visitors were thrown to their deaths from a nearby cliff. A similar fate befell Agia Lavra,
where the Germans murdered the monks under the same plane tree where the freedom fighters had gathered to begin the 1821 War for Independence.
When they reached Kalavryta and occupied the town, the Germans gave their word that no one would be harmed. On the morning of December 13 though, they ordered
all the inhabitants to report to the town elementary school. They locked the women and children inside, while they marched the men and boys to a nearby hill, from
where they watched as the Germans burned their town. The Germans then machine-gunned them. Most of the women and children managed to escape the burning schoolhouse,
and after the Germans withdrew, endeavored to bury their men in the frozen earth.
A huge white cross visible from most of the town marks the site of the massacre and the burial place of the victims. Under a dark sky and intermittent drizzle,
we walked the cobblestone path leading from the town up the hill to the memorial. Curving gray walls on a plaza below the cross list the names of the dead
and the 11 survivors, wounded and left for dead. A crypt set into the hillside is filled with vigil lamps commemorating the dead. White stones set into the
hillside spell out the Greek words for “No More Wars – Peace.”
The next day we visited the stone school building where the women and children were imprisoned, now restored and turned into a museum dedicated to the 1943
massacre. Successive rooms portray life before the war, the Italian and German occupations, and the massacre and its aftermath. Survivors tell their stories from
video screens. The school’s front entrance, where the people entered that day, is permanently barred and some of the original charred floorboards remain uncovered.
The town’s cathedral overlooks the main square. Mostly destroyed during the burning of the town, the cathedral has been rebuilt except for the clock face on the
left belfry, stopped at 2:35, the time of the massacre.
Finding the door open, we went in and immediately noticed an odd thing about the interior of the church: the columns dividing the nave from the aisles stand free,
leaving a gap of many feet to the ceiling. These were left as a memorial when the burned church was rebuilt and enlarged.
The church’s priest, Fr. Giorgios Birbas, author of several books about the town, has served at the church for 55 years. “Four times I escaped certain death at
the hands of the Germans,” he told us as he autographed copies of his books. Not so fortunate was his predecessor in 1943, whom the Germans murdered along with the
men and boys of his flock. A monument surmounted by his bust stands next to the church.
Knowing the area’s recent history, I had expected to find a grimness about the place. Instead I felt a buoyancy about the town, proud of its history but not
dwelling on its dark moments.
Unlike during the destructive fires set by foreign invaders or the more recent arson fires that burned so much of the Greek countryside, today the smell of
burning wood wafting through the window of our hotel room comes from fireplaces taking the edge off an early autumn morning.