When we first came up with the idea of heading to Greece for a few weeks, we weren’t altogether exactly sure of where we should head to, and how we should go about heading there. We didn’t even know a lot about the country, aside from that I had a pal who lived in the Pelopponese (an area which I had never actually heard of but definitely wanted to visit), and that someone we worked with had three keys- to a boat, a car, and a house- somewhere in the region of Mykonos. Mykonos somehow magically changed overnight to ‘The three keys are in Lefkada, don’t go to Mykonos!’ Much like Jason’s Argonauts, the mythological Three Keys of Lefkada are still very much mythological, but we did saunter up to the area anyway just on the off chance that the quest for the three keys would be fruitful. Alas. But anyway. Here, for your reading pleasure, are the ins and outs of how we got from A to B, to C and back again.
ATHENS TO MONEMVASIA
We woke up in our AirBnB in central Athens on a Sunday morning and headed straight back on the train to the airport where our rental car awaited, pausing on route to make note of the congregation of a Greek Orthodox Church (there is something a bit fascinating about an ancient church in the middle of a city square), and also to try real life Greek coffee. I’d tried Turkish coffee before when I was in Serbia (is it really Turkish if it was in Serbia? Answers on a postcard please), so thought I might as well give it a go here as it’s apparently very similar: basically like a sort of very strong sludge- the bottom of the cup really is 75% sludge, so be sure to mentally prepare yourself for that if you ever try it yourself.
Well thank god we easily located our trusty rental car and managed to navigate our way out of the airport and onto the motorway. Luckily as an American, Rachel is used to driving on the right (ahem, wrong) side of the road, but still the whole idea of driving in Greece is something that would strike fear into the hearts of many a skilled driver, and she was off to a flying start! What a true champion of the road! And not that I wanna toot my own trumpet but as a non-driver, I feel I’ve really grown into the Chief Passenger Duties over the years, handling a map or GPS system at a slightly above-average standard and probably even more crucially performing the Designated DJ task with ease. (More on that later)
Those crafty Greeks have recently built a whole brand-spanking new and therefore very smooth motorway connecting Athens to the Peloponnese, which is a large peninsula separated from the rest of mainland Greece by the Corinth Canal, and the construction of this road has cut the driving time from the capital drastically. You can now reach this part of the country in just over an hour from the capital by driving solely on these toll roads (FYI, this does mean it’s one of the most expensive roads I’ve ever driven on, but that’s a small price to pay for a stress-free journey), although as we were driving right down to the South-Eastern tip of the region our journey took around four and a half hours in total.
Eventually the toll roads melted away and we were into true Hercules country, and that is why at around the three hour mark when we were surrounded by mountains, olive trees and crumbling ruins, it was time for the Disney songs to come out.
Who did put the ‘glad’ in ‘gladiator?’
Well, obviously it was Hercules my friend!
The sun was shining, we were truly out of the hubbub of the city, and driving through the odd isolated Greek Town was a strange but welcome experience, even if we did start to see the evidence of the crazy driving of the locals that we had been warned about. Good. Times. All. Around.
…the moment that we saw the rock of Monemvasia looming upwards out of the Aegean Sea, and realised that we would have to drive up a fairly narrow road in order to reach the entrance to the old town where we were staying. The long straight road that connects the island to the mainland is quite a bizarre experience in itself if you’re not used to driving along long straight roads that seem to float on water, but when the road begins to climb upwards around the side of the cliff face- and you’re driving on the ocean-side of the road with two-way traffic and a row of parked cars, and you need to find a parking space, and it feels very much like the edge of the road is a steep drop into the swirling abyss of the sea- well, things can all get slightly overwhelming, truth be told. But I’m happy to say that we lived to tell the tale, and were met at the gates to the castle by our next AirBnB host George- what a guy- who helped us drag our bags through the cobbled alleys all the way to our centuries-old little house.
MONEMVASIA TO STOUPA
Although it’s true that the tiny towns of Monemvasia and Stoupa are both part of the same region, and geographically look not so distant from each other, in actual fact the lack of new roads between these places mean that driving from one to the other is a crazy experience indeed. When Googlemaps tells you it should take roughly two and a half hours to complete the journey, it doesn’t factor in that the windiness and narrowness of the roads combined with the high altitude and lack of knowledge of the area will likely double that time.
