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Driving in Greece

Heraklion to the South Coast

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Crete roadside vista

Crete roadside vista

Copyright deTraci Regula
I frequently receive questions from readers on the safety of driving in Greece - and it's no wonder. Greece has one of the highest accident rates in Europe, and travelers who want to relax on their vacation in Greece often wonder if a rental car will be worth it in terms of stress and expense. While driving in Greece can be tricky, there are some routes and areas which are kinder to less-experienced visitors, and several of these good roads are on the big island of Crete. One of them is the main road from Heraklion to the south coast of Crete.

From Heraklion

Within Heraklion itself, there is a street called "Labyrinth", but that can feel as if it applies to the entire city. To reach the main road south, it may be easiest, depending on your starting point, to take the coastal road and cling to the bayside until you see the signs for the stadium. These will also indicate the direction of Moires - usually spelled Mires - a large town or small city in the south of Crete. Once you are on the road to Mires, the way is clear and it is hard to lose your way.

From the Nikos Kazantzakis Airport

If you are driving from the airport, simply turn right toward the east as you leave the airport and join the fast, wide "freeway" which is the National Road. Since you will be eventually exiting to the right, don't get farther over than the middle lane. When you do take the turnoff for Moires/Mires, go slowly as it is a nearly complete circular loop.

Once on the road, you'll find yourself in a commercial area which gradually gives way to an increasing number of car dealerships and light manufacturing. If getting out of Heraklion has exhausted you, there is a small taverna which caters to local truckers coming up on the right hand side of the road. Small signs announce that it is coming up. It has a large gravel parking lot which is easy to park in and a decent and inexpensively priced frappe (iced coffee) which is my favorite restorative on this route.

Along the major highways, signage is good and in both Greek and English. The first set of signs will always be in Greek; if you can only read the English lettering, you'll have a little less time to get ready to take the turnoff. This is the best reason to become at least basically familiar with the Greek alphabet.

If your schedule permits, you will be passing near to the famed convent of Paliani located at Venerato. It's easy to pull off and visit this beautiful and sacred spot, which has a famed myrtle tree - possibly a survivor from an earlier worship of Aphrodite - and an active community of nuns. The convent is located about a mile off of the highway and it is easy to exit and get back on. The village of Venerato also has a couple of tavernas for a snack.

Nearby, on the right side of the road as you continue south, you can see an unusual rock formation adorned with a small white chapel. This is said to be the generative organ of Zeus, duly tamed by its accompanying chapel.

Also on the right side of the road is a prominent rocky hill located in a verdant open green valley beneath the village of Rizes seen in the distance. This formation is locally called "The Old Woman and Her Pies" since the rocky outcrop is surrounded by unusual flat round and oval stones which resemble the common meat and vegetable pies served on Crete. Local lore claims that this jutting rock is where storms are born on Crete. The recent road work has straightend out what was once a very curving route through Crete. While it still is a bit wiggly at a few spots, it's not for long and most competent drivers will have no problem with it. Some potential hazards include Greek grandmothers gathering herbs by the side of the road, slow-moving farm equipment, and the occasional herd of goats or a still-working donkey - but these last two are increasingly rare along this route.

Also along the way, you will pass through Agia Varvara (Saint Barbara), a village which is located approximately midway north to south and east to west on Crete - and proudly claims to be the "navel" of Crete though a map and a ruler will disprove this. There are cafes and tavernas in Agia Varvara, along with a small church which is in a sunken area beside the road. Agia Varvara is also the center of a rich developing grape-growing region.

Farther along, you'll see a row of small houses with tables in front of them holding large cabbages when they are in season. The cabbages are renowned - unfortunately, it's not the most tourist-friendly vegetable to acquire. In November, 2012, the residents made a giant batch of cole slaw in an effort to be recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records; the designation is still pending as of this writing.

At the village of Agia Deka, you have the opportunity to go to the Church of the Ten Martyrs - the "ten" mentioned in "deka", where Christan martyrs were executed during the Roman domination of the area. After Agia Deka, you will be driving through the ruins of the ancient Roman city of Gortyna and if you like, you can stop and explore the site, which includes the ruins of the Church of Saint Titus, one of the earliest churches in Crete, an evergreen platanus (plane) tree said to be where Zeus ravished Europa, and the tablets holding the Law Code of Gortyn, the longest extant inscription from the ancient world. On the other side of the road, sharing space with modern olive groves, are the remains of many Roman-era temples, including those to Apollo, the Egyptian Deities, and others.

After Gortyn, Mires emerges. Depending on your ultimate destination in the area, there are small signs indicating your road. For Matala, Pitsidia, Sivas and other areas to the east, you'll need to make a left turn midway through the town after the main fork in the road. You also have the choice of proceeding through Mires and making a stop at the ancient Minoan palace of Phaistos before proceeding on past Vori and heading toward Tymbaki.

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