CRETE ISLAND - DRIVING IN CRETE
Driving in Crete might seem a daunting prospect at first. However, provided you take appropriate care your trips will be safe and result in enormous pleasure.The Roads in Crete
There is really only one main highway in Crete and this is the E45 which runs along its width from Agios Nikolaos to Kastelli (Kissamos) via Heraklion, Rethymnon and Chania. Commonly known as the New National Road, it is not a true highway that you might be used to in the US. In places it has multiple lanes, hard shoulders and a central barrier, but not along its entire length. Often it will appear like a regular road with one lane, no central barrier and regular junctions and crossroads. Generally this is a good road and is rarely busy. Many other roads in Crete are good too, such as the main roads that branch off to the towns and villages on the southern coast. The Old National Highway runs parallel with the E45 and is a good road that follows the coast and in places is very picturesque.
Away from the north coast the situation changes radically and the roads become narrow and can have blind bends. If you want to reach the most remote areas, then you may find some of your trip may include roads with long gravel stretches. This is also common in the mountainous areas, where new dirt roads are being created all the time and where road warning and direction signs may not be present. It is important not to attempt a mountain crossing if you do not have detailed and recent instructions from the locals. Some mountain roads are only suitable for 4WD vehicles.
Narrow winding roads can often mean that journey times are rather longer than might be expected from distances calculated from a map. For example, the distance from Paleochora to Sougia is about 19 miles but it takes almost 45 minutes to get there because of the very narrow road and the way it winds its way up and down the mountains.
Driving in Crete in towns can be different. In towns and villages roads will often have no pavements, so expect pedestrians to vie for space. You'll need to watch out for some hazards you might not expect to see in less rural communities, and this might mean going much slower than the speed limit allowed. Shepherds will use the road to move their flocks of sheep and/or goats of course, and you will expect to find many slow and odd looking tractors, carts and some donkeys on your travels when driving in Crete.
The quality of asphalt road surfaces is not always good as road surfaces are affected by a number of factors including floods and rock falls in winter and extreme heat in summer. Pot holes and loose gravel surfaces are very common as a result. This makes some roads particularly hazardous for motorcyclists.
Goats are everywhere in Crete and they like to feed next to the road. It is not uncommon to see a few of them walking in the road, even around a main highway.
If you visit Crete in the winter, then pay extra attention if you drive on a very rainy day as rocks may have been dislodged and fallen onto the roads. A small pile of stones at the side of the road often indicates that the surface under the asphalt has been eroded at that point and should not be driven over.
As you drive around Crete you will hopefully quickly get a feel for the roads and will soon get an idea of what forms the 'unexpected' can take. You will soon decide that you will need to have traveled a road fairly recently before you can start to open up a little. As well as tourists, you will from time to time find a farmer etc who may not be expecting much other traffic, or who can`t find the indicator or light switches readily. No problem though if you are thinking ahead. Part of the beauty of Crete is that the pace of life is generally far more relaxed than in many other places and to some extent, that pace is applied by some to the roads at times.
The unpredictable conditions of the road surface (pot holes, rock fall debris, etc) need extra attention. Though there is some fine motorcycling to be had in Crete, you may well find you have to change your style of riding to stay safe. If you do not always expect the unexpected, you will soon have a wakeup call.
Road signs and markings are generally poor in Crete, and sometimes downright confusing. It's not uncommon for some signs to be completely obscured by vegetation, advertising stickers and graffiti! Nearly all direction signs are bilingual, showing the place names in Greek and English. They often look nothing like each other, but in all cases (almost) the English equivalent is actually a true phonetic representation of the Greek version. An example is Chania (¦¶a¦Í¦É¨¢) - which is one of the more difficult translations, and is pronounced Han-YA!
Cretans are generally good at ignoring road signs and speed restrictions. The double solid white line in the center of the road prohibiting overtaking is frequently ignored, so don`t rely on it as an indication that nothing will be heading at you on your side of the road when approaching hills and bends. Some road signs are small and you will see them only if you drive slowly and look carefully. Example: the first exit to Rethymnon when you drive from Heraklion. Do not expect big signs hanging above the road as in European highways.
The Crete driving speed limit is indicated by road signs, but be careful when driving in Crete because signs are often obscured by vegetation - and not seeing them is no defense.
50km/h (30mph) is the maximum in cities and built up areas
80km/h (50mph) outside cities, and
90km/h (60mph) on the National Road (although 100km/h and less than 90km/h on certain sections)
There are spots along the north highway where the road is good, straight and with very good visibility ahead but suddenly a road sign indicates a low speed limit. These are the favorite spots of the police for a traffic check.
