Driving in Greece

I am aware of course that this blog is turning into something quite different from the intended eloquent and considered analysis of web usability but I do have some hope that (due to forthcoming changes in my career) there may be scope to return to these subjects later. In the meantime I find it enjoyable to sit and write about subjects which continue to capture my imagination. And what better place to start than with Greek driving?

Of course this is borne out of my recent driving experience on Samos but a timely article in the Saturday Telegraph has put it firmly on my blog agenda. I feel I should declare an interest, my long-suffering fiancée is half Greek and thus blessed with the temperament of the warm bloodied Mediterranean but, being a British learner driver, she is likewise blessed with a healthy terror of the British driving experience. As a passenger in our rented (and dented) saloon Megane, she found herself looking not so much at the mountain scenery as crossing herself and squirming as we forcibly took another switchback hairpin on the wrong side of the road.

You see the problems are two, three, maybe even fourfold. The fabric of the roads is dire, the presence of road signs and signals erratic, drivers’ obedience to them non-existent and finally, the drivers are under-skilled and fearless. Of course, this is not to imply that us phlegmatic Brits are the pariahs of cautious driving or indeed that our road etiquette is exemplary, far from it, merely that judged by Greek standards one has more of a chance over here than we do over there.

In anticipation of the poor state of the islands roads, I requested Europcar provide us with their smallest runabout, the intention being that this would provide the best visibility and manoeuvrability on mountain switchbacks and through town. When on holiday I’m never really in a rush so a 1 litre engine is fine, if it takes all day to climb up the mountain, so be it. I’d rather have that than be in a 2 litre wide-bodied saloon (sedan) when a coach comes round a blind bend. When I ended up with the free upgrade to the Megane I was miffed rather than delighted.

What amazes me most about driving in Greece is the propensity to overtake where there is no conceivable benefit in terms of time and where the current conditions (blind bend, up hill, driving rain, oncoming traffic etc.) would suggest the only possible outcome is to end up as another shrine and cross on the side of the road. These little shrines are abundant on the roadside, a regular reminder of those that didn’t fare well on the Hellenic highways.

Author of the article Essex University professor Anthony King talks of the white lines painted ostensibly at the edge of the road. In Samos even these are a rare sight. After a ferocious downpour we ventured into the island up the principle roads from Ireon to Mitilini. It was littered with boulders and the previously indistinct tarmac edge had all but disappeared under a sea of red earth and rocks. We did see earth movers scraping some of it back to the edge but you just knew that this was a token gesture and after a few hours the job would be considered complete.

We had been out during this storm, visiting the ancient temple of Hera just outside Ireon and on the desperate limp back to Pythagorio in the downpour I was lit up like a Christmas tree with dipped headlights and fog lamps. In front was a rusty pick-up, in the middle of the road (avoiding puddles) with no lights. Despite being no more than 20 metres in front I was barely able to see him as he swerved right to avoid oncoming traffic and veered left to return to the centre again. He’d have been safer if he’d have driven blindfolded I’m sure. People talk of European standardisation and harmonisation yet in Denmark and Sweden cars have permanent sidelights on by law and in Greece no-one will turn their lights on unless the sun has set?

It’s comforting to know I’m not alone. In the land where one can (as we did) see a standard Daewoo Lacetti cruising the strip with vinyl lettering all over the side and Sakis Rouvas blaring from the stereo, many of us Brits are clearly terrified of driving. 50% of Britons who have driven in Greece describe the standard of driving as poor or very poor. Interestingly, the problem is not one of speed. The Greeks, on the whole, drive relatively slowly - the recklessness comes from people overtaking between 40 and 60 mph to gain one car length. Given that most island drivers are driving heavy old cars with engines under 2 litres on roads like the surface of the moon, this is unsurprising.

Interestingly the YouGov poll, to which the Telegraph article refers, omits Portugal, India, Morocco, Egypt and others meaning that the Greeks may yet have to settle for a (posthumous) bronze in the Olympic sport of dangerous driving.

For all the criticism, here is some practical advice for driving in the Hellenes.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I had a similar experience with our recent trip to Basque Spain. Requested a renault clio (Category A) but somehow managed a Megane Scenic upgrade (Category F)despite booking on the internet weeks in advance. It was my first go at driving abroad so wanted the smallest car possible to make it as pleasant as possible. I too had to tend with the hairpin switchback corners but from the comfort of a mid-size people carrier, trying to overtake wannabe Tour de France riders on blind bends and the praying I didn't have to use the car's
pointless electronic handbrake gizmo (not easy to operate if you need to do a hill-start). Spaniards are relatively patient on country roads with slower traffic, but I find they go for 'Armada' formation driving when
in towns.