Within 10 minutes riding, my shirt is sweaty and sticking to my back, the tips of my fingers stick to the inside of my gloves. Another hot day in Greece.
I stop for fuel and an ATM because I’m told that in Albania many places cannot accept credit cards, and those who do, prefer cash.
I’m less than an hour to the Albanian border, so I figure I’ve got time to visit the Zagorohoria region, and particularly Papigo. As I ride northwest, I roll into the small village of Kalpaki. On the roadside I see the usual market, cafes, and people milling about. Then I notice about hanging outside a butcher shop about a dozen goats, dead and skinned.
I pull over. I’ve seen so many goats wandering the hillsides and sometimes the roadsides in Greece, but this is the first time I’ve seen them dead and about to be butchered. I know that goat milk is used in making cheese, especially for the tasty feta cheese of Greece, but to date, I’ve not seen goat meat on any menu.
Inside the butcher shop, through the large plate-glass window, I notice a woman inside swatting flies against the window. A man walks outside and pushes the dead goats hanging from the shackling hook inside, the hooks run along a track that extends from above the sidewalk outside along the ceiling of the shop, through the front door and to the rear of the building into a walk-in cooler.
My boots are suddenly slippery against the tiled patio outside the shop where I realize I’ve stepped into the blotches of fresh blood that spot the tile. The man waves at me and then invites me into the shop. It smells like a butcher shop, but not nasty—fresh. I say “sure” when Chrysa asks if I’d like a coffee. She exits the shop while her husband, Kosmós continues to bring in the goats, explaining that the larger animals hanging are “mommy goats” while the smaller are babies.
“They’re hot, hot,” Kosmós explains, rubbing his hands together and pointing to the blood on the floor, showing that they were freshly slaughtered this morning and are still warm to the touch.
I put my camera down and pull out my phone to go live on Facebook. I know this isn’t pretty, and my vegan and vegetarian friends will gag in disgust, but this is real life in a small village in northern Greece just twenty minutes from the Albanian border.
They show me how they can produce quantities of souvlaki with a clever system Chrysa calls a machine. They have two children, boys and have been running this business for over 25 years, serving the villages of Zagorohoria (Zagori) and customers from Albania. I feel they want me to stay, talk longer, but I must move on as I need to be in Sarande Albania before nightfall.
In the village of Aristi, near Vikos Gorge and Papigo, I notice a guy manning a rotisserie and cooking souvlaki and fish. I ask them if the meat came from Kosmós and Chrysa, it does.
“He’s the Grillfather,” Natasa tells me as she wades across the narrow road, between vans pulling trailers stocked with rafts. “You can have an adventure on the river,” she tells me, “well, not an adventure, a ride.”
Another Facebook live segment, and soon I meet her whole family, Dimitris her son, Lukia her daughter and her husband. They all want to friend my Facebook page, and then they take the WorldRider sticker I give to them and post it to the door of their restaurant, posting for a classic photo.
It’s a windy road with enough switchbacks to make anyone dizzy, as I climb my way to Papigo, a stone village in the shadows or soaring rock cliffs rising from the forest below 1,000 feet. The road is narrow, and large cars winding down cut into my lane. Cattle with loud clanking bells, along with goats cross the road. There’s no place to pull over, I want to get a photo but must focus on the road.
Thirty minutes later I’m in Papigo. Cozy cafes shaded by trellised wisteria and olive trees, give Papigo a tranquil feeling. The streets are steep, made of stones. I must be careful getting off my bike, the inconsistent gaps in the stones could trap the leg of my kickstand.
Off the bike, I wander, climb and find solace in a place that seems trapped in a different time. There are tourists, and cafes offer cold beer, local food, and a place to rest your feet, yet after hiking around it occurs to me that this part of Greece is hidden, mostly, from the tourist trek.
I make my way to the tiny village to Zikos to teeter at the edge of the Zikos Gorge, where more rock spires rise from the river winding below, in some places over 3,000 feet. Latosa told me the real Grand Canyon is here, in Zikos. The US Grand Canyon is secondary, expressing love and pride of her country, something I find throughout the Greek people.
On my way back to the main road I pass by Latasa’s place and stop for a glass of cold water. She quizzes me, makes sure I saw all the highlights. But I barely see much of Zagorohoria, there are more villages and hikes I would like to take. But it’s time. Sadly, I must leave Greece.
Albania is waiting.