But Alex said the locomotive still drives the wagons…

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TRAVEL, CULTURE

Pelion Little Train and Giorgio de Chirico

MAY 22, 2021 | ANO LECHONIA | 12 MIN

A few days ago, in the middle of the Pelion Peninsula, in an olive grove on the steep slope of the Centaur Mountains, I found the tracks of a forgotten narrow-gauge railway.

 In any case, it seemed to be forgotten. The grasses grew between the rails, the trees and bushes bent over the line of the absent carriages, and the surface on which the wheels usually roll did not shine in the sun – deep red rust is always a sign of oblivion. But Alex said the locomotive still drives the wagons… in the tourist season, anyway. It’s like: active or forgotten? After all, I noticed a barely visible path along the tracks. It would be a sin not to try. I rode my bike along the entire route.
A few days later, I found my line in the paintings of the famous Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico. For example, the one titled Piazza d’Italia. This is one of many paintings with this title. And one of the many showing the same square. Let’s say right away – a square existing only in the artist’s imagination. The theme comes from the so-called the metaphysical period, falling roughly in the years 1911-1920. I am writing a motif because de Chirico later repeatedly painted a copy or versions of his earlier paintings, so exact dating is difficult. The works of an Italian painter from the metaphysical period use several standard elements: a building with arched arcades, a monument, empty streets, lonely figures, deep shadows and … a train – usually somewhere in the background, never in the foreground, as if not always the most important element. Actually, not even a train, but just a narrow-gauge railway, like a toy for children.

But what does Giorgio de Chirico, the little train of his paintings and the Pelion Peninsula have in common? It turns out a lot. Giorgio de Chirico was born in Volos and spent his childhood in Greece. His father, Evaristo, was the chief builder of the funicular I found in an olive grove. The line from Volos to Milies was built between 1892-1903. So little Giorgio saw the train “every day”, he could remember it exactly. The place of birth and family past are not insignificant here, because although de Chirico emphasized his Italian identity, his father was born in Istanbul, and his mother was from Smyrna and she had Italian, Greek and Turkish roots! Quite a typical Mediterranean mix, actually.
The Pelion Little Train was built as a narrow-gauge 600 mm line. It is the smallest gauge used in long-distance railways. The smaller track gauge allows greater gradients and the use of smaller curves. That is why narrow-gauge railways were so eagerly used in mountainous areas. My little train line from Volos to Milies is only 28 km long. In the city, it operated as a city tram, for the next few kilometers it ran along the seashore, i.e. on a completely flat area. Only from Ano Lechoń, at the 13th kilometer, it is a real mountain railway. Not very impressive in absolute numbers. Over a distance of 15 km, it only covers 300 m of elevation.

In the personal experience of cycling along the tracks, this gain seemed even smaller. From the place in the olive grove where I found it to the end station, I covered about 250 meters of level difference, and it seemed to me that I was riding flat all the time. It was actually a very special experience. We are used to driving on (car) roads or paths. I remember a few good years ago I discovered a completely different experience of the world from the surface of the river (sailing in a canoe or a boat). It turns out that riding a bike along the tracks of a mountain train is another way of experiencing the world. Quite different. First of all, this flatness: in the mountains, all roads and paths are steep. Steep uphill and steep downhill. Or a bit less steep, but never flat. Here I knew that there would be no climbs. There may be turns (there were almost all the time), tunnels (three) and viaducts (seven), but I will reach the end station without stepping on the pedals.
In general, almost the entire section of the route is cut as a flat traverse in quite steep slopes. On the right side you can always see the Aegean Sea (but at a distance, the mountains do not rise directly from the sea in this part of Pelion), on the left, higher and higher terraces of olive trees and villages located even higher. It’s green in early May. Maybe as much as I’ve never seen in Greece before. A veritable maze of narrow irrigation canals makes nature dominate both in wild forests and wastelands, as well as in countless crops. Not only olives, but also oranges, cherries, peaches, chestnuts, and probably as many species that I cannot recognize. I cannot get over the amount of shades of green.

