The single track Peloponnese railway from Athens to Kalamata closed five years ago. I’d travelled on it way back in the late 1970s, when I first came to Kalamata. It took all day, weaving in and out of the mountains from village to village. I still remember the hard seats and the sense of adventure, travelling into unknown rural Greece. Nowadays, the coach takes just three hours.
From Chrani the track swerved away from the road, deep into the forest, far from villages or cultivation. We could have taken a short cut down into the valley, joining again where it looped back at a lower level, but the sun was shining and my spirit of adventure had returned.
“Mind the tunnels,” said old Kostas, as he served our breakfast coffee. We were his first customers, and it was on the house to bring him luck. “There’s quite a few, and one’s pretty long.” Otherwise, he thought it would be fine. I’d checked on the internet, too: a special tour for train buffs had passed through only a couple of months before. So crumbling tunnels and unsafe bridges wouldn’t be a problem, and it seemed unlikely that more trains were expected.
In summer, the walk would have been no fun at all: there was little shade and no water. But in late autumn, it was beautiful. Long empty valleys stretched out far below us, covered in oak forest, with plane trees lining the river beds. Drifts of cyclamen grew along the track, with a scattering of crocuses and other flowers I didn’t recognise. There were no villages, only an abandoned railway station, burnt down in the forest fires.
It was easy going, too. We were starting to feel the strain of walking so far. Alan’s knees were creaking worse than ever, and my ankles were stiff in the mornings.
We left the railway at Desilla, in the early afternoon, heading due south as the track looped off along another valley. In the centre of the village was a bustling cafe and shop. The owner sat beside the wood burning stove, preparing squash for supper. A casserole and wild greens were already bubbling away. Family photos and basic goods for sale mingled on the walls, while next door was a workshop and bottled gas supplies.
Newly picked olives were soaking in a large container. “It’s a really busy time for us,” explained the owner. “We’re harvesting the eating olives now, and in two weeks time the smaller olives for oil will be ready, too.” Her family owned two thousand olive trees, and it took two people a day to harvest and prune twelve trees.
That night we made it to Zevgolateio, a busy little town further down the valley. On the road, there were large signs announcing the Natura Club Spa and Hotel. Perfect – we were looking forward to splashing out on some luxury for a change. Alas, the hotel had long since closed down, and we landed up camping again. In a village, it’s easy – you ask about the best camping spot in the cafe or from any passer-by and soon the whole village knows who you are and what you’re doing. But you can’t camp in the square or by the church in a town.
So we walked out of the centre and pitched the tent in an olive grove. Luckily, the threatened storms didn’t come that night, though I woke with a start at about two o’clock. It was so light that I thought it was dawn, and leapt up, fearing we would soon be disturbed by the olive pickers. But it was only the full moon, lighting up the whole tent.
The route: Along the railway to Desilla (torch needed in longer tunnels), then on dirt and tarred roads to Zevgolateio. The final stretch is along a fairly busy road. Another option is the railway track, which runs parallel to the road down in the plain. No waymarks. No water along the railway, only in villages. Kilometres: 24. Ascent: 16m. Descent: 456m. Map: Any Peloponnese road map, ideally photocopies of the Anavasi 1:50,000 one.
Facilities: Shop and cafe in Desilla. All facilities in Zevgolateio except accommodation: shops, tavernas, cafes, bus.