From Kleitoria and the Lake Caves of Kastria (which used to be in Arcadia in historical times but are now in the administrative region of Achaia) we drive across the increasingly wilder mountains of Peloponnese into the Arcadia proper. The name has many associations and resonates widely in the European culture, commonly signifying an unspoilt land, idyllic nature, closer to some kind of utopian paradise of a simple, happy, pastoral life than to the reality of desperately poor goatherds chasing stock around hillsides covered in prickly bushes.
It's beautiful, though, and although happy shepherds have been a bit thin on the ground, Arcadia has a great warrior tradition, as do many mountainous regions all around the world. It saw fierce action during the Greek War of Independence and Theodoros Kolokotronis, the great guerilla warlord, pirate and then the Field Marshal of the Greek army came from an old Arcadian clan known for its warrior spirit and pride. Kolkotronis is a more than a larger-than-life historical figure, he's also a folk hero, a William Wallace of sorts (though he lived into old age) and Kolkotronis-related memorials, memories and memorabilia can be found all over Greece, but particularly in Arcadia.
The road hugs the hillsides in vertigo-inducing switchbacks before descending into a valley of the beloved and culturally significant river of Alfeios.
We stop for a couple of nights in Karitena (Karytaina), a village of two hundred inhabitants that clings to the hillside on the right bank of the Alfeios, near the confluence with the Lousios river. The village stretches along one street that climbs up from the bottom of the valley to a central square, where a few side alleyways spread out. Arcadia is one of a less known regions of Greece, with no major visitors' attractions and no coast to lure sea-and-sun holiday makers, but tourists, obviously, get everywhere and even smallest settlements have some facilities for visitors. In Karitena, there are a couple of bars (one of them an internet cafe) and a few sets of domatia (rooms for rent), in one of which we stay.
It's a strange place, old and somewhat claustrophobic in the way it's laid out, and yet it appears self-contained and content, with friendly but not overbearingly so locals. It's mostly Greek's Greece here, and the nature and history of the area means little to the outsiders. As many parts of Greece, it suffered a decline in population and (limited) prosperity under the Ottoman rule and the fierce Arcadian highlanders were among the first to ignite the movement for independence – it's accident that the aforementioned Kolkotronis hails from this part of the world.
Above the village stands an impressive (and hellishly painful to reach in the heat of the day) ruin of a 13th century Frankish castle, and a couple of associated Byzantine churches of interest to those who collect such sights, but we mostly use the village as a base for a couple of days' exploration.
The cafes/bars don't serve food but there is a makeshift souvlaki place that serves customers on a wide terrace by a modern church. The food is simple, cheap and fresh. Sitting in a shade of a tree with a view down the valley and drinking the post-meal 'ellenico (Greek coffee) we enjoy one of those simple but special moments that in many ways define the experience of many a Greek holiday.