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Four times a day. a diesel train hurtles down the narrow gauge railway through Vouraikos Gorge on Peloponnesian Peninsula.
Four times a day. a diesel train hurtles down the narrow gauge railway through Vouraikos Gorge on Peloponnesian Peninsula. (Milos Bicanski/Getty images)
Greece

Tiny train tracks history

Natural beauty, horrors of war crisscross its 14-mile plunge to Corinthian Gulf

Email|Print| Text size + By Joanna Stavropoulou
Globe Correspondent / March 5, 2006

KALAVRYTA, Greece -- In the middle of the Peloponnesian Peninsula, there is a deep river gorge where crystal-clear waters cascade from white-capped mountains to the Corinthian Gulf. Great plane trees shade the gorge, forged by the Vouraikos River, and rounded white limestone boulders create waterfalls in its path, which sometimes narrows to only 12 feet in width.

In the late 1800s, with the sanction of the Greek government, an Italian mining company launched an ambitious project to build a railway along this narrow gorge to transport ore down to Diakofto at the coast. From the mountain town of Kalavryta (altitude 2,460 feet), engineers laid narrow tracks and a toothed third rail as part of a cog-and-pinion system that allowed the imported French steam-powered trains to chug up from the sea, sometimes at incredibly steep inclines.

This marvel of engineering, with tracks less than 2 1/2 feet wide, remains the narrowest railway in Europe, and is still in daily use. The small cars rumble over bridges with sheer drops on each side and pass along mountainsides bursting with wildflowers blooming in symphonies of color. The train also travels through chiseled tunnels equipped with huge wrought-iron gates at each end and carved window openings.

''You have this funny feeling when you're riding this little vehicle that you are part of it and the surrounding nature," said Jack White, a New York artist who has lived in Greece for the past four years. He and his wife, Valerie, who works at the New York College in Athens, took a weekend to ride the narrow rails after the experience was recommended by Greek acquaintances. White, like many of his fellow passengers, hung his head out the window on one side of the car and then dashed to the other side to catch another breathtaking view.

''You just can't get enough of it, you feel you're missing things and want to see it all and there is so much to see," said White. His wife was somewhat more guarded in her enthusiasm while passing over one of the skeleton-steel bridges. ''You can do this only if you don't suffer from vertigo," she said.

The train makes its 90-minute, 14-mile run between Diakofto and Kalavryta four times a day, every day of the year. Its one regular stop en route is at Zachlorou, a small village divided by the Vouraikos. On the one side is the wooden Romantzo Hotel, which offers spectacular views along with basic comforts and a tavern on the cliff overlooking the gorge. From here you can walk to the Monastery of the Great Cave, which is built into the side of a 400-foot cliff and houses a charred icon of the Virgin Mary said to have been created by Saint Luke. Pilgrims from all over Greece flock to the monastery, which may date to AD 362.

Spilios Anastasopoulos has been driving the little train for the past 22 years, as did his father before him since 1953. ''At home all we talked about was trains," he said, his passion for the life of a railroad man undimmed. ''We take care of her, we are concerned about her," he added, while speaking with affection about the train, which has never had an accident in its more than 100-year history. Now, the railroad uses mostly diesel-powered engines, although the steam locomotives are brought out on special occasions.

Nikos Tagaroulias is one of the few people left in Greece who knows how to run the steam engines. Now retired, he began riding the train in 1962 when he was 18 years old, and returns to work when the old locomotives -- ''mountzouris" or smudgers -- are put into service. They got the name from the clouds of black soot sent up from the old trains' charcoal-burning engines.

Mountzouris typically used 1,700 pounds of charcoal in one day's travel, Tagaroulias said. He recalled that decades ago, when children came down with whooping cough, their parents would rush out when the train went past to have their youngsters inhale the charcoal clouds puffing out from the engine. Many believed that inhaling the smoke cured the common ailment in the years after World War II.

The horrors of the great war left an indelible mark at the little train's final stop in Kalavryta, the scene of a horrible massacre on Dec. 13, 1943. On that day, the German Army gathered the village's entire population in the municipal building. As they entered, women were sent to one room on the right, while the men and boys over the age of 14 were sent to the left. The Germans, acting in retaliation for the shooting of several German prisoners by Greek freedom fighters, took the 1,423 men and boys to a hill nearby and opened fire on them with machine guns. Thirteen survived by chance.

At the municipal building, the Germans left the women and children inside and barred all the doors, then set the structure on fire. The women were able to break through one of the doors and the guard posted there let them escape. He was later shot for disobedience.

The building has been rebuilt and now houses the Municipal Museum of the Holocaust of Kalavryta. The museum's collection includes the personal belongings of citizens who were executed, historical documents, photographs from Greek and German archives, and works by various artists whose themes were inspired by the sacrifice of the people of Kalavryta.

Reminders of the horrific day can be seen throughout the town. The village clock is stopped at 2:34 p.m., marking the time of the massacre. On the grassy hill that was the killing ground, two simple but powerful messages are outlined with plain white stones: ''No More Wars" and ''Peace."

Kalavryta, now the site of a popular ski area, has become a favorite destination for German tourists. They do not avoid the museum or its dreadful story. ''Not only do the German tourists come and visit and pay careful attention to everything, but we also have had some of the soldiers that did the shooting come back here," said Vasilis Kontos, a guide at the museum. ''Some have come back time and time again, laying flowers on the graves and apologizing to the town. They said they were only following orders."

But the memory of the bloody day is inescapable for those who lived through it. ''Every morning as soon as I open the museum," said Kontos, ''one of the survivors who was a child then, but whose father and brothers were all shot, comes here and reads all names of those shot. He reads them silently, and then leaves. Every morning, year in, year out."

Zaharoula Sotiropoulou, a 30-year-old tour guide at the Cave of the Lakes, says her grandfather was shot in the massacre. Her grandmother was left a widow with eight children to care for in destitute postwar Greece. But with the passage of time, a new generation has arisen and Sotiropoulou says she likes the Germans who visit the cave, located about 12 miles from Kalavryta. The cavern, mentioned by ancient Greek travel writer Pausanias in his guide to Greece, has a series of beautiful, tiered basins within. Above the still waters, spectacular, multihued stalactites hang down, testament to the art of nature created over thousands of years.

Contact Joanna Stavropoulou, a freelance writer living in Greece, at joanna@samadhi.gr.

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