Driving in Greece and particularly in Athens, one might have the impression that signs and traffic lights are optional or serve an advisory role and that Greek drivers don’t share the same traffic code with the rest of Europe. Well, after years of driving in this country, I can safely say that this is not just an impression! The rules are the same; what changes is the interpretation!
You realize that something is going wrong over the very first kilometers, especially if you take one of the old highways. The usual pattern is that the cars are traveling half in the main road and half in the emergency lane where they have to move entirely to allow faster vehicles to pass them. The continuous lines, double or single, have no significance at all and if you stick to your lane or you are not willing to move right, it’s quite probable that they overtake you from the right side, possibly insulting you in return.
Regarding this ‘insult’ subject, here is a tip for the uninitiated. In Greece they are using a hand gesture, said ‘moutza’, showing the palm with open fingers to the person they want to insult. The meaning is roughly ‘you’re an idiot’. It can be done with one or two hands, as seen in the photo in the left, shot during a demonstration in front of the Greek Parliament.
(photo courtesy of Georgios Giannopoulos – CC BY-SA 3.0).
I always believed that the way the people drive reflects their mentality. In Greece it is obvious that the Spartan legacy is still alive, given that the Spartans, as part of their training, they had to steal without being noticed. It doesn’t matter what you do as long as you don’t get caught. Perhaps it’s just the result of being under the Turkish occupation for more than four hundred years; defiance against the imposed rules is a sign of freedom and a proof of a rebel spirit, with the silent complicity of the others… These could be the general guidelines of the Greek driving style: you don’t have to respect anyone; the cunning one always goes forward; the stronger/biggest is always right!
But let’s return to the unwritten rules of the Greek driving style:
When a car from the opposite direction is headlight flashing, it is a warning sign which indicates the presence of the traffic police ahead. In addition, when they are briefly headlight flashing you when you are entering a road, it means that they saw you and they let you pass.
It’s quite normal to pass not only a yellow light (this is the rule) but even when it’s “dark orange” as they call here the first seconds after the traffic light turned red. This means that if you stop abruptly your vehicle at a yellow light you risk seriously to get crashed by other cars whose drivers assume that you’ll pass. For the same reason when you are waiting for a green light, it is wise to check if the street is clear before you speed up.
Needless (I guess) to say that the crosswalks don’t exist and the pedestrian should be particularly careful.
You’d better pay extra attention to the one-way streets too, as many car drivers and especially scooter drivers don’t bother to respect the signs. If we had to be precise, Greeks ride their motos and scooters as if they were bicycles. The bicycles themselves are generally ignored.
The following video sum up in a few minutes what I write above. Note that it was shot in the center of Athens in just a couple of hours…
It is not uncommon for someone to leave his car in the middle of the road to run an errand or even to go for shopping, just as it is considered normal to park anywhere.
A quick note about the roads: excluding recent highways, the road surface in Greece doesn’t have the sealcoat one would expect. This is because they use large quantities of marble to prevent asphalt melting due to high temperatures during the summer. As a result roads are particularly slippery in case of rain.
In conclusion: there are rules and there are the same with the rest of Europe, but they are respected only when traffic police are near and often not even in this case. Therefore you must be very attentive and never take anything for granted. Anyway, once you get used to this driving style, it’s not so difficult to move around.