I sat among the flowers at the entrance to the tunnel and waited for the train. The E4 followed the single railway track from Diakopto, and and there wasn’t much room in the tunnels, on the bridges or in places where the track had been hewn out of the rock. As the train approached, you could hear the distant rumble above the noise of the stream below. It travelled slowly, so there was no real danger of being caught unawares, but every so often, I looked nervously behind me.
George the Swiss was worried by the trains as well. He was walking the Peloponnese section of the E4 – the first and only long-distance hiker I met on the whole walk. The first thing he asked as he came up behind me was “Aren’t you worried about the trains?” Well, actually, I wasn’t really, as I’d checked the railway timetable before I left. It was a tourist route, with three return trains a day, taking an hour one way. So it was easy enough to work out the train times, and if one had just passed, then you knew roughly how long it would be till the next. I explained this to George, and we arranged to meet in Kalavryta that evening for supper.
At first, it was tricky walking along the railway. The wooden sleepers weren’t laid at regular intervals, making it awkward to get into a comfortable stride. It was easier once I reached the steeper rack and pinion section, with more evenly spaced metal sleepers. It was empty, precipitous country with the long walk broken only by a couple of deserted stations. I reached the hamlet of Zachlorou for lunch, but alas! the two tavernas were closed. I persuaded two men busy renovating one of them to open up and sell me a cold coke. This is the only stop nowadays between Diakopto on the coast and the terminus at Kalavryta, up in the mountains. It’s a favourite place for passengers to get off and stroll along the line a little to see the narrowest and prettiest part of the gorge below.
The last train had passed me on its way down to the coast by the time I reached Kalavryta, the town overshadowed by a large memorial cross on the hillside above. This was the site of one of the worst second world war atrocities in Greece, where the Germans killed all the men and boys over the age of twelve in reprisal for partisan attacks. Today, Kalavryta is a ski town, the brisk commercialism of the souvenir shops, hotels and tourist cafes contrasting with its tragic history.
I stopped to browse at a mushroom shop, always on the look-out for good dried foods for campfire cooking. The owner was an enthusiast, there were identification guides piled up on the counter and she and her children gathered all the mushrooms themselves. They didn’t have any red spotted magic mushrooms, though.
I met up with George the Swiss again for supper, and an evening of hiking tales. Wearing everyday shoes, not hiking boots, and relying on his phone rather than a map, he seemed woefully unprepared for the Greek mountains. It turned out that his experience had mostly been on the well-trodden Caminos de Santiago, the pilgrim ways of Saint James that all lead to Santiago de Compostela in Northern Spain. He’d walked all three routes from the French border, then done them in reverse, and the one from Portugal, too. Thousands walk them each year, staying in special pilgrim hostels with a dormitory bed for five euros a night. What he loved was the camaraderie of other walkers. He’d walk with somebody for a day or two, get to know them, then split up, only to meet again further along the way. The downside was the snoring in the dormitories. After a few nights, he’d head off to a guest house to catch up on his sleep, then miss the companionship and go back to the hostels.
Not my cup of tea, I reflected. I love the wild unpeopled places, with not a soul about, save a shepherd and his flock now and then. Walking the same route as thousands of others just doesn’t appeal, quite apart from the smelly socks and snoring of the pilgrim dormitories. We did enjoy meeting lots of different people along the way, but they were mostly people who lived in the mountain villages rather than fellow hikers.
The route: Follow the railway! There is a dirt track running parallel to the railway on the other side of the stream for the first section as far as Niamata station. This would probably be easier walking but you need to get onto it from the main coastal road before it gets too steep. Part of the E4 long-distance route, but very few waymarks – you can’t get lost. Water from the stream or at Zachlorou. Kilometres: 23. Ascent: 800m. Descent: 0. Map: Anavasi 8.2 Chelmos-Vouraikos.
Facilities: Hotels, shops,restaurants, buses at Diakopto and Kalavryta. To get to Diakopto, take the frequent Athens-Patras bus, then change to a local bus in Agio. Seasonal tavernas and places to stay at Zachlorou.