Last month I drove on European roads for the first time since I was nine years old.
Let me explain. Growing up in one of the minority of countries to drive on the left, you become accustomed to certain traffic patterns and it may not be easy to mentally flip over when you arrive in a country where everyone drives on the right.
I first learnt this when my parents took me to Legoland in Denmark (this was before it branched out). One of the activities was a driving school in which kids could drive around in oversized, electric Lego cars. Each car had a number, and each kid could get a Lego flag of their home country. This allowed staff in a control tower to advise or admonish specific kids in their own language.
I was in car number 25. For the immeasurably long epoch that the session lasted, the recurring announcement over the PA system was ‘Drive on the right, number twenty-five’; ‘Other side of the road, number twenty-five’; ‘Turn back, number twenty-five’; and so on. This constant reminder that I was fucking up non-stop was, as you might imagine, something of a blow to my equanimity. Just to pile on the pressure a bit more, my father filmed the whole thing.
The worst moment came when I proudly turned a sharp corner, only to rear-end some blond Scandinavian kid at the back of a queue at a junction (this one, to be precise; Oh God Why). The car I crashed into, shunted forward into the next one, starting a small domino effect, propelling a Norwegian boy into the middle of the junction, where he was struck by two other cars going in opposite directions. After some worried gasps, a pall fell over the crowd of watching parents, broken moments later by the first cries of pain and anguish from their offspring.
There was a pause as the staff in the control tower surveyed the havoc. “Use your brakes, number twenty-five,” said the voice over the PA system. It echoed in my head for decades.
All kids who go on the Legoland driving school activity get a Legoland Driving Licence afterwards. I think they were a bit hesitant about giving me mine. It wasn’t exactly a treasured memento. It was simply a reminder that at the tender age of nine, I caused a major Nordic RTA and possessing it made me feel like a phoney. It was twenty-five years before I actually took and passed a real driving test (the delay was not entirely because of my Legoland flashbacks; honest!).
In April 2015, my girlfriend and I went on holiday to Crete and Santorini. It was too early for the high tourist season, and some places we wanted to go to were either shut, or not serviced by buses yet. I figured the roads would be quiet enough for me to drive on them. We just had to plan our routes carefully, and I checked the roads on Google Street View to see what I’d be dealing with (it was very handy for seeing turnings which weren’t signposted). I also checked up on Greek rules of the road as well as particular driving customs. These came in very useful…
There would be two trips. The first was from Sitia to Vai beach, along fairly quiet roads winding up and down over the hills. Michael Anagnostakis, who runs the local car hire firm, thoughtfully parked the car near the bus station on the road out of town, so I wouldn’t have to negotiate my way through the town centre or the roundabout (I told him before we arrived what our plans were).
The car’s first three gears were well-used; after getting used to the relatively low speed limit, and driving around some of the sharp, steep bends on the way to the beach I could see why. I actually found driving on the right, in a car with the steering on the left, quite easy to get used to. Certainly, I found it easier changing gear with my right hand rather than my left. It also helped that the roads were virtually empty – it gave me a feeling of ‘freedom of the road’ which I’ve only heard about but never experienced in the UK. It was the most relaxing drive I’ve ever had.
As per Cretan custom, I drove on the hard shoulder to let faster cars pass. This isn’t always feasible, because the hard shoulder may also contain abandoned cars, parked cars, vegetation, fallen branches, rockfalls, wild goats and 100-metre drops. Otherwise, it was like driving in Wales or Cornwall, but in a Mediterranean climate. I stopped for fuel on the way back – you just have to roll up, and the service station attendant will fill up for you (you just have to say how much you want to spend).
The second car trip wasn’t planned, but after the good experience in Sitia, we decided to drive from Chania to Agia Irini Gorge, walk down and back up the gorge, drive to Sougia on the southern coast and then back to Chania. After a quick look around, we settled on a family-run car hire firm close to our hotel. The proprietor was a Greek-American woman (called Emily, if I recall correctly) with encyclopaedic knowledge of the island’s roads. She told me the journey would be like nothing I’d encountered before. Her (son? nephew?) Dmitri advised me to get 20 Euros of fuel. We paid for 24 hours’ hire, starting the evening before – this meant we could leave early. We were also given directions to a car park they used south of the bus station where we could return it, so we wouldn’t have to deal with finding a space on the busy streets the following afternoon. The car was parked next to the hotel.
