Fir-covered slopes, a vertiginous canyon, a rack-and-pinion railway fearlessly cutting through it, a ski resort, a famous monastery and an impressive cave are just a few of the things that make Kalavryta, in the Peloponnese, an ideal destination for those who love winter holidays, nature, history and snow sports. Alpine hostels, good food, the Cave of the Lakes with its 13 underground lakes, the plane-tree forest at Platinero… what more could one want from a winter holiday destination? And it’s close to both Athens and Patras.
The Vouraikos Canyon ranks among the ten most beautiful in Europe and the rack-and-pinion railway, built in 1896 with a gauge of just 750mm, is one of the six most famous in the world. On the ride from Diakofto to Kalavryta, you will marvel at the canyon’s wild beauty, roll alongside the river and then you’ll be awed by the scenery at Dikastiria, Portes, Katarraktis (Waterfall) and Meteora tis Zachlorous. The route can also be hiked by the fairly fit. The tavernas at the scenic station at Kato Zachlori come highly recommended.
The Mega Spilaion Monastery is a stunning eight-storey complex built on vertical rocks reminiscent of Meteora. Tradition says that it was founded in the latter half of the 4th century. Pilgrims are drawn by the bas-relief icon of the Virgin holding the Infant made mainly of wax and mastic! The Monastery of Agia Lavra is said to have been founded in 961 on the site now called Paleomonastiro (Old Monastery). The museum houses a banner from the Greek Revolution of 1821, which tradition says began right here.
Just 14km from Kalavryta, the ski resort on Mt Helmos is considered one of the best in Greece. Its 12 pistes cover every level of difficulty, there is a snowboard park, you can rent snowmobiles and, best of all, you can do all of this with a view of the sea.
Pass through the Chamber of the Bats, if you dare, and you’re in the enchanted cavern of the first lake. Stalactites and stalagmites sparkle around you in the surreal light and echoing silence. There are another 12 stepped lakes on the three ‘floors’ of this magical world, the bed of a subterranean river. The fossils found here include that of a hippo and there is evidence that the site was inhabited as early as the 6th millennium BC.
Tasteful traditional hostels with fireplaces, restaurants, cafes and tavernas, a cobblestone main street, lined with shops and the scenic train station are some of the attractions of Kalavryta. The town’s most beautiful square, Plateia Eleftherias or Helmos, is home to the historic hotel of the same name. One of the sights is the grand house of Paleologina, a crenellated three-storey stone structure with a murder-hole above the entrance. At the Holocaust Museum, you’ll learn the tragic story of executions and destruction carried out in Kalavryta by the Nazi occupiers in 1943.
Extremely well-preserved and one of the oldest towers in the Peloponnese, the Tower of Petmezaion dates from the 17th century and is in Kato Loussous.
One of the most popular spots in the region is the plane-tree forest at Planiteros, which is very near the ski resort, on the road to the local town of Kleitoria. Try the trout at the restaurants within the forest.
Named after Aristarchus of Samos, a significant figure of astronomy in Ancient Greece. The National Observatory of Athens telescope, named ‘Aristarchos’, is the most powerful telescope in the Balkans and the second-largest in continental Europe. It can be found at the Neraidorachi summit of Mt Helmos, at a height of 2,340m.