First impressions of Greek roads are extremely favourable and improve considerably as we take to the back roads around Mount Olympus.
It’s a toss up for the Athens-bound whether to stay on the ferry until Patras. From there it’s just 140 miles to the Greek capital, the vast majority on motorway apart from around Corinth, plus an entire day steaming around the islands for only about €40 extra.
From Igoumenitsa it’s 310 miles to the Greek capital, two thirds of which is on motorway, though you have all day to get there even if you are an hour late like we were and don’t disembark until 09:30.
But the major destination from Igoumenitsa is Istanbul, a well-publicised six hours’ drive away (more like nine in reality). That was where we were headed but missing the first ferry from Italy means we don’t now have time…
Instead we drive across northern Greece to second city Thessaloniki. The almost brand new Egnatia Odos highway goes all the way there but to make it even more interesting we detour around the legendary Mount Olympus on local roads.
With enormous relief we note the roads signs are also translated into the Latin alphabet. Previously completely stymied by Cyrillic, the Greek alphabet on its own would have been too much. A brief shower cleans the windscreen. All is suddenly very good indeed.
The Egnatia Highway snakes straight above Igoumenitsa into the Pindus mountains, the so-called ‘Spine of Greece’ running 100 miles south east before plunging underwater to re-emerge as Crete. Covered with pine and fir forest, mainly, populated by lynx, wildcat, wolves, jackals and bears.
After 50 miles a tempting stop would be Ioannina, a fortress citadel city on the western shore of Lake Pamvotis. Refuge for Byzantines fleeing the sacking of Constantinople in the 13th century. The ancient Dodona ampitheatre is nearby. We don’t have that much time unfortunately..
Recent reports say traffic on Greek motorways is down 40% during the financial crisis. We can only say the roads were very quiet this particular Sunday morning.
All Greek motorways are tolled. Like the Italians, they believe in little and often, even charging the same €2.40. Because there are receipts – you get receipts with everything in Greece – it is possible to say we pay €4.80 for the 100 miles before we come off at Grevena.
These are not exactly the wild roads of Greece – the 15 we take south east then the 26 due east are both main roads (albeit the only roads) but again they are very quiet.
You can tell we’re in a good mood because instead of going to any lengths to find a modern, branded petrol station we’re happy to pull in at this local filling station. Such a friendly guy. Brimmed for €50.
Momentarily anxious that this road will be shortly winding its way up that mountain, then manfully disappointed as it swings east…
…into this shallow valley, dotted with massive goat herds.
Once through Elassona: Now in shouting distance of Olympus we fluff the turning for the windy road along the south slopes. Not all signs are in the Latin alphabet.
But we figure there’s more chance of finding somewhere for lunch-beside-one-of-the-world’s-most-iconic-mountains if we stay on the 13 which passes the 9,000ft peaks – 52 of them to be precise – to the west and north. There are no roads up or over Olympus.
This being Sunday however means everywhere is shut. We eventually find a roadside stall selling sweets – staffed by an Aussie expat – on the scruffy outskits of Katerini just before we join the Aegean Odos highway.
The mountains are far behind now, and only fleeting sights of the sea. Further south Aegean Odos famously runs just above the coast. The water is so clear
drivers passengers can see the sea bed. The final 45 miles into Thessaloniki costs €3.40 in tolls.
We roll into Thessaloniki just after 16:00 after 256 miles and five hours driving time. A good day.
Postscript 1: There isn’t a bad word to say about the Electra Palace Hotel, certainly not from our sea view room, right in the middle of its elegant stucco crescent. Apart from being in the epicentre of town, and costing just €170 for undoubtedly five star accommodation, what really sells it is the roof top restaurant. A lavish four course dinner later on nearly doubles the entire bill but the food and service are so good it’s worth every cent.
Postscript 2: We had just given up on Thessaloniki. The almost endless row of modern apartment blocks on the waterfront were packed out with loudly partying young people. But then a last-chance turn up a side street, also lined with massive apartment blocks – and our first set of ancient ruins – sees Thessaloniki turn from annoyingly busy into an exciting, bustling mass of humanity (a sixth more dense than Tokyo).
Throughout the city centre are entire blocks, fenced off, containing Roman and Byzantine ruins (now havens for stray cats). Or religious buildings that have gone from synagogues to mosques to orthodox to christian and back again, reflecting how many times this city has changed hands in its 2,300 year history (you’ll have to take our word for it..) Thessaloniki has only been part of modern Greece since 1913, shortly before a fire which destroyed the old city centre.
Next: Driving in Bulgaria. The pothole and the speeding police.