A road curves round a corner with view of shrubs on the roadside and the sea beyond | Driving in Greece - tips for driving the islands | greekislandbucketlist.com
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Driving in Greece – Your First Time Driving the Islands

Driving in Greece is an experience. If you’re used to nice wide, tarmacked roads and people obeying traffic rules you could find the Greek island driving experience a bit wild.

I didn’t initially think to write this post since driving in Greece didn’t come as too much of a shock for me. Most of my early driving experience actually came from driving abroad on Spanish islands which is pretty similar. But, I’ve seen a lot of Brits and Americans commenting about it and I realised there is a bit to brace yourself for.

So, I’ve come up with this list of things you might not have imagined when considering driving in Greece, specifically the islands. For logistics on actually renting a vehicle, taking it on the ferries etc check out this post on all things Greek car hire.

Is it safe to rent a car in Greece?

Cars are definitely safer than motorbikes/mopeds or ATVs but there are a few things to note before you drive on the Greek islands for the first time.

Is driving in Greece difficult?

As I mentioned in the info about hiring a car in Greece, gravel/dirt roads are not uncommon. Be aware not just of the damage they can cause to the car but the challenges they bring to driving.

Typical dirt road in Naxos

One place I stayed at showed me the road to the nearest beach. It was a single lane, dirt track with a sheer drop on one side (no guard rail). Going down wasn’t too bad but coming back up the car struggled a bit. It was quite an incline and trying to get enough revs to get up the hill without spinning my wheels in the gravel was quite a challenge. I was drifting across the loose stones which was a bit unnerving!

I had a similar experience when I turned off a road following a sign to another village around the mountain. It started off innocuous enough, but the cement soon turned into big and small loose stones. Getting enough speed up to go over the bigger stones didn’t go well with the bits of loose gravel and the old wheels were spinning again.

The farmers in their pickup trucks with the big tyres had no problem. But those of us in nippy little cars without 4-wheel drive need to turn around and get back onto the main road.

Driving in Greece through narrow villages

Traditional Greek villages were built way before cars came into existence. Narrow roads that make for pretty Instagram pictures also make for some hair-raising driving experiences. Some towns and villages actually don’t have car access at all. Others have had roads made that do accommodate modern cars between the close buildings (rather than donkeys and mules) but only just.

Take your time going through narrow streets Be ready to pull in or reverse to let another car by. Many drivers will beep their horns to warn you that they’re coming through if you can’t see round the corner. (I did read on the RAC website that this is illegal in urban places. I find that hilarious as drivers beeping their horns just generally is one of the most prominent things here!)

Are road signs in Greek or English?

In most places you’re likely to visit the road signs are in both Greek and English. Note that some places have two names used interchangeably on signs, which can be confusing. For example, the village of Vivlos in Naxos is also known as Tripodes (three windmills).

Use your gears to break

I’m not sure how this works in automatic cars as I don’t think I’ve ever driven one. But with a manual car be ready to use the gears to brake. On roads like the one down to the sea, and coastal roads where sand has blown over, you don’t want to be using your brakes to slow down. It’s much safer to work your way down your gears so practise if it’s not something you’re used to.

Expect the unexpected when driving in Greece

I often come across someone parked up on the road to take a call. Or sometimes it’s a tourist who has stopped to take a picture of the magnificent view. They don’t pull in, and they don’t seem to consider the consequences of stopping on a corner. Keep your wits about you and expect there to be some kind of hazard on every corner. (See also points below on livestock and cats.)

Pull over to let others pass

People in Greece will drive up your backside whether you’re driving like a tourist taking in the sites or driving at normal speed. Either way, pull in and let them pass. Don’t let your ego come into this. Keep yourself safe and let other people drive like idiots.

Be aware when passing others

I’ve noticed that Greek people can be a bit stubborn sometimes. If you’re behind someone going really, really slowly and you try to overtake, they may pull across and sit in the middle of the road. Again, keep your ego out and put your safety first. If someone else is being silly, let them, and keep a safe distance back. Chances are they’re not travelling far and will soon pull off down a side lane.

Sharp bends

In hilly/mountainous areas you’ll find roads with wide bends and sharp turnings off to a smaller road. Sometimes the roads are quite narrow at the bends and there isn’t space for two vehicles at once. Or one of you needs to go wide so you can both fit.