We left at 7am before the city really woke up, allowing me to get through the streets and negotiate the junctions while the traffic was still extremely light. In Crete (and Santorini), cars, mopeds, and pedestrians don’t follow rules of the road so much as join an experiment in ‘shared space’ and watch out for what the others are doing. Old ladies will totter off the kerb and amble in front of oncoming buses. Mopeds will dart through any gap in the traffic they see. It seems like the only rule adhered to is, “if there’s something in front of you, stop moving.” It’s all very relaxed – a bit like ‘The Dude’ from The Big Lebowski (which might explain why there are so many vehicles that resemble The Dude’s car, with major bits missing; but if they are still capable of motion, that’s all that matters).
The fuel gauge was on four bars. After tanking up as Dmitri advised, it was up to eight. Once we were out in the countryside, the traffic pretty much vanished. We had lemon and orange orchards, Greek countryside in dawn light, and snow-topped mountains in the distance, all to ourselves. Roads widened to two lanes plus hard shoulders in the open, but narrowed to a single lane in small villages.
Then the hard work began. The road twisted and turned sharply up mountain contours. You know when kids pretend to drive they mime turning the wheel wildly one way, then the other? Well, it was like that, but for real. I barely got out of second gear it was so steep. The route was enlivened by the same obstacles I encountered on the way to Vai, but with added hazards like landslides, roadworks, potholes from previous rockfalls, wild goats, dead goats, a herd of sheep, a small waterfall, roadsigns pockmarked by shotgun blasts, and the ever-present shrines to fatal RTA victims (which, for an ungodly chap like me, were a suitable reminder of the mortal dangers on the road). The shrines were often placed near hairpin bends with missing crash barriers and drops of several hundred metres. (There’s a place outside Heraklion that makes the shrines – obviously catering to a market that will never go away, even if they are profiting from death…)
It’s just as well I checked the narrow driveway down to the gorge car park on Google Street View, or I’d’ve missed it. We were the only ones there when we arrived, and only six more had joined us in the few hours it took to walk down and back. I’m glad we didn’t encounter anyone coming down when we left; reversing would’ve been a real sod. The sat-nav insisted on taking us on short-cuts down and up valleys on the way to Sougia; I ignored it in favour of the wider, safer highway.
At Sougia, the family car I parked next to was in a bad way. Paint scraped to hell, missing wing mirrors, bags covering the windows, wheels bashed and tyres flat. Then I realised: it had rolled down a hillside. I tried not to think of the shrieking terror that would’ve ended that particular journey; it was a sobering thought that I was only halfway done with the day’s drive; we still had to get back to Chania.
Being a computer game geek, I’m used to difficulty ramping up as you make your way through each game. So the drive to Vai Beach was like the training mission and early levels to establish the rules and get you used to the controls. Driving to Agia Irini and Sougia added more hazards and demanded more intense concentration. The journey back threw everything at me, plus the end-of-game Boss Fight.
It was all right to start with; I drove slowly so my girlfriend could take photos of the views I was missing out on (I demanded it; I wanted to see what she was seeing!). Then the weird shit cropped up: a drunken man sitting on a moped and walking it along the mountain road like a kid’s wooden push bike; an old man driving a mule and cart (I slowed down and quietly crept past; he raised his crop in acknowledgement and made me wonder if other drivers don’t care about scaring his animal); a pick-up truck with two kids jumping up and down unrestrained in the back (the driver was very understandably careful… as was I). There’s something refreshingly carefree about Cretans. They’re not as pissy-knickered and risk-averse as we are in the UK, and I kinda admire that.
Then there was Cretan White Van Man. On the sharp bends of the mountain roads, it’s impossible to see someone coming up behind you until they’re right behind you. White Van Man closed in like Darth Vader going in for the kill. There was no hard shoulder. White Van Man was clearly impatient, and I’d already decided that getting back to Chania safe and sound was more important than getting back quickly.
Finally, on one bend, the road widened with a hard shoulder near the cliff face. I pulled over to the right to let him get past… and he didn’t. Not until the hard shoulder ran out, anyway, and this was where the bend was at its sharpest. He would’ve run me into the cliff if I didn’t brake and steer quite urgently.
But I made it back to Chania in one piece. Dmitri was amazed that the fuel gauge was still at seven bars. I explained that I was in low gear and there wasn’t really any chance to accelerate (not that I’d want to, going downhill). Dmitri reckoned it must be some sort of new and improved engine, or fuel management system (he has his explanation; I have mine!). In any case, I had survived a couple of drives on Greek roads – and not everyone survives, although things are improving.
Whatever hang-ups I might’ve had about driving on European roads, they’re gone now. (Mind you, perhaps things were easier in a more carefree environment?) And the end of my holiday driving meant I could drink alcohol again. Never was a glass of Mythos so welcome!