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 "
William Fulbright

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).

The Monasteries
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 entire Vouraikos 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 oppressors.

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 fishermen’s 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 McDonald’s canopy on the square and they will find you.

Planning Tips:

  • No visit to Greece is complete without acknowledging the magnificence of her heritage so plan to visit the ancient sites of nearby Corinth, Mycenae and Olympia. At Mycenae, take a flashlight so that you can explore the secret cistern. Be careful because the walls are damp and the steps slippery.
  • Don’t hesitate to rent a car. In spite of the guidebooks, Greek drivers are considerate. Slower drivers keep to the right side of the road on wide shoulders. This allows the two lane highway to accommodate three lanes of traffic with the center lane being used for passing.
  • If you plan to drive, you should acquaint yourself with the Greek alphabet so as to facilitate reading the road signs.
  • Consider returning to Corinth through the mountains via Krestena, Megalopoli and Tripoli. This is more easily accomplished if you have a car. It is a very scenic drive through wooded hills, scattered farming communities and old stone terraces reminiscent of the Tuscany landscape in Italy. There are also ancient sites along this route and the Temple of Vasses is impressive.
  • Schedule the time to allow you to wander away from your planned itinerary. You will always be pleasantly surprised because there are so many lovely places. One very spectacular surprise is the road from Tripoli to the seaside town of Kiveri on the Gulf of Argos. This scenic drive winds through the northern flanks of the Mt. Parnon mountain range which lies parallel to the eastern coast of the Peloponnese. The peak of Mt. Parnon can be reached by continuing south from Kiveri to the town of Astros. A road climbs up the mountain to the village of Aghios Petros where the trail begins.
  • Do attempt to meet local Greeks. Many speak other languages, especially the children. Greeks are a hospitable people and are always willing to help. Should you be invited into their homes, you will be overwhelmed by their kindness.
  • Mountain villagers are helpful with directions if you are uncertain about the trail. Not all trails are marked and many are actually only footpaths.

Important Resources:

  • E.O.S. Aigiou (Egio)
    Sotiriou Lontou & Aratou
    251 00 Aigio, Greece
    Tel: 30-6-9123217, 9125285
    This mountaineering club has hiking information and maps for the mountains of the northern Peloponnese. It maintains the mountain refuge on Mt. Ziria and will help in hiring a guide.

Related Books:

  • The Mountains of Greece by George Sfikas is an excellent resource on mountain climbing in Greece. It provides trail descriptions, maps and interesting aspects of history, mythology and folk poetry as they relate to the mountains. It is available in English at the Compendium Bookshop at Nikis 28, near Syntagma Square in Athens.
  • Trekking in Greece by Marc Dubin and published by Lonely Planet provides detailed trail descriptions and maps. This is a good resource if you plan to do a lot of trekking in Greece. However, it should be used as an adjunct to their main Greece guide listed below.
  • Greece: A Lonely Planet Travel Survival Kit by David Willett, Rosemary Hall, Paul Hellander and Kerry Kenihan provides excellent general travel information on Greece. We particularly like the insights that are highlighted against a blue background.
  • Flowers of Greece and the Aegean by Anthony Huxley and William Taylor is a helpful book for those who are enchanted by the profusion of wildflowers to be found in Greece. Particularly interesting are the chapters that describe the flora of the sea shore, hillsides, mountains, islands and the ancient sites. It may be ordered from its publisher, The Hogarth Press, 30 Bedford Square, London WC1B 3SG.


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