A Retreat with Immense History
Once named “Kynaitha” in ancient times, the town of Kalavrita, the capital of the province of Kalavrita in Achaia Peloponnese nestled at the foot of Mount Erymanthos, is distinguished for the historic events that have taken place there. Echoing through the town and its hills and valleys, the history is as alive today as the nature that shrouds the area.
The Kalavrita I first knew is different than the Kalavrita the Greeks hold dear to their hearts. As a naive child of nine, I knew nothing of its history or the impact this small town, buried in the cliffs of Northern Peloponnese, had on the Greek people and their spirit.
Riding up in a bus full of relatives and family friends, I awaited the special event that was to happen and in which I would be the main participant. We were going to Mega Spileo (“the Great Cave”) Monastery, where I would be baptized. The bus ride from Athens took a couple of hours in which I divided my time between marveling at the lush green viewed from the window and playing pranks on my sister.
My first time visiting Mega Spileo Monastery was a few weeks prior; I could not believe the beauty of this majestic place, the air of mystery, pride and sacredness whirling about the place made me believe I was a character in a fairytale. I got into character, assuming my position as the protagonist. We entered the large monastery doors and were led to the office of Bishop Ambrosios, to meet the man who would baptize me. Having just been stung by a bee on my finger during an elaborate lunch by the nearby river, I could not hide my discomfort upon entering our meeting. Without the usual fuss and banter of introductions, the bishop approached me gently and knelt down. Taking my finger he told me not to worry and that he would make it better. Looking into his warm brown eyes, I instantly trusted him, how did he know after all about the sting? When he took a “special oil” and dabbed it on my finger and the bump of the sting quickly faded away, I believed he was magical – a King in this fabled place.
On the day of my baptism, I entered the monastery’s cave, gazing in admiration at the lit rubies and illustrious gold of the ornaments and goblets on display encased in the walls. I was told that these items were gifts to Panaghitsa (The Virgin Mary) from people who needed her favors and blessings. The air of worship and dedication prevailed. The cave was dim with the slight glimmer and glow of candlelight and glinting of the encased jewels. I changed into my white gauze gown, and the ceremony began at the big silver baptismal font in the middle of the cave. Through the ceremony, I understood that this spiritual process, under the care of this lovely man in this sacred dwelling, was unique. Indeed, this cave is not a typical place for baptisms to take place but the sentiment of the procession is what lingered with me until today. Being old enough to understand a bit about this rite of passage, I felt worthy, special, pure and connected to the environment around me.
Today the monastery and its cave are no less awe-inspiring with the monastery towering eight stories high on the cliff. The cave, the reason for the monastery’s founding, was discovered in 362 AD by two monk brothers, Theodoros and Simeon, who were offered an icon of Panaghitsa by a village woman who had found the wax & mastic (tree resin) icon inside the cave.
My Kalavrita with its cave of spiritual wonder has, of course, another meaning, of equal profundity but recognized by all Greek people. It is there, after four centuries of Turkish occupation, that the Greek War of Independence was officially declared. On March 25th , 1821, Palaion Patron Germanos (Bishop Germanos of Old Patras), representing the voice and spirit of Greeks throughout the world, called out “Eleftheria i thanatos” (‘freedom or death’) from the monastery of Agia Lavra built in 961. The flag of freedom was raised beside the immense plane tree, from this humble town located 900 meters above sea level. This event is still commemorated throughout Greece every March 25th as “Independence Day”- one of the two most important holidays celebrated in Greece today.
The beauty of Kalavrita is as much in its tenacity of spirit as in its physical splendor. As in the meaning of its name, “Good Waters”, from the many springs in the area, Kalavrita has sprung up incessantly, renewing itself as nature each Spring, without failure. This martyred city has been destroyed and revived numerous times, most notably in 1826 by Ibrahim, and then again on December 13th, 1943 by the Germans during World War II. The events on this harrowing day are remembered dearly by all Greeks. This December day was one of Greece’s darkest under German Occupation, as the Germans burned the villages and slaughtered hundreds of men as a reprisal against resistance and regional partisans. Every male citizen of Kalavrita over 13 years old (over 1,400 people) was executed by German troops on the field of Kapis, in one afternoon, within just a few rounds of machine gunfire. Meanwhile, the women and children remained captive in the local primary school watching the smoke and flames from the windows. Hundreds of women and children were left grieving and homeless in the scattered remains and ashes of their home during a very cold winter. A memorial statue now stands in the town honoring the brave acts of the women, such as their strength in dragging their husbands and sons from a bloody heap on the hillside to give them a proper burial. A brutal year indeed, the German troops also killed all 22 monks at Mega Spileo Monastery and tossed their bodies from the cliff.
These memories are as fresh for the town’s inhabitants as the scent of wet earth. On Kapis hill a candle burns in the church for every soul lost that day; the names of the fallen are engraved on the wall in gold. Fifty years after the town’s holocaust, The Museum of the Sacrifice of the People of Kalavrita (The Holocaust Museum) was founded, in the same building, now a historic monument, which was once the town’s primary school.
Further attesting to the immortality of this physically gifted region is the ebb and flow of tourists throughout all seasons. They visit it not only for its historic or spiritual value, but also and mainly to ski at the Helmos Ski Center or visit the traditional and chic shops and bars.
To paraphrase C. P. Cavafy, the journey is often more than the destination; taking the funicular train from the coastal town of Diakofto on the Corinth Gulf is to embark on a stunning journey into Vouraikos Gorge, over waterfalls, through mountain tunnels to Kalavrita. The tiny train, functioning since 1896, teeters upwards as the ravine’s waters crash and spume below. The one hour trip is a marvel; in autumn, the trees are an oil painting come to life, seen through the large windows of the train; flame-red leaves fade to sweet ginger and gold… a sea of color shifting in the light. The noise of Athens fades, as the brilliant silence of nature engulfs the senses. Beyond Kalavrita’s traditional train station await beautiful structures nestled in the landscape and the inspired memorial on the hillside of Kapis spelling out in white stones, “Oxi pia polemoi, eirini” (“No more war, peace”).
Be it from the charm of personal experience, the greatness of nature or the profound history, Kalavrita will prove itself to all those who arrive here, as it is truly a destination worthy of the journey.