MOUNTAINS, MONASTERIES AND THE RIVER STYX
NORTH PELOPONNESE, GREECE
" To live in plenty is not the same
as to live well. Living well requires that one feels in
harmony with nature, that one knows what to look for: how to find
happiness in simple
things, in the view of a mountain or the sea, in a beautiful day, in the
company of family
or friends "
Overlooking the azure waters of the Gulf of Corinth is a secret world of tranquil mountain villages and monasteries in a land that was once a part of Ancient Arcadia. The fragrant air is crisply cool and great boulders lay strewn across the mountains giving the impression that untidy gods have left their playthings outside. Wildflowers are plentiful, especially in the spring and autumn when they carpet the slopes with color and the nectar of the gods is produced in copious quantities for there are hundreds of beehives along the winding mountain roads. On the lower slopes, olive trees grow in neat rows beside vineyards and cherry orchards. Here, it is possible to live in plenty and to live well and it is understandable that ancient Greeks would consider this land to be the Paradise of the Gods.
The Mountains and the River Styx
In the Northern Peloponnese, four mountain ranges run parallel to the coast of the Gulf of Corinth. From east to west, they are Mt. Ziria which is closest to Corinth, the Aroania Mountains (Mt. Helmos), Mt. Erymanthos and Mt. Panahaiko to the west. Good roads branch off from the National Highway along the coast to climb the mountains where various peaks can be reached by foot from nearby villages in 2 to 6 hours. With a car, the accessibility makes for easy unguided day hikes from a base on the beach. Without a car, buses access several mountain villages but not always on a daily basis. Information, maps, and suggested itineraries are available at the Egio office (Tel. 691-25-285) of the Greek Alpine Club known locally as the EOS (Ellinikos Orivatikos Syndesmos). They will also make arrangements for the use of the mountain refuges. An alternative to waiting for a bus is to visit the pretty mountain village of Kalavrita by the funicular railway at Diakofto. It is a very scenic ride that passes through the breathtaking Vouraikos Gorge ascending 700m in 22.5 km.
The most scenic climb in the Helmos Mountains begins in the village of Peristeria which is reached from the National Highway via the town of Akrata. Villagers will identify the path that follows the Styx valley through pine and fir forests to a pass at Diasello Tou Kinigou. Here, the trail descends to a point where the Styx Cataract or the Mavroneri (Black Water) Waterfall plunges spectacularly for 200m. Greek mythology maintains that Achilles was immortalized in the waters of the River Styx which was the principal river of the underworld and marked the entrance to Hades. It takes about 5-6 hours to reach this point but there is little time to linger because the hiker must either return to Peristeria (4 hrs.) or continue on the trail towards a camp site or to the nearest refuge (2-3 hours of strenuous climbing).
One of the best known monasteries in the Northern Peloponnese is the Moni Megalou Spileou (Monastery of the Great Cavern). It is reached by a 3 km hike from Zahlorou, the mid point on the Diakofto-Kalavrita railway. By car, it is easily located along the Diakofto-Kalavrita road where, upon coming around a bend in the road, an eight-story structure can be seen tucked into a cavern in the side of a rocky cliff. It replaces the original monastery that was built in the 4th century. The monastery houses many treasures including holy relics, icons and manuscripts while the 17th century monastery church has beautiful frescoes.
5 kms beyond Kalavrita is the Moni Agia Lavras that
was originally constructed in 961
AD but burnt by the Nazis. Its location affords a stunning view of the
river valley. The new monastery houses a small but valuable collection of
holy relics and
it was here that freedom fighters first sought to overthrow their Turkish
Best Times to Go: Mid-April to mid-June. The mountains are covered with flowers and the coastal areas are still cool. In June, the cherries have begun to ripen and children and old women tend the roadside stands along mountain roads.
Getting There: From Athens by car, follow the signs along the National Highway for Patras. It is a very scenic drive bordering the Saronic Gulf, across the Corinth canal and along the Gulf of Corinth. This excellent highway is lined with pink oleanders which in juxtaposition with the rugged mountains, softens and colors the landscape.
Trains run between Athens and Patras with stops in Diakofto. Buses are faster but more expensive than the train. However, they offer a more flexible itinerary due to the ease of connecting with local buses that travel between the smaller towns. For a group of at least four people, it may be less expensive to rent a car.
Clothing/Gear: Clothing requirements are seasonal. Hiking boots are essential for any serious mountain trek or for visits in springtime when there is still snow on the peaks. In the summer months, good walking shoes are adequate for day hikes along the more popular trails. Day packs and water bottles are needed and provisions and supplies should be purchased in the coastal towns before traveling to the mountains.
General Information: The Northern Peloponnese mountains are superb for hiking independently. They are easily accessible and trails are well defined and fairly well marked. However, an organized trek is recommended for longer treks and for exploring the more remote areas of these mountains. The advantages include certified guides, transportation of luggage, and the opportunity to experience the culture with an intimacy that is not likely to be encountered when traveling alone.
The coastal towns along the Gulf of Corinth cater mostly to Greek and European tourists. The rocky beaches may not be as popular as those of the islands but there are delightful coves to discover, the water is cool and refreshing, especially after hiking in the mountains, and the general ambiance is friendly and relaxing. We especially enjoyed the feta cheeses and fruits in this area, watching the children play, and being awoken to the putt-putt of the fishermens boats as they set out to sea each morning.
The Low Season, April 1st to June 30th, is not only the most comfortable time to explore the Northern Peloponnese, but it also offers the best values in accommodations and car rentals. There are no Hiltons or Intercontinental Hotels here but small hotels, apartments, rooms for rent and camping facilities are numerous. Hotel rooms are usually clean and comfortable with hot water but no air conditioning. Hotels and apartments cost about $30-$40 per night. A basic car with standard drive and no air conditioning may be rented in Athens for about $40-$50 per day. Lodging and car rental rates increase by about 50% during the High Season from July 1st to October 15th.
Most car rental rates advertised on the Internet will be higher than those quoted here. If you are traveling in the low season , you can wait until you arrive in Athens to negotiate a much better deal. There are numerous travel agencies around Syntagma Square and if you are a believer in kismet, relax with a Coke under the McDonalds canopy on the square and they will find you.
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