CULTURE

Vlasia: Cool, peaceful mountain escape

We spent the night under a star-studded sky, gazing out at the massive Mount Erymanthos. All that could be heard was the gurgling waters of the Selinounda River, a couple of cars navigating the winding road, and the occasional goat bell — otherwise, it was silent.

As dawn began to break, we heard the goats being shepherded up the hill to graze.

?There?s not much else here apart from livestock farming,? the shepherd said when our paths crossed. ?I sell the milk to a dairy. Almost all of the cheese produced is sent off to Germany. I rarely sell meat anymore. Who buys organic meat nowadays?? he continued, obviously eager to continue the conversation.

These bucolic scenes did not unfold outside some forgotten village amid the isolated peaks of northern Greece, but less than 50 kilometers from the busy port city of Patra in the northwestern Peloponnese.

The hamlets dotting Mount Kalifoni belong to the Municipality of Kalavryta and in the winter they see only a fraction of the thousands of people that head to the area for winter sports at the Kalavryta ski center. These communities are still very much attached to the traditional way of doing things and few of their elegant stone homes have been replaced by the kind of slipshod constructions whose ugly appearance today blights so many parts of rural Greece. The hamlets are nestled amid a dense forest of pine and fir, which is crisscrossed by hiking trails.

Ano and Kato Vlasia are two such places, the former of which is where we found the start of the trail leading to the top of Mount Kalifoni.

?We never feel hot here,? an Ano Vlasia villager told us when we remarked on the cool atmosphere created by the surrounding forest. Higher up Kalifoni, the firs give way to green shrubs and a riot of colorful wildflowers. The last traces of snow begin to disappear here in mid-June.

Some call Mount Kalifoni a part of Erymanthos, while others believe them to be two separate mountains. Though it is not popular with tourists, it is with climbers, who rejoice in the three-and-a-half-hour route from Ano Vlasia to the summit at an altitude of 1,998 meters. On our way up, the only sign of life was a wild rabbit sprinting across the path, while on the way down we met a young dog guarding a flock of goats, who appeared quite happy to have a bit of company. He started following us down the path back to the village, but when the sound of the goats began to fade, he turned around and dashed back.

Just a few kilometers out of Ano Vlasia there is a crossroad that leads to the Monastery of Aghios Nikolaos Vlasias and which, according to the locals, was once very wealthy even though today it only has one nun. If you look carefully along the roadsides, you?ll see small wooden signposts leading to the waterfalls of Aghios Taxiarchis. Follow them and you?ll find a series of steps carved into the stone leading down to a small river flanked by massive plane trees. There is a refreshing waterfall further upstream — the perfect place for an invigorating dip before heading back.