Rachel again did a marvellous job of this time driving up the sides of mountains galore- really full on high mountains galore- with seriously steep drops to one side of us, and the occasional Greek driver (who clearly knew those roads like the back of their hand) speeding past and hurtling round corners in the style of an F1 driver desperate to win the race. It was MENTAL I tell you. Meanwhile, we took the more challenging roads at a more leisurely pace of approximately 20mph, a speed which I was frankly more than happy with as it helped me to appear more calm and casual for Rachel’s benefit whilst she gripped the wheel with such a tight hold that I’m surprised she still had circulation to her hands. My heart was beating at approximately 3000bpm but I was using all my best acting skills to pretend I was cool as a cucumber about the whole situation. (And back to the Designated DJ job which comes with being in the passenger seat, I’d put my iPhone on shuffle and forgotten that the music I use to teach ballet classes to five year olds was still on there in the mix. Somehow the iPhone always seemed to smooth out the most hair-raising of roads when it magically decided to play ‘Plié Excercise 4’ or a casual bit of Mozart just at the crucial moment. Turns out ballet music works wonders for calming your nerves! Who knew!?)
We traveled on a winding road with the most stunning views of the blue sea next to us, stopping to ogle at a rusting shipwreck on an isolated beach in the distance, then onwards up into the mountains, passing through tiny crumbling villages with old Greek ladies in their standard all-black sensible skirt and covered arms outfits selling olive oil from makeshift stands at the side of the road. It was a real eye-opener being in such a non-touristy part of the country, and felt at times a bit like we’d stepped back in time to roughly 1954 at least. Once we were through the mountains we stopped for coffee in a beach town which although was a lot busier than we’d seen for hours, it seemed like foreigners in general were not the norm around those parts.
Finally in the late afternoon we pulled up to the car park of a supermarket in Stoupa where we’d been instructed by our new AirBnB host (also named George, clearly it’s a popular name) to wait for him. I thought it was slightly odd that we had to meet George the second in a supermarket car park instead of at the actual house, but what we hadn’t realised is that houses there actually have no address, as the roads have no names. It makes post a right nightmare understandably, so good on George the second for leading us up the final mountain drive of the day.
STOUPA TO AGIOS NIKITAS, LEFKADA
The longest of all the road trips in the whole of our Grecian travels! This was an intense seven hour journey, plus extra time for breaks, and I’m pretty proud of us (mainly of Rachel for her stellar driving and general endurance skills) for getting through the whole shebang. We set off from our mountaintop AirBnB in Stoupa pretty early in the morning and headed along the coast and through more windy mountain roads towards the city of Kardamyli. Luckily just as we began to feel nervous about the meandering quality of the roads that cut their way through gigantic forested gorges and around the side of some extremely high rock faces, we caught up with an extremely slow old banger tottering along ahead of us. The Gods were smiling down on us, pals! No pressure to hurry, as in the end at least three more cars joined our little slowcoach convoy through the windy backcountry of the Pelopponese.
In Kardamyli we found a quick stop for coffee and the use of a bathroom just off the main road. The coffee stop was a dark shop where a group of old men were gathered drinking coffees of their own and generally hanging out in the way old men always seem to; regardless of what country you’re in, old men just seem to love hanging out for hours in little gangs, don’t they? Often, playing dominoes for some reason. I’m not a man but fingers crossed when I’m old I’ll appreciate that kind of activity too.
We continued Northwards through more forested areas into parts of Greece which felt truly ancient; signposts for various ruins seemed to pop up at every turning, and even the original Olympia is located in this part of the country. We considered stopping, but not knowing how stressful the rest of the journey would be made us plough on forwards, just in case there was a calamity waiting ahead. Turns out there was a calamity waiting up ahead, but this calamity was in actual fact that we were in desperate need of another bathroom break after several hours without stopping, and there didn’t seem to be anything around. Extremely AWKWARD TIMES.
We made it to the city of Pyrgos, and still couldn’t seem to locate anywhere that had anything resembling a bathroom- we even got turned away from one place- but eventually found a garage to pull into with a bakery right next to it, just a quick walk across the forecourt away! Praise be to the lord almighty. What a relief all round. We’d learned a few basic words from my pal Erin back in Stoupa, so attempted a few of these on the man behind the bakery counter who tried a few English words in mutual exchange- what a nice guy! Double nice because he had a bathroom. Satisfied with our newly purchased baked goods and coffee, we headed back out across the garage forecourt where a few stray chickens were pecking intensely in one corner, and continued Northwards.
