It’s an early start as I head inland using a rack and pinion railway which has been in use for over 100 years. The 22 km line which climbs from sea level Diakofto to 900m Kalavryta was built by Italian Engineers at the end of the 19th century. Originally steam trains puffed their way up to collect minerals from the mountains and brought them back down to the sea port. However, today I’m riding in a modern, air-conditioned carriage powered by diesel.
Ten minutes into the journey, the conductor takes over from the driver who collapses on the back seat, sick or hungover? I’m not sure. A local woman is continually crossing herself which only adds to the tension. Luckily, the journey through the narrow gorge is quite spectacular and distracts me from the other problems. The train curves around the sheer rock faces, through tunnels and over rusty iron bridges as the Vouraikos River tumbles beside and below us. The train is assisted by the rack and pinion for the steepest sections and it is these ‘teeth’ which give the line its name of ‘Odontotos’. It takes an hour to reach our destination and the town of Kalvryta is still shrouded in low cloud.
While I wait for the sun to burn off the mist, I visit the museum which is housed in the former primary school opposite the station. Exhibits provide information about the massacre which took place here on the 13th December 1943. In retaliation for the shooting of 78 German soldiers captured by the ELAS resistance fighters, the villagers of Kalavryta were rounded up and held in the school. All the men over the age of 13 were then led up to a hill above the town and mown down by machine guns. Those who didn’t die immediately were finished off with a head shot.
Meanwhile, the school was set on fire with the women and children still inside. Luckily they managed to escape, only to discover their men had been murdered and their houses burned to the ground. Over the next few weeks they buried the dead, some where they lay, others they dragged down to the cemetery and buried there. Then they had to survive the harsh mountain environment with no food and only the clothes on their back. Survivors tell their stories in a moving documentary video and personal possessions of the dead are displayed in glass cases: damaged pocket watches, identification documents and even a wallet with a bullet hole through it.
The mist has cleared by the time I leave the museum and I walk up to the hill where the massacre took place. It is marked by a huge white cross, surrounded by the graves of those buried there and large stone memorials inscribed with the names and ages of the schoolboys who perished. A total of 468 men and boys were slaughtered in this place. Back down in the main square, the clock face on the church is permanently fixed at 2.34, the time of the massacre.
During the return train journey, I sit in the last carriage with only the conductor and a local man for company (I notice that the driver has been replaced). Despite a sign saying the windows should not be opened, they don’t seem to care and I manage to get some great footage as the train trundles back down through the narrow gorge. As we descend, I can’t help but think of another similar massacre which occurred in the village of Oradour-sur-Glane, southern France, on the 10th June 1944.
642 innocent men, women and children were also killed for revenge and the village remains undisturbed, capturing the moment that life ended in those streets.