As counter-balance to that tale of commuter train life, here's a re-edited travel piece of mine from 15 years ago, including a visit to the site of the original olympic games... These Greek railways may have changed somewhat since my trip.
A CIRCULAR RAIL TOUR OF THE PELOPONNESE
|photo from sail-world.com|
How many nipples has a cat? the English ladies wondered, as a posse of kittens locked onto their bony mother on the patio of the perfect taverna by the sea. After the tourists left, villagers with entrancing, golden-haired children came to eat at 11pm, at oil-clothed tables under big old twisted olive-trees strung with light-bulbs. A rise and fall of voices from the kitchen, the moon on the sea, shrimps from heaven to eat, jugs of local retsina, one busy waiter... and to rescue the scene from stereotype, enter two Jemima Puddleducks like migrants from an English pond.
The Toneon Taverna in Tolo, is in the Peloponnese - effectively an island (“The Largest Greek Island”, in marketing-speak), sliced off the south of mainland Greece by the Corinth Canal.
It’s three times bigger than Crete, greener by far and emptier, replete with ancient sites, including Olympia and Epidaurus, and as interested in farming and small-town commerce as in tourism or you. And because it’s large and technically mainland, it has good public transport.
You can reach and explore it by rail, in a magnificent loop around the coast and through the mountains, letting you feel unpackaged and free: a traveller, not a tripper.
Only the barest bone of my clockwise trip was fixed: a first night in Athens. After that which trains I took, how long I lingered en route, and in some cases even which towns I chose for my connections: this was up to me, and generally decidable on the spot. It takes a plentiful rail network to allow so much choice.
I tried it in June, starting from the lovely old Peloponnese Station with a 5-Day 1st Class Flexipass, a timetable (not available in English) and a very small suitcase on wheels.
A modern express rolled out through the shabby glitter of Athens, past industrial suburbs, ferocious badlands and oil-storage depots and docks you fear might spontaneously combust in the heat. Suddenly, below, were clean-looking coves and a two-tone sea, aquamarine fringing deep, rolling blue. We crossed the ravine of the Cornith Canal, and entered the Peloponnese. I began to see what I’d see everywhere: sweetcorn, sugar-beet, fruit-trees, and in the dusty soil, royal purple pom-pommed thistles among the ragamuffin mauve ones.
In under two hours we’re in lemon, orange and olive groves, with cliffs and swaggering hills to the left, villa gardens running to the sea on the right. Tufted cypress tops curve over, waving like giant probosces sniffing the air.
At Diakofto, a little seaside town, swifts nest on the station loudspeakers. The announcements must sound like the wrath of God to the baby birds. From here the rack-railway runs inland, 22km up wild, extravagant Vouraicos Gorge to Kalavrita at the top, tonight’s destination. The gauge is so narrow it looks like a funfair ride: and on a sublime scale, it is.
Two tiny carriages, like Blackpool trams on their holidays, set off under two bridges. One was graffitied MOIST VAGINA, the other RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS. Hard not to wince. We passed fig-trees, and boulders in tumbling, milky streams. After fifteen minutes the rack was engaged for serious ascent through tunnels, over bridges and round sobering cliff-edge bends, until the mid-way riverside hamlet stop, after which we gained high pastureland, hay already baled, ringed by undulating hills with winter ski-resort mountains behind.
Grid-patterned concrete Kalavrita proved sullen and insular: accessible enough to resent tourism but sufficiently in the back of beyond to be bored with itself. The town’s gloom spilled into the dark, Alpine lobby of the chalet-styled Hotel Filoxenia, smothering the taciturn desk-clerk. There seemed to be no other guests. In a world of tour-hotels with tiny bathrooms, this one offered a whopper, though walled and floored in dirty-blue cheap tiles, like a subterranean purgatory. But the bedroom was ample and its balcony, 2300 feet above sea-level, looked out beyond the town to a jostling of hills.
Next morning I was the only taker for croissant burnt to unbreakable brick, a few bits of cheese and spam, bread and individually portioned butter alluringly brand-named Unitaste. A plant in a pot nearby was staked with a blue plastic mop-handle. The waitresses were busy cleaning windows.
