One of the most beautiful hiking experiences in Kalavryta is the descent into Vouraikos Gorge along the lines of the rack railway. The total distance of the route, starting at the Kalavryta Railway Station and ending at the Diakofto or Diakopto Station, is 22,346 meters, and the hiking time will range from 4 ½ to 6 hours (with stops).
Kalavryta's history is closely connected with the rack (or cog) railway, which includes a toothed rack rail (between the regular rails) that meshes with toothed wheels on the trains in the parts of the route with steep inclines. Construction of this railway began in 1889 (as directed by Prime Minister Charilaos Trikoupis) and was completed in 1896. It was one of the most difficult, complex technical projects of its time (and even by today's standards). The research and construction were carried out by French engineers and contractors. The toothed portion of the route covers a total of 3,400 meters. From 2003 to 2009, there was a large-scale renovation of the whole network and of the toothed equipment, with a widening of the tracks and installation of larger trains.
In terms of difficulty, the trail is moderate, but great care is needed when crossing the bridges and passing through train tunnels in order to avoid finding yourself “confronted” with the train! Along the way, we will encounter many tunnels carved into the rock, with just enough space for the little train to pass through, and several iron railway bridges with a gap below them that looks scary. There are cement kilometer indicators by the tracks that show you how much of your journey remains.
Officially, hiking on the tracks is prohibited, so if you proceed, you do so at your own risk and should be extremely careful to avoid accidents. It is essential to know the train schedules so that you can calculate where the train is at any time. The train’s route takes approximately 60 minutes on the ascent and 50 minutes for the descent. On weekends during the tourist season, the train runs more often.
One could divide the route into three main segments. The first part covers the section from the station in Kalavryta to the station of Kato Zachlorou and is approximately 10 kilometers long. The second part, which features the most striking natural beauty, continues for another seven kilometers to the station in Niamata. The last part, which is less interesting than the others, continues for approximately five more kilometers and ends at the Diakopto Railway Station. An alternative route could start at Kato Zachlorou, descend to Niamata, and return back to Zachlorou (with an elevation change of about 450 meters).
The journey begins gently on relatively flat terrain, crossing the valley of Vouraikos. Our first point of interest (about 4 kilometers from the beginning) is the next rack railway stop after Kalavryta, Stasi Kerpinis. A few meters above the station in Stasi Kerpinis, we can see the newly constructed Church of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, and next to it the monument to four patriots who were executed on this spot by German occupation troops on December 9, 1943.
Starting at Stasi Kerpinis, the landscape becomes more interesting: we come across the first metal railway bridge and begin to move parallel to the river. In the background, the towering vertical cliffs of Mega Spilaio, the historic Monastery, emerge, and above it the imposing building of the “Castle”, or “Kastro” in Greek.
Vouraikos Gorge is part of the Chelmos - Vouraikos National Park. The park covers a large land area that includes the gorge and a substantial part of the Chelmos mountain range and slopes of Chelmos, up to the source of the Aroanios River at Planitero. The national park was founded in 2009 by ministerial decree with the aim to protect, conserve and manage nature and the landscape as a natural heritage and a precious national resource.
Approximately 8.5 kilometers from Kalavryta and 15 to 20 minutes before we reach Kato Zachlorou, we should look carefully on our right to discern, well hidden in the greenery, a very beautiful stone bridge that joins the banks of the Vouraikos River. About six hundred meters after that, we see a second stone bridge, or rather what remains of it, since only the two ends still stand erect.
Already the landscape begins to become exciting, with the rushing waters of the river buzzing on our right and dense vegetation obscuring our way.
In less than 10 minutes (an hour and 45 minutes from when we set off), we see the first houses of beautiful Kato Zachlorou. We cross the plane tree covered metal bridge and stop for refreshments at the café next to the station before continuing to the second and most exciting phase of our journey.
The second part of our route immediately prepares us for what we will encounter. A few meters after the Kato Zachlorou station, we see a sign on our left that points toward the Vouraikos River. Descending the short path, we reach a beautiful spot next to the river with plenty of room to sit and enjoy the lovely forest.