The roads began to straighten out and the land around us on either side became flat and full of farms growing vegetables instead of mountaintop groves of olives…the odd town that we passed through had a far more industrial look and a lot of the traffic traveling on the same road as us was made up of giant trucks and lorries carrying things across the countryside. We realised that we were there just as pumpkin season had hit, which meant that through one area in particular (the area where they had all the pumpkins growing, obv), there were roadside stalls selling pumpkins in their hundreds and decorated with colourfully painted pumpkins hanging out all over the place. Obviously it was about time we stopped to take a closer look, not that we had any actual need to purchase a pumpkin. Maybe it’s a bit awkward to just have a close-up pumpkin inspection plus some photos…but what could we have done with a pumpkin, pals? Not only were there pumpkins at the side of the road, but all over Greece there are tiny shrines dotted about, shaped like miniature houses or churches and holding candles and flowers…at first I thought they must be there for remembrance of people who’d died there, but the sheer number of shrines would mean a truly MASSIVE number of road accidents. Even high up in the mountains where people barely pass by, you can be sure to come across a shrine or two. After some swift googling it turns out that although sometimes they are there to remember people, they can also be there to celebrate someone who has overcome a big struggle. Which I quite appreciate, actually! It’s good to be grateful and positive, you know?
The hours ticked on and as we were nearing the Rio-Antirrio bridge, which crosses the Corinth Canal and connects the Pelopponese to mainland Greece, it was both comforting and concerning to see lights on the signs overheard spelling out- ‘THANKYOU! 21/9 NOT EVEN ONE ROAD DEATH!’ I mean, yes it’s good to be grateful, but guys- it was barely even 2 o’clock in the afternoon and the use of the date plus the word ‘EVEN’ in that sentence made me wonder if daily road deaths actually are to be expected around these parts!!?? That sign cracked me up, I’ll tell you that for free. Back to the bridge itself, it’s expensive but impressive to cross- the toll is around €13 for one car to cross the almost 2 mile distance- and is the world’s third longest cable suspension bridge. Good on you, bridge engineers, as prior to its construction in 2004 the only way you could get from this part of the Pelopponese to mainland Greece was via ferry. Ain’t nobody got time for that.
After the crossing I wrongly presumed we were really crazily close to the island of Lefkada on the NorthWest coast. Oh, how wrong I was my friends. Oh how very wrong I was. Not only was I wrong but also as the brand spanking roads we were travelling on were so very brand spanking new, it also meant that every garage or service station we passed were empty shells of buildings not yet open. We began to get EXTREMELY hungry, and just when it appeared we were at breaking point, it also appeared that my map-reading skills weren’t so great after all and I’d missed a turning, adding on an extra twenty minutes till we could loop off of the toll road and into the almost deserted town of Amfilochia.
Amfilochia really was strange. By late September when we were there it was nearing the end of the season so a lot of places in the town had closed up already, although along the waterfront a few restaurant owners soldiered on in the blustery sunshine, standing outside the front of their building to beckon passers-by in. Unfortunately for the two of about five restaurants, for the hour or two that we were sat next to the sea eating our fish and spinach and bread, I didn’t witness one passer-by whatsoever. I wouldn’t be surprised if Rachel and me were the only visitors to the town that entire day, and the only other living creature that passed us was a wounded stray dog. It was a sad, sad moment. After having to concede that there wasn’t anything we could do to help the limping dog, it was time for the last push on into the late afternoon to our destination.
The final part of the journey was back onto some windier and older roads, but the land wasn’t at quite the same altitude as before and Rachel had become a professional mountain driver by this point anyway, so all was good in the hood. We passed a fortress and crossed the long road connecting the mainland to the island of Lefkada, then wound around one side of the island where we were greeted with such a full on astonishing view of the sparkling blue sea that it instantly made the whole journey 100% worth it. What a time to be alive! Don’t get me wrong, there was one more slight hurdle to overcome when Googlemaps directed us up a mountain via an extremely steep and narrow dirt track, but we figured out pretty sharpish and turned around on the double. And I’m really, really pleased to report that WE MADE IT!
So I’ll get straight to it here: driving in Greece can be downright terrifying, but let me tell you something, our Big Fat Greek Roadtrip was an all round success story and after all, it’s as much about the journey as the destination, you know what I’m saying?