The railway-station was a welcome sight, and the rack-rail descent was thrilling. The meadows were magical in the early light: buttermilk squares of feathered grass and hay, and timid hobbit hedges, farmland on a medievally modest scale, fragile and half-secret - and touching to see from what stony ground this pastoral scene has been achieved. Then the savage gorge envelops you like Petra: vast, brutal, tortured cliffs, some rich ochre sandstone, others rubbery grey, elephant-men of the gods. The train takes a ledge a hundred feet above churning water, a spindly iron-girder bridge across a chasm, a thin tunnel in which arches are cut as on a viaduct, and you glimpse sunlit river and treetops far below, flickering dramas in the darkness. Butterflies are everywhere.
“Who surveyed this line? Who forced their mad vision into reality?” I wondered. Later, a girl told me she thought the occupying Germans did, while they massacred hundreds in Kalavrita in revenge for resistance activity. In fact Italian private enterprise built the line back in the 1880s. Bravo.
My next train took me to Patras, pulling in by the waterside where the huge ferries dock, and the travel-agencies boast TICKETS TO ITALY. From the palm-planted main square, elegant boulevards climb, their chic parade of people exuding international panache. It’s like a small, clean Alexandria: cultured and cosmopolitan, basking in its tumultuous 10,000-year history as a port in human journeying: a mix of Grecian, Italian and more: including perhaps the westernmost breath of the Middle-East.
Another train: south to Pyrgos and the branch-line to Olympia, and the rather basic Hotel Pelops. (Now here is a bathroom so small that the word “room” doesn’t fit: and neither will a bath, of course). The hotel is on a quiet square off the modern village’s long, up-market, tourist-trap street, which in turn leads out to the excellent archeological museum and ancient site: an easy 15-minute walk.
It’s better to do the museum first: it offers a model reconstruction of the site (crudely modern-looking, but it does explain the layout), and holds all the sculpture and the best-preserved plinths, capitals and artefacts. These are well-displayed, and the two best pieces, Victory by Paionios (421BC) and the marble Hermes by Praxiletes (330BC), are deployed with dramatic panache. Hermes is uncannily like Michelangelo’s David of 1400 years later, though Michelangelo never saw it. It remained buried in his lifetime. (He was better at the backs of the legs: Hermes’ are a bit too girlie.) There’s also a fine lion and a great bull which, like the heads and decorated plinths, are of wonderful, chalky, golden stone.
Despite the groups from Germany and Texas, and the internationalised teenage school groups with dead eyes and hideous clothes, the site, like the museum, was far less crowded than you’d fear. Easy to sit in a quiet spot and filter out the Adidas world in favour of, well, the Ancient Adidas world. I sat at one end of what had been the gymnasium: a tranquil patch of sandy earth now, marked out by slim, grey ancient pillars and stumps, surrounded by green grassy banks. When I moved on, strolling the faded acres of what was once the world’s flashiest sports centre, I passed under the arched roof of the tunnel through which its athletes had once entered the main stadium - a dusty football-pitch with banked sides where the crowds would have sat and bayed - and felt the same awful thrill as when participatory sport was imminent at school.
The Peloponnese is blessed with uncrowdedness. Except Kalamata, my third stopover, a huge town behind a beautiful bay. The brochure calls it “the land of black olives, honeyed figs and the sesame-covered sweet called ‘pastrelli’.” Actually it’s like a tame, shabby Marmaris, and you’ll only find pastrelli in the supermarkets. I yearned for tiny Kelo Nero, where I’d stopped off earlier, where one hotel faces the long, empty beach, a half-mile walk past watermelon fields from the spaghetti-western train yard.
Next time I shall overnight there, and change trains in Kalamata, and between the two I shall stand at the train window to savour again one of the most beautiful stretches of terrain I’ve ever seen, as viaducts wrap the line around valleys cradled by mountains on the grand scale of Turkey yet with the well-groomed greens and cornfield colours of England or Gascony.
And I shall come again to the end of the line at ridiculously pretty Napflion, and take the 20-minute, 55p bus-ride to Tolo, where the Hotel Minoa, pleasant and benign, sits at the quiet end of the resort, at the edge of the sea. And in the late evening I shall walk again along the beach to my perfect taverna.
Oh, and the average cat has ten nipples.