Out and About in the Greek Countryside
I’ve always enjoyed looking at maps and atlases. I don’t know why, but there’s something about a map that really appeals to me. Names of places, routes from one place to another, everything has a fascination. And I always enjoy navigating, especially in unfamiliar areas. Seeing how we’re moving across the map.
It’s something I find frustrating about Greece. It’s not that they don’t have maps, but they’re not really what I’m used to. Back in the UK I had a trusty road atlas that was part way to an ordnance survey map in its detail. The smallest of lanes was included, as were tiny hamlets. Greece just doesn’t seem to have an equivalent. Or if it does, it’s probably only available to military personnel.
Watch out for those giant houses! - our most detailed map of Messinia
The phrase ‘the map is not the territory’ was never more true than in Greece. You could be forgiven for expecting all roads in the same colour on a map to be of a similar quality. Maybe in other countries, but not in Greece. Here it’s quite common to find a road that’s designated as a rough track to be a better quality than one that’s designated as a secondary route. And a secondary route might be better than a primary route. And what a motorway will turn out to be like is anyone’s guess.
So that rough track up ahead, which is in the right place for the turning we’re looking for according to the map, but isn’t the primary road we’re expecting, could easily be what we want. Do we follow it in case, or do we keep driving, hoping there will be a more likely candidate up ahead? It gives every journey the potential for frustration, but also for adventure and discoveries.
I’ve seen British films of WW2 vintage where the signposts were turned round or removed, supposedly to fool the Germans if they ever landed. Maybe the Greeks think they’re still at war with someone, as they have their own version of this. They don’t seem eager to make it easy for people to find their way around. So when we decide to go on a drive off the main roads, we can almost guarantee we’re going to get lost.
Looking at my trusty road map I noticed some villages that apparently had a population of zero. There are a lot of single abandoned houses around here, but I’m fascinated by the idea of abandoned villages, so I suggested we go and check out a couple that were within about 20km of us. Both were clearly marked on 2 maps, so we could find them – right?
Our route to the first village started along roads we’d travelled before, but that didn’t make it any easier. Greek signposts tend to point you in a general direction then leaving you to find your own way (you’re on your own now, son). The map suggests we have to turn left in the village. We look out for the names of several places on our route which might be signposted. But of course there are no signs to guide us.
Driving out the other side of the village we can almost guarantee that the first sign we see will confirm we’re on the wrong road. Another U-turn, another try. And again. Who would have thought that tiny cobbled track would turn out to be the main road?
We risk a right turn onto a dirt road even though there are no signs, on the basis of it being in roughly the right place and going in the general direction. There are ordinary tyre tracks (as opposed to tractor ruts), so we’re not the only ones to come this way – always an encouraging sign. A kilometre or so along we come across a half dozen or so cars, just parked in what seems to be the middle of nowhere. No people around, just cars. Maybe hunters off to shoot some birds?
A little further: sliding through a muddy patch we become the day’s highlight for a group of children playing, a diversion from their normal games. I make a silent prayer that we won’t be driving back in the opposite direction in a few minutes, or I’ll ave to start waving like some celebrity.
Suddenly we’re up on a plateau of land with tracks criss-crossing it at all angles, but no buildings in sight and definitely no abandoned villages. There’s nothing to recommend one track above another so we set off down one until it becomes too rough for the car, then retrace our route and start off in another direction.
Eventually we find a track that seems to be heading in the general direction of a village glimpsed across the valley. Dodging deep ruts caused by recent rain, I walk in front of the car clearing away the larger stones. Another 500m and we’re heading back to civilisation at last. And here it is: a couple of tow trucks, some decidedly muddy cars, and several people looking at us in some surprise.
Oops – it looks like we’ve managed to join the latest stage of a car rally.
We didn’t wait to find out whether we’d won!