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Greece's Vouraikos Railway, One of the World's Most Spectacular Train Rides: Spring Break 2016, Breaking Bad on the Looney Front - Part 4

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It's only three short carriages long, has a gauge of merely 2.5 feet across and travels less than 14 miles, but in that scant distance Greece's Vouraikos Gorge railway soars 2,460 feet through an ever narrowing ravine with the aid of a rack and pinion system of cogs, fully deserving its billing as one of the most spectacular train rides in the world.

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Starting at the seaside town of Diakopto on the north-east coast of the Peloponnese peninsula, the train follows the Vouraikos stream bed into the rocky claws of an ever-tightening vice, twisting up into the craggy mountains and creeping along frighteningly narrow ledges above a torrent engorged by the spring melt as it cascades over waterfalls and rapids.

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View into the gorge from Diakopto

The kaleidoscope continually changes, passing into tunnels, along dripping cliffs, through forests of pine and oleander, under grey and orange-yellow rock walls, all enhanced by the exuberant profusion of spring flowers dappling the countryside with vivid yellows, iridescent purples, pastel pinks and deep carmines.

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By the time you reach the mountain village of Kalavrita an hour later after crossing 49 bridges and passing through six tunnels, you can even forgive the eyesore of a wind turbine farm on one of the ridges - if it saves the planet and Nature's boundless munificence, all to the good.

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Known in Greek as 'odontotos,' or tooth train, for its cogs, the railway began life 120 years ago when it was built by French companies, and since 2009 it's served by new three-car diesel-electric trainsets.

Kalavrita, a beautifully picturesque, red-roofed village nestling under forested hills and more distant snow-capped crags, holds the ghosts of a terrible past.

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Today the peaceful little town owes its popularity with Athenians, only three hours away by car, to its nearby ski resort in winter and its cool mountain air in the searing summer.

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But a little over 72 years ago, on December 13, 1943, it was the site of the worst war crime committed by the Germans on Greek soil, excluding the deportation of 70,000 Jews to death camps elsewhere.

In fighting between the Germans and Greek partisans in the mountains, hostage negotiations broke down and the partisans executed 76 captured Germans.

In retaliation the Germans gathered all Kalavrita's citizens into the school, separated the 481 men and boys over 13 from the rest, marched them up a nearby hill and machine-gunned them all, systematically moving through to deliver the coup de grace. Only 13 survived, saved by the corpses of others who fell on top of them or only being wounded by the final shot.

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The Germans set fire to the school where the women, children and old people were massed. But the victims broke out, the German soldiers guarding them apparently letting them flee. They spent the following days finding and burying all the menfolk, banging pans to stop the vultures from getting to the corpses before they could.

Today, where the school once stood a museum now bears witness to what in Greek is called the Kalavrita Holocaust. It's a moving, evocative collection of pictures, artefacts and video accounts from survivors, all the more horrifying for the simplicity with which it is told.

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The church clock stays forever at 2.34, the time of the slaughter, a massive white cross tops the hill where the massacre was perpetrated, a white walled monument commemorates the names, and a little memorial chapel gleams with golden censors and other religious artefacts.

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The Germans most responsible were sentenced to life in prison by the Nuremburg Tribunal.

Kalavrita is also famous for another episode in Greece's long history. Although fighting broke out earlier elsewhere, the official version holds that the independence war against the Turks began here at the monastery of Agias Lavras on March 21, 1821, when Bishop Germanos raised the Greek flag.

The Germans burned the original 10th century monastery, and the original flag is now housed in a museum in the new building while Bishop Germanos, in statue form, looks on from across the entrance.

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Meanwhile back at my favourite open-air café by Kalavrita railway station a whole horde of bicyclers has just ridden up. Many of them, rather rotund, are now gorging themselves on fattening pastries to replace used carbs.

I can't wait till late afternoon when they and the busloads of tourists leave, and Kalavrita returns to its bucolic tranquility.

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[Upcoming next Sunday: Greece's Mani Peninsula, in the Footsteps of Patrick Leigh Fermor Once More]

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By the same author: Bussing The Amazon: On The Road With The Accidental Journalist, available with free excerpts on Kindle and in print version on Amazon.

Swimming With Fidel: The Toils Of An Accidental Journalist, available on Kindle, with free excerpts here, and in print version on Amazon in the U.S here.