To keep up with the flat line of the contour lines, the route consists of almost all turns. But it also crosses various villages, after all, the main purpose of building this mountain train was to activate areas that were difficult to reach otherwise. Each scroll to the other side of the ridge opens up a view of a new valley and houses scattered above and below the train line. You can see everything clearly, after some practice I can easily predict where my bicycle train will cross the slopes of the valley.
There is an overwhelming feeling of watching the world inside out. As if car roads were more important and what you see from their perspective occupied the attention of residents. It encouraged to decorate the facades of houses and take care of gardens. The view from the train is irrelevant and can be neglected: lumber rooms, decaying houses, semi-open animal pens, yards in plain sight, farm machinery left for eternal rest. Finally, the circular roads penetrating the tracks without any obstacles. In places where the railway line was crossed by car roads, especially dirt roads, the rails were completely invisible, covered with earth, overgrown with grass; no train would have passed that way. It is mainly for this reason that I was convinced that the line was forgotten.
However, the most amazing thing about discovering this mountain railway line is to experience the beauty of the landscape and the micro scale. Small things. This is the smallest narrow gauge railway so everything is small here. Micro rail spacing only enough for a single track, narrow tunnels carved in the rocks, amazing soaring gorges pierced in places where there were not enough mountains for a real tunnel and now riding a bike I can almost rub against the walls on both sides, or turns so sharply cuted that it certainly does not match the seriousness of such a noble invention as the train. This railway line actually looks like a children’s toy, a line to be arranged in the living room, so fashionable until recently in richer homes. De Chirico did not have to rework anything in his artistic imagination, refer to the psychology of childhood, when everything seems much smaller to us. He just put his memories into the pictures, quite accurate, because that’s what his train looks like.

I rode along these wonders in awe expecting nothing. First of all, I did not think that this path was going to lead me to anything. I just wanted there to be one more after the next bend, and another viaduct in the valley. However, each path leads to something, and sometimes it just ends. Especially the railroad. The narrow-gauge de Chirico line ends in Milies. A small station building with a name, a kind of large garage that would probably fit a locomotive and a very clever device for turning the train – 180 degrees to turn the locomotive, to be exact. It is professionally called a turntable and is sometimes used with different types of tracks, but this is the first time I have seen it.
What makes the biggest impression in Milies, however, is right behind the station. It turns out that my little train leads to a beautiful wilderness. Hidden among the trees of the Valley of Teksarchis, famous since ancient times. It is here, in a cave slightly below, that Centaur Chiron, teacher of Achilles, Jason, and Asclepius, lived, and thus indirectly he was the source of our medical knowledge. Due to the abundance of water, the Milies range looks more like wet England than sunny Hellas. The ruins of the multi-story hotel are so thoroughly covered with a green jungle of plants that it is difficult to recognize at first glance whether it is a natural or artificial creation. In addition, the building is located at the bottom of the ravine. Through the dense openings of non-existent windows, you can easily see inside this lost world. A beautifully arranged guesthouse and tavern with a terrace suspended on a vertical rock. I don’t know about the body, but this place heals the soul without any difficulty.

My exploration of the de Chirico little train was stubborn (I rode the entire line by bike, I ran a small section, I was also at the starting station twice) but somewhat incomplete. I did not manage to see the locomotive (it is probably locked in a hangar in Ano Lechonia), I did not manage to drive a single kilometer in the wagon. However, this does not bother me particularly. I am interested in trails and roads as landscape lines more than mechanical vehicles. A bit different than de Chirico, who always painted a locomotive with wagons.
However, does the discovery of the real queue help to better understand the paintings of the Italian painter? Or at least sheds new light on them? For several years, it has been fashionable to “revive” images, especially the most famous ones. What is static becomes mobile, whether by employing real actors who act out scenes from the pictures, or by more or less successful animations. French artist Julien Herman decided to bring de Chirico’s paintings to life. 

The task seems completely backbreaking, because in these pictures almost everything is static. So what is moving in Herman’s film? The water in the fountain begins to splash, the shadows of buildings move, the ship catches the wind in its sails. However, the small Pelion railway is the most moving. It moves from one edge of the painting to the other, it blows out steam from the chimney happily, and it also lends the basic sound of the film – the characteristic sound of train wheels. There is, however, a way out of the somewhat claustrophobic world of de Chirico’s paintings, full of dark metaphysics and absurd geometry. All you need to do is take the train, whatever … It all looks like a metaphor and a prophecy of human life: you will live in a paradise full of mysteries and metaphysics and leave this world in search of other miracles. With many artists it is correct, but maybe not only with artists …

My little train is not entirely forgotten. Apparently it drives during the tourist season. On Saturdays and Sundays at 10.00 am from Ano Lechonia. I am writing apparently, because due to the pandemic it was not launched throughout 2020. There is no information yet whether it will start this year. I would like to believe so.

Litochoro/Gkolna, May 2021

For people fascinated by the subject of narrow-gauge railways and the history of the Pelion Peninsula, I paste the following video. Dozens of photos from the time when the little train was built at the turn of the 19th/20th century, unique fragments of films from the period of operation the train make it a completely unique document.

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