Driving in Greece Stressful, But Worth It

Tom Murphy, Managing Editor

October 24, 2014

4 Min Read
Driving in Greece Stressful, But Worth It

SANTORINI, Greece – It’s encouraging to see reports that the Greek economy, which required an international bailout to stave off bankruptcy in 2012, is on the mend, despite a 28% unemployment rate.

This past January, an Athens businessman took delivery of a $167,600 white Jaguar. It was the first Jag sold in all of Greece in a year, Reuters reports.

In early September, the Greek government announced the country’s economy is growing for the first time since 2008.

Having returned from a family vacation in Greece with full bellies and loads of trinkets, our small travel entourage would like to take a sliver of credit for the third-quarter economic resurgence.

It’s an amazing place to visit, rich in ancient history and geological wonders. Our travels took us first to Athens for a tour of the Acropolis and Parthenon, then on to the islands of Kos and Santorini.

All three places are unique and lovely in their own way, but signs of economic turmoil are evident in the abundant graffiti and closed-up storefronts in downtown Athens and in the hundreds of abandoned construction sites that eerily dot the dusty landscapes of Kos and Santorini. Consider them a new form of Greek ruin.

I pay attention to cars wherever I go, and most prominent European cities have the occasional Ferrari, Lamborghini, Bentley or Rolls-Royce tooling about. Not in Athens, at least during our two days in town.

The islands of Kos and Santorini are accessible by ferry or airplane, and few permanent residents can afford cars of this type. Mercedes-Benz supplies many of the taxis on the islands, but exploring these two islands turned up only two fancy vehicles that appeared to be privately owned: a Porsche Cayenne and Range Rover Sport.

The vast majority of cars on the islands are small Smarts, Fiats, Nissans, Peugeots, Hyundais, Volkswagens, Chevrolets, Skodas and SEATs, many of them rentals. On Kos, I drove a 5-door Hyundai i20; on Santorini, a larger 5-door SEAT Leon. Both were quite capable.

Desert Climate; Fresh Water Scarce

Desert Climate; Fresh Water Scarce

The scenery is breathtaking, but many Greek islands, including Santorini, have desert climates, meaning cars are always dusty. It’s a small price to pay for such beauty.

A steeper price comes from the scarcity of fresh water. Our moderately priced hotel in Santorini, overlooking a cliff that remained from a volcano that erupted 3,600 years ago, was lovely and comfortable, but the “fresh” water from the tap and in the pool was salty. Bottled water was essential.

Greece is the foundation of Western thought, and its culture dates back thousands of years. But oddly enough, even the most-beautiful tourist destinations feel third-world without stoplights or road signs.

Stray off the beaten path into the gritty neighborhoods, and the people are friendly but live very humbly. There are no $2,000-a-night private villas overlooking the sea here.

The island of Santorini is home to about 12,000 people but hosts more than 1 million tourists a year. Tourists rent scooters, 4-wheel ATVs or cars to get around, or they take buses.

All these vehicles share 2-lane roads that are about as narrow as American bike trails, and they wind steeply up to the edge of what remains of the volcano, now known as the “caldera,” shaped like a crescent moon. The view from the top, at the popular cities of Fira and Oia, is spectacular.

Beautiful But Treacherous

Beautiful But Treacherous

But many of the roads leading to these scenic vistas are treacherous, partly because there are few guardrails protecting drivers from the loose gravel and imminent death that awaits those not paying close attention.

Also, there are no names on roads, only signs pointing motorists toward individual towns, the harbor or the airport.

As a result, tourists unfamiliar with the island drive slowly, forcing young locals on scooters to pass even in the face of oncoming traffic. They “shoot the gap,” forcing vehicles (even buses) going both ways to creep to the edge of the road, which for an instant must accommodate three vehicles side-by-side at one time.

Did I mention these roads are about as wide as our driveways? Did I mention there are NO sidewalks along these roads, and tourists frequently share the right-of-way with buses and crazy gap-shooting scooters?

Did I mention there isn’t a single traffic light on an island visited by more than 1 million people a year? Are you feeling the stress?

The road surfaces, themselves, are passable, although chunks of asphalt occasionally fall into the sea on the island of Kos, another lovely place where tourists could benefit tremendously from sidewalks.

Throughout much of Greece, roads are a patchwork quilt of ancient cobblestone, dusty pumice stone, 100-year-old cement and modern asphalt. But the Greek and local governments must be forgiven for lacking the resources to fix roads.

Given the challenges motoring around the islands, would I go back? In a heartbeat. I’m already saving my pennies to visit other islands as well.

The history under the tires is worth it all.

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About the Author(s)

Tom Murphy

Managing Editor, Informa/WardsAuto

Tom Murphy test drives cars throughout the year and focuses on powertrain and interior technology. He leads selection of the Wards 10 Best Engines, Wards 10 Best Interiors and Wards 10 Best UX competitions. Tom grills year-round, never leaves home without a guitar pick and aspires to own a Jaguar E-Type someday.

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