Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Cretan Driving

Driving in Crete has been a unique experience among the various countries in Europe. England has everything on the other side (driving on the other side of the road, steering wheel on the other side of the car, etc.). Big, old cities like Paris and Rome have tiny streets that were made long before cars and not really wide enough sometimes. Road signs are sort of familiar even if they are in a different language.

Crete is part of Greece and still uses Greek letters for street signs. The big signs in the highway are bi-letteral, if that's a word, with a transliteration of the Greek into the western alphabet. The trick with this is that some letters can come over in different ways. One town, named after the Greek hero Heracles (the Roman hero Hercules), is sometimes spelled "Herakleo," sometimes "Iraklio," sometimes "Erekleon." All of these names also can have different endings, e.g. "Irakleon." A guide book or a map may use one system to transliterate names and the highway sign company another.

The real challenge is in towns and cities, where the street names may only be in Greek letters. If you haven't studied them beyond the sorority/fraternity basics, getting around can be a big challenge. Luckily the people are friendly and love tourists. Most know at least a little English.

Streets are pretty narrow (since they were built long before cars were around) and signs are hard to spot, if they exist at all. Occasionally a major road would go through a small town and the forks were not well marked, making the right choice more of a guess than an informed choice. We kept to a slow speed and managed to get through okay. The toughest town for us was Irakleon, since it had many streets that suddenly turned around a corner or were full on both sides with parked cars. Even though we went there on a Sunday morning, street parking was full and we had to use a lot (which was very cheap by European standards). The town was definitely worth the challenge of navigating.

Driving on the highways has a different challenge. Most roads are two lanes, even the big highways, so passing is at your own risk. But drivers are very accommodating. The highway usually has a generous amount of room on the medians outside the single white line. I was surprised at how often drivers stray over that line and seem to just drive on the median. Usually they are driving slower which allows traffic behind them to pass without going fully into the lane for oncoming vehicles. On the other hand, many of the roads are wind around curve after curve up or down hills, so seeing oncoming vehicles can be a challenge. Switchbacks going up and down the hills are quite common and a little bit nerve-wracking. High speed doesn't pay, as can be attested to by the many road shrines.

Many little churches or buildings on small posts are found along the road. Each is a little memorial to a road accident at that spot. The number of these memorials is rather surprising. They are so common that we have seen more than one business that sells these little shrines. One day we were walking along a busy street and managed to get a photo.

Road shrine

The treacherous, hilly, winding roads reminded me a little bit of New Zealand, where we spent our honeymoon. Another incident reminded me of Kiwi country. Often in New Zealand traffic (which is often just your car) is stopped by sheep crossing the road to a new pasture, or walking down the road across a bridge to a new pasture. We ran into (but only figuratively) the equivalent here in Crete--goats crossing the road to a new rocky hillside. The roadways were just as empty on New Zealand as on Crete.

The challenges are definitely worth the rewards. Sometimes we drove up a windy hill road where the pavement turned to gravel and then to dirt, but the vista at the top was worth it. The Mediterranean shimmers in the sunlight on one side while the crinkly hills and mountains show snow-capped peaks (even in springtime) on the other side. Driving in Crete is a wonderful experience.

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