I spent a week driving around Greek islands – and survived! What it’s like behind the wheel tackling some of the world’s narrowest and twistiest roads (amid some VERY impatient drivers)
- Ted Thornhill spent a week driving around Kefalonia and the tiny island of Ithaca
- His car? A Toyota Aygo. The roads? Extremely narrow and twisty in places
- ‘Road signs and markings seem to be a luxury extra in Greece,’ writes Ted
- READ MORE: Inside a holiday to Greece by Jet2 to see if it lives up to the hype
Google ‘driving in Greece’ and the search results are alarming for holidaymakers in waiting.
Road rage is in the DNA of Greek drivers, says the Internet. No one in Greece has passed their test – they all bribed the examiner, we’re warned.
And red lights? They’re not really red, more ‘dark green’ for the Greek road user.
And as for driving on the islands, it’s practically anarchy – apparently – with few road signs and perilously narrow and twisty cliffside routes featuring heartstopping drops to the sea – with no safety barriers.
It’s enough to put anyone off hiring a car in Greece.
But I’m here to tell you – don’t be.
Ted Thornhill spent a week driving around Kefalonia (above) and the tiny island of Ithaca
Ted says of Kefalonia: ‘It’s an extremely mountainous island, dominated by the imperious Mount Ainos [above] to the south of the island, which has a summit 1,628m (5,341ft) above sea level’
In July, I spent a week driving around two Greek islands – Kefalonia and Ithaca – and not only did I survive, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Even when the roads lived up to their perilously narrow and twisty billing.
Said roads on these two islands are among some of the most spectacular in the world and well worth the occasional heartstopping moment.
I travelled to Kefalonia on a Jet2holidays package with my partner and young daughter, diverting across to neighbouring Ithaca via a car ferry for a few days before returning to Kefalonia for a final night and the flight home.
We made our forays around the thoroughfares on these Ionian gems in a Thrifty hire car booked through Jet2 that we picked up at the airport, the keys handed over at the desk by a wonderfully cheerful lady.
And it was a scam-free process, incidentally.
The roads in Kefalonia (above) are often sinuous – and usually breathtaking
Kefalonia is a gem of an island located in the Ionian Sea
Car-hire firms are notorious for pushing their insurance policies. I had my own insurance though, and braced for a hard sell on buying Thrifty’s – but it never came. My disclosure about already being covered was met with an exclamation of ‘oh, perfect!’
Our car was a Toyota Aygo, which had a piddly sewing-machine engine. And I quickly discovered that it offered no pull at all in second gear up any sort of incline.
And on Kefalonia – there are a lot of inclines.
It’s an extremely mountainous island, dominated by the imperious Mount Ainos to the south of the island, which has a summit 1,628m (5,341ft) above sea level.
We were staying on the west coast at the Electra Kefalonia Hotel & Spa, with vehicular incursions that included journeying over to the town of Sami on the east coast and to the pretty village of Assos on the north-west coast.
How would I sum up the drives? Breathtaking. And full of surprises.
Ted’s vehicular incursions in Kefalonia included journeying to the pretty village of Assos on the north-west coast (above)
The roads on Kefalonia can go at the drop of a hat from being dual-carriageway-wide to so narrow you have to squeeze past oncoming traffic at walking pace.
And inclines of 20 to 25 per cent on Kefalonia can rear up with no warning whatsoever.
The Greeks seem to view road signage as a luxury optional extra, along with road markings.
There was one irregular four-way junction near our hotel that had no road markings at all – and negotiating it involved saying a little prayer each time.
The first time we drove to Sami we took a detour along a scenic back road that appeared on the map as a seemingly random squiggle.
The views were amazing. For the passengers. My eyes were glued to the road, which was… challenging. Full of switchbacks and manic ups and downs.
At one point, we met a car coming the other way on a very steep single-track section.
The driver of the other car surely had seen me coming when he was some distance away and could easily have pulled over on a reasonably wide section of road.
But no, this was Greece, where the sensible option is often swapped for the silly one.
The driver came barrelling down the road until we met on a single-track section so steep that when he came to a halt inches from my bonnet and I yanked the handbrake on – we still rolled backwards.
Ted stayed on the west coast of Kefalonia at the Electra Kefalonia Hotel & Spa (above)
Once I’d halted our descent, and with my daughter belting out songs from Matilda the Musical in the back, I took stock.
At first, the driver in front of me indicated that I should reverse… before changing his mind and realising he could inch past on the verge.
Praise be. But that still left me with a brutal hill start.
We eventually hit the main road to Sami, which was glorious – wide and enjoyably sinuous (with plenty of crash barriers on the steep bits).
What’s more, for much of the time we had the road to ourselves, slowing only occasionally for wandering goats.
The drive to Assos was similarly eye-catching, with a dramatic descent from the lofty mountainside main road to the coastal village involving multiple hairpin turns.
All good practice for neighbouring Ithaca, where even the main roads feel like the back of beyond.
My family and I, and the Aygos, arrived on the island via an Ionion Pelagos ferry from Sami, a sailing that lasted just 30 minutes or so.
Then the fun began.
Ted and his family arrived on Ithaca via an Ionion Pelagos ferry from Sami in Kefalonia. Ted took the image above as he waited to board the ferry in Sami
The view of Sami from the ferry as it chugs its way over to Ithaca
Picturesque: Above is the main town in Ithaca – Vathy
Above is the village of Kioni on Ithaca, which Ted describes as ‘impossibly cute’
Bijou Frikes, above, formed part of Ted’s Ithaca itinerary
Ithaca is a rugged little number and our explorations involved inching the Aygo through impossibly dinky villages, around full-lock hairpin turns and along cinematic hillside roads from our base of operations – the boutique-y Perantzada Hotel 1811 in the main town, Vathy.
With superyachts anchored in the bays and cicadas in full song landside, we ventured to the impossibly cute coastal villages of Frikes and Kioni and to stunning Filiatro beach, reached from Vathy along a road festooned with mirrors to allow drivers to see what’s coming around the corners.
Want a sneak preview of what’s in store via Google Street View? Not an option. The Google car has yet to board the ferry to Ithaca.
At first, I’d cursed the Aygo and its lack of torque, and came close to taking it back to Mrs Cheerful at Thrifty for an upgrade, but after a few days of sneaking into crowded beach car parks and past oncoming traffic on those slender, serpentined village roads, I had a change of heart. The bigger the better? When it comes to cars on a Greek island, definitely not.
Ted’s Ithaca base of operations – the boutique-y Perantzada Hotel 1811 in the main town, Vathy
Perantzada Hotel 1811 has an infinity pool (above) with views over Vathy harbour
The ferry port in Ithaca. The sailing there from Sami takes around 30 minutes
Ted’s dinky Toyota Aygo (above, in Ithaca), which he became fond of after discovering its ability to sneak into tight spaces
The Toyota Aygo is pictured on the left, squeezed into the Ithaca-Kefalonia ferry
Greek salad days of summer: Ithaca (above), says Ted, ‘is a rugged little number’
And what about that famous Greek road rage?
I didn’t witness any, but did see lots of impatient drivers.
For instance, I was beeped from behind by a car that couldn’t get past me on one occasion – because I was driving slowly in the middle of the road through a small village, simply being mindful of groups of pedestrians walking along both roadsides.
Worried about driving on a Greek island? Just drive carefully, keep your eyes on the road and not the views to the side, and your ego in check – and you’ll be just fine.
In fact, it’s likely you’ll have the drive of your life.
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