Concentrate on what you’re doing. Often there’s a sharp drop on one side so keep a lookout and don’t get too close to the edge. Switch off the AC and radio and listen as well as look. Sometimes you can hear something coming before you can see it, especially a fast motorbike or large lorry. When it’s really windy this isn’t so easy but it’s a tip that’s saved me more than once.

Big commercial vehicles do frequent even the island roads. There are a lot of quarries for things like marble and granite which are transported back and forth.

Use the mirror if there is one.

There are often mirrors on the road to help see round sharp turns and blind junctions. Use them if they’re there. If you see one it probably means that you need a bit of extra caution at that point too.

Stop signs on Greek roads

There are quite hefty fines for running stop signs in Greece. And sometimes they’re not at all easy to see (or where it would seem logical). I completely missed one in Tinos at the end of the harbour at what seems like a roundabout. I only saw it when someone made it very clear they had the right of way, not me! Again, focus on what you’re doing when you’re in a new area and take your time. You’ll probably get beeped at but that’s better than causing an accident.

Keep your eyes peeled for motorbikes

I mentioned this in the car hire post but motorbikes/mopeds/scooters are a bit of a law unto themselves. They just don’t follow the rules of the road at all. A high percentage of people don’t wear helmets. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone wearing leathers even on proper motorbikes that are going really fast. Greeks and tourists are killed every day in accidents with bikes so don’t become a statistic. Or cause one.

Assume there is always a bike nearby, probably about to cut you up on either side.

Expect livestock on the road when driving in Greece

Also assume there will be a goat at every turn! It’s not unusual for goats on the islands to be wandering around on the side of the road so look out for them. The sheep and goat herds are often shepherded along the road from one grazing site to another which you may well come across.

Donkeys and mules are still a form of transport in many places. In my experience, they don’t spook like a horse can but you still want to have some regard for their welfare.

Don’t rule out coming face to face with a bigger animal like a horse on the side of the road, either. Unfortunately, on the islands, some of the farmers use old-fashioned and inhumane methods. It’s unlikely a horse will run into you. But look out for them because if their legs are tied together they won’t be able to run away from your car either.

Beware of cats living by the road

Wheelie bins/dumpsters are found along the main roads as well as in towns. Wherever there is food rubbish there are usually cats. Assume they’re around whenever you see a bin. Where there is one cat there are usually more so look out for them darting out from somewhere. Cats tend to be particularly active at night so be extra careful when driving around in the evening.

Use of hazard lights

I didn’t initially think to include this point because this happens a lot in the UK now but I saw someone else find it unusual so decided to mention it.

Often when someone puts on their hazard lights as they’re driving, they aren’t actually warning you of a hazard in the road. Confusingly they’re using their hazard lights either in place of an indicator or to let you know they’re about to do a random manoeuvre.

I’m not sure why putting on your hazard lights is supposed to convey your intentions to turn left or right better than the particular indicator. It drives me nuts in the UK. Just tell me with one indicator, why make me guess?!

So usually, when someone does this, they’re pulling into the left or right side of the road. Alternatively, they’re going to make a u-turn or something without pulling in and to let other cars past first.

Just be aware, because while you might think the person in front of you is slowing down to stop for whatever the hazard is, they often pull out wide to do whatever it is they are going to do.

Zebra crossings tend to be ignored

There are zebra crossings in Greece but they’re not really used. In the UK, if a pedestrian steps onto the crossing you have to stop. That isn’t the case in Greece so the person behind you likely won’t expect you to stop.

(Be aware of this as a pedestrian too. If the driver coming one way has stopped for you don’t assume one coming the other will when you’re halfway across the road.)

Parking on Greek islands

Parking on Greek islands is pretty easy, you just stop where you like. And I’m only half joking. Technically there are rules (RAC lists them along with other legalities to do with driving). But in my experience, you just park up wherever and however you like. I would encourage you to have some common sense though. Consider where you’re most likely to have both wing mirrors still attached when you return.

Don’t take this as gospel because I haven’t been everywhere. But in my experience paid parking isn’t really a thing. The islands I’ve been to have all had plenty of free car parks with no time limits.

Well, driving in Greece. How do you feel about it now? Hopefully, this hasn’t put you off. While you do need to be aware while driving, the island roads can also be very quiet. (Hence why people just abruptly stop to take pictures.) I love driving through the island scenery and exploring places I’d have never seen without a car. So take a deep breath and enjoy the ride.

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