As we drove our rental car out of downtown Hania with no problems, I thought, “That was easy.” Little did I know, more challenging driving situations were, literally, right around the corner.
As soon as we got onto the highway, I realized this isn’t America anymore.
I was driving along in my lane, following internationally accepted road rules, when cars kept passing me across double lines, into oncoming traffic. After nearly causing a dozen accidents, I noticed that most trucks and slower cars were actually driving on the shoulder, turning a two-lane highway into four lanes.
I realized that I was a slower car; I needed to be on the shoulder.
We turned off the highway and onto a winding, sinuous mountain road that we followed down the entire west coast of the island. The road was about as wide as a golf cart path, which conveniently, our car, and most cars on the road, were about the size of golf carts. There were almost no other cars on the road and this was a great thing. Around the blind, hairpin curves, all I could see was sky ahead of me, and it would have been easy to have a head-on collision, especially since I was usually way too far on the left, giving imminent death a wide berth.
We passed through tiny villages clinging to the mountains, with roads so tight only one car could pass through at a time. To complicate things, locals park their cars wherever they please, often blocking off part of an already narrow road.
Along the high road the wind raged. I feared the minuscule car might get lifted off and tossed in the Mediterranean down below. I dodged pot holes and swerved around jagged rocks that had recently liberated themselves from the cliffs. I zigzagged around sheep and once had a stand off with a very stubborn goat. It was one hell of a drive, but to be fair, I was only going about 25 the entire way so it wasn’t ever that dangerous.
Note: I was going 25 kph, which is about 15 mph.
At one point, I’d had enough. I had to let Kristi drive. I was getting a little vertigo trying to drive on the knife-edge goat-paths in the wind. She took over and guided us down to the ethereal Elafonisi beach. If we’d have driven off the cliff on the way and died, I believe the beaches in Heaven would have been very similar. Crystal clear water, soft white sand, caressed by a gentle sea breeze, and backed by the dramatic mountains we’d just driven on, the beach was perfect.
Returning to town is where the real drama started. We needed to find a specific parking lot in the downtown area. Hania is a medium-size town and although a network of one-way streets, it can hardly be considered a challenging place to drive – provided you know where you are going. We did not know where we were going. We were looking for street names that have to be some of the longest, most unpronounceable names in the world on some of the tiniest signs.
We were driving in on ZMVRAKKIDON Street and looking for BOTSARI MARKOU, keeping an eye out for MANTAKA ANAGNOSTI or EFEDRON POLEMISTON streets that preceded it.
Such street names led to conversations like this:
KRISTI: What street was that?
JEFF: I think that was Patriarch Gigolo Street
KRISTI: (looking at map seeing PATRIARHOU GRIGORIOIU) Close enough. I know where we are.
The girl from the car rental agency made an X on the map for our destination and assured us it was easy. It was by a pharmacy and a blue sign, she said. Every sign in Hania is blue. This must be the most over-medicated society in Europe, as there seemed to be a pharmacy on every corner.
We overshot our street and ended up on MANOUSSOGIANNAKIDON. We drove in circles, Kristi navigating, me driving and cussing, both of us stressing out. As we crawled through the streets peering at the signs, other cars honked at me. Bicycles cut me off. Motorcycles passed me on the right as I tried to turn that direction. Pedestrians with death wishes walked out in front of me.
I turned down a one-way street and careening towards me was a motorcycle.
“AM I GOING THE WRONG WAY!?!?” I asked with alarm.
“No. He is,” Kristi replied calmly. “Evidently there is no hard and fast rule about one-way streets here.”
In a high-stakes game of chicken (in my mind at least), the motorbike veered off at the last second. A few minutes later, on the exact same street (which I was on by mistake after driving in a circle) the exact same thing happened with a different motorbike. Now a little wiser, I didn’t have an anxiety attack as I came within inches of hitting the bike head on.
After that, a man ahead of me shoved his car in reverse, nearly hitting me while trying to parallel park. I honked at him but this was an over-reaction. He had plenty of space. There was a solid 2 inches between the cars.
It was all terribly stressful. I don’t know how I’d manage with truly bad traffic in a real city. We will likely never find out.
Finally, at a point of mental breakdown we found a parking lot and the attendant, sensing our frustration, let us park and walk around until we found the correct lot, which happened to only be a few meters away. We were right on top of it. We’d surrounded it and now it was there for the taking.
After that stressful first day on the road, we became master drivers. We drove back into Hania without drama; we actually passed other motorists on the highway. (Okay, maybe only a time or two). We negotiated hairpin turns atop vertiginous cliffs going only 5 kph under the speed limit.
I may never drive like a Greek, but I learned to hold my own. Then again, I’d probably be arrested in the USA if I drove like a Greek, so it’s all for the best. If I drive here again, I’ll be on the shoulder, enjoying the scenery as the world speeds by.
To prove that I am not completely exaggerating, here is a slideshow of road trip photos. Click on any photo to open a slideshow view.
What is the scariest road you’ve driven on?
Your description of driving in Greece brings back many memories. We bought a VW Camper Van and drove around Europe for six months, putting on 15,000 miles. We learned to scoot around cities, parking and staying just outside the mania, and taking public transportation into the city centers.
The worst was trying to drive into the middle of Moscow. The signs were naturally in Russian (not Roman script) and totally unreadable. We tried to memorize them as pictures. We did, however, make it to the Kremlin and parked our bright yellow van right on Red Square. Yes, there is a street that circles onto the square with a half dozen parking spaces. We lucked out and parked in one. After seeing the sights around the square, we set up our table and chairs next to the van (with the door open and our stereo playing) and opened a bottle of wine and had a picnic to celebrate my 40th birthday. The passing Russians all smiled at us saying “Amarakanski”? They somehow knew only Americans would pull such a stunt.
Steve – That is awesome on so many levels. I can understand your reluctance to drive in the cities, especially in Europe. Inner cities there are terrible for traffic.
I love the part about Moscow. That is great.
Well done, Jeff. I should have thought to warn you but then you wouldn’t have had the pleasure of living through the initial shock. My favorite “driving in Crete” story was when a Greek man in his “roller skate” car passed me on a blind curve going down hill into Hania. Not so unusual except for the fact that he was balancing his frappe in one hand, his cell phone was tucked under his chin, and he was attempting to floss his teeth – NO JOKE!
Melanie – A frappe, cell phone and teeth flossing – that might be a world record of things going on while driving. I don’t doubt it. We’d be driving along the mountain roads and suddenly get passed by a local when we didn’t even notice anyone behind us a second before.
I drove in Namibia once on the British/right/wrong side of the road and that was worse, but this was an adventure on its own.
I considered once renting a car in Buenos Aires – for about 5 minutes. Then i realized that was certain death within minutes. The ex and I had a similar experience trying to drive into a city in northern Argentina. One way streets, tiny or non-existent signs, crazy traffic…. Oh, and it was night when we arrived, making it worse. We were impressed with ourselves for not hating each other by the time we navigated to the hotel.
I haven’t driven in Lima, and never will, because they are the worst drivers I have ever seen.
We purposefully returned before dark. We didn’t want any part of that. I can imagine that was very stressful to drive in at night not knowing where you are going.
Lima is terrible. I spent a week there when my friend married a Peruvian girl and the driving is insane.
Good call. Imagine trying to look for those street names in the dark!
I wish I drove through Greece. http://www.guzelevimizmir.com
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