Alcohol tests are frequent and strict and the limit is 0.50 mg. Do not expect to be let off a traffic offence just because you are a tourist. You have to pay fines at the tax office in the area where the ticket is issued, so if people are on a days excursion they must make paying part of the day's activity or, if they return to their base on another part of the island, it will require another trip to the area specially to pay. Drive extra carefully on Saturday nights! The reality is that too many people will be out, drinking more than they should when driving, and will drive dangerously as a result.Gas
Many gas stations close at 7pm but stations on the highway close much later usually. In every city there will be at least one gas station which will be open during the night. Ask the locals for information. Some stations accept credit cards. Lead-free is everywhere. Regular unleaded petrol has an octane rating of 91 or 92; the octane rating of super is 96 or 98. Unleaded super petrol has an octane rating of 95. A gas station`s staff will fill your vehicle, there is no self-service in Crete . There are no gas stations where you can buy petrol with your credit card automatically after closing times.Traffic Police
When driving in Crete along the New National Road (and other main roads) you may sometimes see police flagging motorists down. These are the drivers who have been caught speeding by Radar. The equipment at their disposal is quite sophisticated and often discharged from a concealed police car further up the highway. For minor speeding offences you can expect a small fine paid at the post office. Going well over the speed limit may result in a court appearance! It's true to say that you don't often see the police in Crete. Certainly they are not as evident as they are in the US. This has a lot to do with the fact that there is such a low crime rate in Crete. There is a consequence. Many Cretans will try to get away with some things on the road, so be prepared for drivers going through red lights (especially when the road is quiet). Also, the wearing of safety helmets appears optional - it's not, but sometimes the police don't seem to bother!Parking
There's normally no problems with parking in Crete until you get into the Big Four Towns (Chania, Rethymno, Heraklion and Agios Nikolaos), the smaller towns, and bigger villages. Parking is permitted along most city streets, but vacant places may be difficult to find. In some areas you have to buy and use a Parking Card, which can be bought at a nearby kiosk (periptero).
It's best to try and park just outside the center, especially of Chania and Heraklion. The Marina car park in Agios Nikolaos is a good option (except when getting there late in the day in high season). Parking on the sea front at Rethymno (just follow the signs), or the huge car park area at the marina are also good options. The Greeks tend to double (and triple!) park. The police or traffic warden will come along and blow a whistle, giving the owner a chance to move it. If no one shows, they will write a ticket.
While you drive in a town, pay particular attention to mopeds. Moped riders tend to overtake on the right instead of the left as they should. Even if you leave enough space for them to pass from the left, they are so addicted to passing from the right, that they will do anything to achieve their preferred mode of overtaking! While you drive in a town, be aware of pedestrians walking in the street. Often the sidewalks are narrow or non-existent and people cannot avoid walking in the street.Pedestrians
Pedestrians can be more dangerous than cars to the cyclist. They don't feel threatened by bicycles and tend to step off the sidewalk into the street suddenly and stand right in front of you. If there is no sidewalk you will have to walk in the street. Be very careful when you do so.
If you need to cross the road be very careful especially in areas with a lot of traffic like Amoudara in Heraklion or Platanias and Agia Marina in Chania. Don't bother to walk far down a street looking for official crossing points, there usually aren't any. In the few places that pedestrians' crossings do exists, do not expect many drivers to take notice of them and allow you precedence.
There are no emergency telephone devices along the highway in Crete. In case of an emergency you should use your cell phone.
The number 112 is the same emergency number as found in other European countries and it is a toll-free 24 hour line. Callers to 112 will be able to receive information in English, French and Greek regarding ambulance services, fire brigade, police and the coast guard. Operators will stay on the line in case the tourist requires translation assistance.
Emergency roadside help and information may be reached by dialing 104 for vehicle assistance and towing services, 100 for police, 166 for an ambulance, and 199 for the fire brigade. Another reliable road assistance company is Express Service, dial 154.
Although U.S. driver's licenses have been known to work in the past, save yourself the worry by obtaining an International Driver's License before you leave the states. There is no specific penalty for not carrying one, but an international driver's license can help you avoid any miscommunication at rental agencies or if you get into a sticky situation on the road.
Driving in Greece is on the right, the same as in the United States and most of Europe. Vehicles coming from the right have the right of way unless otherwise posted. This means that cars entering a traffic circle go first; drivers already in the circle must yield.
If there is little room to pass on the road, fast drivers expect slow drivers to pull onto the hard shoulder in order to let them by. Be aware though that the hard shoulders can end suddenly and that they may also be obstructed by rock falls. (Hard shoulder is the emergency lane, which in Crete is very narrow).
If you notice in your mirror an approaching car flashing its lights at you, the driver is usually asking you to move to your right to allow him to overtake.
A few Greek drivers forget to use their indicators to signal an intention to make a turn. Try and develop a sixth sense to predict what they may be about to do in the absence of an indication. Expect the unexpected!
Do not place absolute trust the white lines marking the lanes in the highway. Occasionally, a lane may end suddenly and without warning. It is commonplace to see drivers crossing double white lines.
