Driven to distraction

Having lived in both London and New York, you’d think that there would be nothing that could ever scare me about taxis. After all, black cabs in London contain some of the most offensively opinionated people in the northern hemisphere, while the drivers of yellow cabs in New York have as much geographical knowledge as a three-year-old with vision problems.

But then I hadn’t really taken into account that I might one day end up in Greece.

Put simply, drivers in the Greek Islands take their lives – and the lives of anybody they accept into the back of their beaten-up jalopies – into their own hands every single time they step foot in their car.

Roads in Crete are generally of a better quality than those you might find in New York. And, to be fair, the cars aren’t in bad condition either. But these outward appearances count for nothing when you climb into the car and start on your journey.

When it comes down to it, Cretan drivers regard any taxi ride as a possibility to break the Greek land speed record. Whether you’re going five minutes down the road, or making an hour-long trip to the other side of the island, taxi drivers make it a point of pride to keep an average speed of in excess of 110 kilometres per hour. Given that Crete has high-altitude narrow winding roads that make the closing sequence from The Italian Job look like a quiet Sunday afternoon cruise, that inevitably means clinging on for dear life in every car you step into.

Tradition dictates that slower-moving cars place their right wheels in the hard shoulder to allow faster cars – or taxis, as we call them – to overtake. Sadly the hard shoulder can sometimes be just a dusty stone-laden track centimetres from a three hundred foot ravine – but who cares if Doris and Bert are edged off the road as long as the cab can set a new personal best, eh?!

I’d like to say that Santorini is better, but this tiny island makes Crete look like The Monastery of Saintly Driving in comparison. Most taxis don’t have seatbelts, and those that do generally don’t have anything to clip the belt into. The roads are steeper and more dangerous than anything you’ll find in Gran Turismo 4, and the youngest driver I’ve seen was probably a contemporary of Socrates at school.

Every time we go around a cliff top corner, Soon To Be Wife Who Is Now Actually My Wife (still no idea what to call her – please help) squeezes my hand so hard that I think one or two fingers may drop off. We now long for the occasions on which we get stuck behind hire cars, given that it’s easier to pass cars at the Monaco Grand Prix than it is in Santorini, and hire cars go at least 40kph slower than anything else on the road.

Still, the Greek island speed demons do have some benefits. Having been given far too little time by our hotel to get to Heraklion in Crete on Sunday, our taxi driver told us that it would be tight to get us to the hydrofoil to enable us to travel to Santorini. In the end, having touched 140kph at times and never dipped beneath 80kph, he put us at the port with fifteen minutes to spare. He may have driven safely enough to avoid physical damage, but the mental scars will take much longer to heal.

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