Friday, December 29, 2023

Greek streets: the kingdom of the motorcycle

This fall I went on a climbing trip to a village in Greece for a week and a half or so, and as usually happens when I travel, I found myself adapting to a new attitude around roads and streets. This time, I found myself thinking differently about motorcycles. 

The first thing I noticed after landing in Athens was that the highways were full of motorcycles going much faster than the car traffic and weaving through it at speeds that were kind of scary to us at first. There were bikes on the highway - dirtbike-looking things - that wouldn't be legal on that class of road in Canada, and as we drove three hours down to the Peloponnese and got further and further from the big cities, the motorcycles started to make more and more sense. The roads are narrow. They're steep. They wind and switch back and dive down precipitous cliffsides. 

And then you get into the towns, and you really understand why there are so many motorcycles. It's a bit of a shock at first as you wind your way up the hill through Leonidio (the small town we were staying in, with a population of about 6,000) and the streets just keep getting narrower. There's a slightly unnerving sense that you might encounter a narrowing spot that you just can't fit through, or you might wind up in a street you can't get back out of. 

This is a pinchpoint just 
down the hill from where 
we were staying.
There are cars in Leonidio. For one thing, it's an area that attracts climbers from all over Europe, who often bring cars, and it's an agricultural town (its main crop being eggplants) that has light trucks coming in and out of the flat farmland below the town, which lies tucked in between steep hills and ends at the Aegean Sea.

But in the village itself, drivers have to navigate very narrow streets with strange hairpin turns at times and steep grades - and people walking in them, and motorcycles and bicycles everywhere. You just navigate around them, and take intersections very carefully in case there might be another car (although there were very few cars moving around the town at any point).

So people generally get around on foot or (because the side streets are steep) dirtbikes, ebikes, scooters and light motorcycles. They zip up and down the streets, making me, as a pedestrian, jump - for the first day or so. Then I got used to it, because they all know what they're doing. 

Everyone rides these. Maybe (I don't know for sure) it's like snowmobiles in a far northern town. I watched moms and dads taking their kids to school on dirtbikes. We were passed one afternoon by a man steering with one hand and carrying a chainsaw in the other. Older ladies in black took scooters to church. There were some (generally teenaged) people who rode bicycles, but watching them pedal in the lowest gear possible past us up the steep hill I didn't think I'd want to deal with that every day, and definitely most of the older, working folks used bikes with motors, of whatever kind. Some of the side streets, especially on the steep side of the village, were at impressive grades that I couldn't imagine trying to pedal a bike up. 

Streets were asphalt or paved in flat limestone cobbles. They weren't a consistent width and there was no sidewalk. There were no lane markers on the road: no parking spaces, no zebra stripes. Almost no signage meant for cars, within the village itself. There simply weren't enough cars moving around inside the town to require street markings. If you were coming uphill and encountered another driver coming downhill, one of you found a way to skootch over so you could get by each other - or one of you threw it into reverse until you could. 

If you must block a door
because there's nowhere
else to put a car, at least
make it your OWN door
If you were going to park somewhere it was a matter of figuring out whether it was polite to park there - are you blocking anyone's door? Are you making the street too narrow? Does it seem like you should? Outside our AirBnB there was a slightly wider stretch of street, next to a restaurant patio, where we could usually park. When we were out climbing, sometimes the staff at the taberna on the ground floor would park three scooters in the spot where we usually kept the car at night. When we returned, they'd jump up and walk the scooters across the street to clear the spot for us. 

This is a two-way street used by cars, bikes, and pedestrians.

It wasn't that you couldn't get a big vehicle through this town. There were beat-up old Ford pickups and cargo vans and at least once a couple driving a camper van through Leonidio. But the streets were not made for them and definitely did not go out of their way to accommodate them. Once, I saw a sign that warned of a narrow passage ahead that a car might not fit through, but that was about it for indications to drivers as to what they should do: because cars were absolutely the minority transportation. This town was here long before them and, I felt, will still be here after them. 

And it all works. I stopped jumping at the sound of engines behind me after a day or so. I gained a whole new appreciation for the agility and versatility and surefootedness of motorcycles and scooters. And it was, as always, a bit of a culture shock returning home to the supremacy of the car. 

Bikes and scooters parked in a plaza off the main street.
Nary a car.

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