We were a little jaded the following morning, as we struggled up along faint paths, and new unmarked tracks, through pastureland and into the forest. There was the sound of chainsaws in the distance, and suddenly we came over a ridge to see a clearing with long lines of stacked wood, mules grazing, guard dogs with spiked collars, a couple of vehicles, and about a dozen men around a campfire. Albanians!
“Hello! Come and join us!”, they cried in Greek, as we approached, a little nervously. They beckoned me to follow them into a little copse. There hanging from a branch was a newly butchered sheep, already skinned but still complete from head to hooves. Two camp fires were already blazing. They laid the sheep’s carcass out on a couple of planks of wood and with an axe cut it into pieces. As soon as the fires had died down to embers, they laid the spare ribs and liver on a simple grill.
The head and everything else except the entrails went into a large black cauldron for an enormous stew. While some saw to the fires and the cooking, others were busy talking on their mobile phones; there’s a special mobile tariff for calls to Albania.
Above us in the forest we could still hear the chainsaws. Two Greek villagers were selecting and cutting down the trees: each family was entitled to a certain amount of wood each year. The Albanians had been contracted to extract the timber by mule. Two brothers were the gangmasters. “Can’t you see they’re the bosses?” commented one man. “Look at the quality of their clothes!” The brothers had come to Greece nearly fifteen years ago, and were now settled with their families in a nearby town. They owned the mules and travelled round doing forestry contract work during the summer. A few of the men slept on site, while others rented rooms locally: they were probably some of the men we’d seen in Vatochori. Some were probably illegal: they didn’t want to be photographed.
“Have a drink while we’re waiting! Beer, wine, tsipouro? “ They only had a couple more days work before moving on elsewhere: this was going to be a long day’s celebration. We sat on newly cut logs, still smelling of resin, and chatted. The two brothers spoke good Greek, but most of the others struggled.
One older man was particularly keen to explain something to us. He took us to look at the mules, then showed us a photo of a mule on his mobile. What was he trying to communicate? At last two of his friends disappeared off into the forest and came back with a beautifully made mule saddle, wood bent and carved into shape, and carefully padded. He was a saddle maker, with a thriving business back home in Albania.
Meanwhile the liver and spare ribs, juicy and delicious, were handed round. A couple of hours later, and we were on our way again. The cauldron was still bubbling with the main course, and the party was just getting going. Later on, we would see a couple of the men in Korestia, buying more beer.
The route: We were still roughly following the route of the E6, though waymarks were few and far between. It’s probably best to pick up the forestry track in the village of Vatochori, following it as far as the ruined church of Aghios Antonios, instead of cutting cross country from the Ladopotamos river as we did. From the church, a footpath leads down to the main road: the well-laid stones of the old mule track were still occasionally visible. The main road followed a lush valley to Korestia, with the chance to occasionally divert from the tar to follow the stream. Then a dirt road led up from Korestia to Ano Kranionas. Plenty of water from streams and springs in the villages. Kilometres:11. Map: Anavasi 6.2. Prespa Vitsi Voras
Facilities: Mini-supermarket, café and summer guest house (closed) in Korestia.