About one kilometer from Kato Zachlorou, we will see why Greeks call this the “toothed” railway (“Odontoto”): the famously powerful [“teeth”][TID44629] between the rails that help the train climb long uphill gradients. These are the last teeth on the rack (or cog) railway on its ascent from Diakopto to Kalavryta. The toothed part of the rack railway covers a total of 3,400 meters.
The lines descend quite a bit, and the vegetation becomes denser. We carefully cross another small metal bridge, and in less than four minutes we see a new train station in a freshly paved cobbled courtyard with wooden pergolas. If we head toward the house and go left, we will descend to the river at a point where a small “beach” is formed.
At this point we are one step from the most impressive part of our route, the famous Portes, which means Doors.
Ee Portes, which means The Doors, is the narrowest point on the Vouraikos Gorge route. Here the little train passes through a tunnel which has two large iron doors at its entrances (hence the name). In the past, the doors were used to keep out pedestrians, allowing only the train to pass through. Today the doors have rusted and fallen, but they are still there. The landscape is impressive and simultaneously imposing—a landscape that has been shaped by the erosive power of water. Two tunnels with two [metal bridges][TID44633] were built for the rack railway, the old and very narrow one through which the little train used to pass, and the newer one that is used today.
About 700 meters after passing through the Doors (Portes), we come to Triklia train station.
The route continues to be very interesting, alternating between small tunnels made of stone, railway bridges, and tunnels carved into the rock that barely allow the train to pass through. We hear the turbulent waters of the Vouraikos River in their rolling rapids as the gorge narrows considerably and descends with a steeper slope.
About 50 minutes from the Doors (Portes), we will come across the entrance of the longest tunnel on the route. Before you walk through it, consult the train schedules in order to be sure you will not have an unexpected meeting with a train in the tunnel!
The landscape continues to alternate as before with tunnels and bridges.
One of the characteristics of the Chelmos - Vouraikos National Park is its biodiversity of fauna and flora. There is not only a high number of living things, but also a great diversity of microorganisms, plants, and animals living there. For this reason, the natural beauty of the area is characterized by a varied landscape with many important habitats forming shelters for many organisms.
Now we are less than eight kilometers from the end of our journey, and the Vouraikos riverbed has narrowed considerably, forming impressive little waterfalls.
About two minutes after we cross the metal bridge located immediately after the informative National Park sign, we pass through a tunnel on a curve. After the tunnel, if we look to the right toward the rock wall on the opposite side of the gorge, we will see two cavities with stalagmite figures that form what is called the “Courts” (“Dikastiria” in Greek).
This is a cavernous chamber where the stalagmites have formed upright columns that resemble figures lined up as if in court. The impressive formations we see on the rocks that rise up on both sides of us were caused by the erosion of limestone by water rich in carbon dioxide. In the vertical walls of the gorge, there are interesting rare plant communities featuring unique species characteristic of the rocky habitat of the Eastern Mediterranean.
Although we will see the “Courts” first, as described above, the relevant sign appears a little later, after we cross another metal railway bridge.
We are now just 500 meters from the last major attraction on our journey, the station in Niamata. It is approximately five kilometers from the Diakopto station. There is also an informative sign about the Chelmos - Vouraikos National Park here. There used to be an old agricultural settlement in Niamata.
For the next five kilometers, up to the Diakopto station, nature calms down. We are already at an altitude of just 120 meters, and we have passed beyond the great narrowing of the gorge. In the next three kilometers, that is before we get into the residential area, we will pass through one more very short tunnel. Two kilometers before the end of our excursion, we will begin to leave the beauty of the gorge and enter a residential area.
From here it takes just 20 minutes to get to the Diakopto station. On the way, we pass a road crossing and (on our left) the shrine of the Virgin Mary More Spacious than the Heavens (Platytera ton Ouranon). Five minutes after that, we arrive at the station, which is also the end of this very scenic excursion. If we have left our car in Kalavryta, we can take the next rack railway train back and enjoy this beautiful route once again, this time resting within the comfortable air-conditioned cars of the rack railway.