Maps are not reliable when it comes to remote areas. If you doubt which direction to go, then look for a local and ask for instructions. People of Crete are helpful and they will do their best to assist you.
It is common to see young tourists on motorbikes or mopeds dressed in shorts and tees or even their swimsuits without a helmet on. Add a few beers to this and you get a lethal combination.
Bicycles are rare in Crete. The reasons are the warm climate and the mountainous landscape with the steep inclines and descents. Drivers are not used to finding their roads used by bicycles.
A common sight in Crete is the small metal or stone constructions at the sides of the roads, often in the form of a miniature church. These are memorials for people killed in a car accident and they are located at the exact spot where the accident occurred. They are constructed by the family of the deceased and inside there is usually a photo together with some religious objects. The families visit them often, clean and maintain them and light the candles. They exist in all different kinds of shapes and materials used. They can range from small glass cabinets on metal legs to elaborate brick built altars. Cretans erect shrines to saints too. Inside you will often see candles, pictures of saints, icons and often some personal items belonging to the person to whom the shrine is dedicated.Greek Personality
An important factor in the Greek personality is their 'it-will-never-happen-to-me' mentality, probably due to the fact they put a great deal of their faith and safety in the hands of God. Don't be surprised if you see a family of four on a scooter, complete with dog in the front basket! In place of fluffy dice, most cars will have worry beads dangling from the rear view mirror, and many cars (including taxis) will be adorned with pictures of saints and other icons. So, with this fail-safe back-up, why bother with a seat belt? You'll also often see children frolicking in the car without being strapped down too. Unfortunately, we can't all rely on such Divine attention, and so it's a good idea to take extra care and maintain maximum vigilance when driving in Crete - always expecting other drivers to behave badly.
Use of the horn is commonplace on the roads in Crete, but don't take it personally. Driving in Crete and Greece in general the use of the horn is used as it should be used - as a warning signal of their approach.
It is true that the shortest measurement of time in Greece is the period between the traffic lights turning green and when the first car is expected to move off. Failure to move away quickly often results in a blast of horns. But don't jump to the wrong conclusion about this either. This is another big myth perpetuated by many ex-pats and foreigners driving in Greece and Crete. Although this might happen, a close look at the Cretan road junction will explain another reason for this apparent 'impatience'. Unlike in the US, the traffic lights at junctions on the roads in Crete are set close to the waiting car or high above on a gantry. Usually, there are no traffic lights on the opposite side of the road on the roads in Crete. Quite often therefore, the first car can find it hard to see the light change because they are too close or slightly behind. Hence, the habit of drivers in the queue telling the first car that the lights have changed to green with a toot on the horn.
When driving in Crete another convention at traffic signals is important to be aware of. You will sometimes see flashing amber lights, particularly flashing amber arrows. If you are turning in the direction of the arrows, you must expect pedestrians to be crossing (because they will have a green light to cross), and give way to any already crossing the road. In short, flashing amber means: yes, you can go, but you don`t have priority or right of way.
Although friendly and welcoming, Greeks are generally a volatile and excitable race. They are quick to raise their voice and seemingly unafraid to express their emotions and this reflects in their driving. Couple this with roads that are often of a poorer quality than most serving the same volume of traffic, and you produce accidents - and one of the worse traffic accident records in the Europe in fact.
Despite popular belief, and what you might hear from many foreigners living in Greece, the Cretans are courteous drivers. Bad manners are often misinterpreted out of cultural and other misunderstandings. For example, in the US it is a rule that pedestrians have priority when crossing at a designated zebra or pelican crossing. This is not the case in Crete. So don't expect drivers to stop if you are waiting to cross at what looks like a zebra crossing. They aren't being rude, just following the conventions they and other drivers are used to.
There is an important driving convention in Crete that really demonstrates the inherent courtesy of the Cretan driver. On the New National Road, the single lane sections are a bit too narrow along the majority of its length to enable overtaking without crossing over to the opposite side of the road. It is the habit of almost all drivers to move over onto the 'hard shoulder' to facilitate passing in these circumstances. This is perfectly acceptable, and you will often see slow moving vehicles using the hard shoulder as a matter of course.
Because of the nature of many roads in Crete, it won't always be possible for vehicles meeting each other from opposite directions to pass safely. This means that one will have to stop and let the other through. The convention here is the same as the US. The vehicle on whose side the obstruction is (if there is one) gives way. If you do give way, don't be surprised or upset if you don't get a thank you or a smile. Greeks don't do that, just as they won't expect or need a thank you from you if they let you pass. Don't interpret this as rudeness; it's just why should I expand the energy thanking you for something you should do in the first place! You can generally put this economy of action and attitude down to the heat! But also a raised open palm often used in the US as a 'thank you' to drivers is a rude gesture in Greece.