Keep your eyes on the road

Driving on mountain roads in Greece
Negotiating the mountain roads of Μάνη,

I’ve never been much of a car fanatic. As a teenager I was more into motor- bikes . I passed my test long before I could drive a car. When I was 17 my main ambition was to become a despatch rider and I used to subscribe to the maxim that George Orwell once said on Top Gear, “Four wheels bad, two wheels good.” I did once own a car about 20 years ago, a battered old Hillman Avenger, handed down from my kindly Uncle Kenny.

But car ownership is not an option around these parts. There’s no tube, bus network, overground, rail, river taxi, Zipcar, Boris bikes or any of the convenient modus transporti I’ve gotten used to in the last 20 years. There is however a local bus service. But this only runs three times a day, not really that convenient if you want to nip out for a packet of Pringles. So the only option you have is to drive. You do see a few scooters pootling around but pretty much everyone has a car. But far from being mundane, getting behind the wheel in Mani becomes a life affirming experience for two main reasons.

First you have the terrain to deal with. Until the 1960’s the region was more or less inaccessible, unless you were a donkey, or owned a tank. The road between Kalamata and the mid-Peloponnese now slices into mountain after mountain, a single carriage-way snaking awkwardly but efficiently through the region. Hairpin bends, 100 metre precipices and steep gradients are the norm on this highway. Cruise control is definitely not the order of the day. Gear changing becomes elevated to an art form and overtaking, (more of a necessity than an option when you have tractors, trucks and tourist buses causing frequent queues)  can easily turn into one of those life-flashing-before-your-eyes moments as you see realise you may not have enough acceleration to avoid a head on collision with that car that’s suddenly appeared in your lane heading directly towards you.

The second reason that driving in Mani makes you feel alive are the views. They are simply stunning. Sometimes the roads cuts away from the coast, winding through deep valleys, with glimpses of ancient bridges and 1000 year old churches. Occasionally you’ll pass through a sleepy town like the tourist destination of Kardimyli, cited by Homer in the Iliad. But your jaw only starts to drop when the road sweeps out towards the sea. High up, hundreds of metres above sea-level, you find yourself constantly changing direction to follow the contours of the mountain. This provides an infinite number of vantage points of the Mediterranean in it’s full glory. Looking down over beaches, sheer cliff faces, olive groves, abandoned terraced farms and scattered villages, the scene is forever changing except for the constant of the sea. To top it off, at this time of year the sun is lower in the sky and each night spoils you with a painterly sunset.

The combination of climate, inaccessibility and conservation also means the land is relative undeveloped, or unspoilt, depending on how you want to look at it. No high-rise blocks, no Starbucks  and no industrial blots on the landscape. Just for my selfish purposes, I hope it stays this way.

Words of the day

  • κεφάλι – head – (ke-fally)
  • γρήγορος – fast – (gree-gor-oss)
  • αργός – slow – (ar-goss)
  • αγαπημένο – favourite – (a-gapee-meno)
  • σπουδαίο – important – (spoo-thee-o)