For those who love the idea of being at one with nature, feeling the breeze in their hair, and getting away from the crowded tourist areas, nothing can beat taking a 4 x 4 vehicle “off-the-beaten track” in Greece.
I have done this several times over the years on Kos and Crete and as long as you avail yourself of a good quality, accurate map, you shouldn’t run into any problems. The Road Editions series of maps cover just about every major Greek island and show all rights of way down to poor quality un-surfaced roads. They can be obtained in many good bookshops or bought online from websites such as Amazon.
Off course, it’s not just islands like Kos and Crete that can offer so much in the way for off-roading; most islands’ topography lends itself well to this activity and I certainly intend to explore Ithaca, Kefalonia and Rhodes using this mode of transport during my next visits. The Greek mainland too is replete with locations such as Karpenissi, Olympia, Nafpaktia and Korinthia where dirt tracks and rocky roads offer alternative routes to both explore and reach the summits of these mountainous areas.
Firstly, a few basics, most of which revolve around common sense and a little pre-planning……
It’s no good taking to dirt and shingle “roads” in a regular hire car; for a start, if you damage the floor pan of the vehicle, blow a tyre or rip off the exhaust, you will be saddled with a hefty repair bill. Secondly, regular road tyres slip and slide on the deep dust tracks that are especially found on Kos and offer little grip – the first time you attempt to take a corner too quickly could be the last thing you ever do. Driving on loose dust is no different to driving on ice. Thirdly, 4 x 4’s offer higher ground clearance and are happy scrambling over rough terrain that would see a regular car bottoming out.
The minimum you’ll need is a Suzuki Jimny with the 1300cc petrol engine and it’s transfer gearbox; in my experience they have always proven capable of most tasks thrown at them plus offer decent levels of comfort and ride.
Most important is to ensure that the vehicle is covered with comprehensive insurance; hiring a 4x 4 then returning it with a damaged exhaust will not necessarily exempt you from repair bills. Tell the rental agency what you intend to do and that you require the relevant cover. Before departing, also make certain that the car is equipped with it’s manufacturer’s tool kit of jack and wheel-brace plus of course, a road-legal spare tyre.
From a personal point-of-view, if you choose to drive 4X4 during summer season, you’ll need a good supply of water, a sunhat if riding with the roof off, sun protection cream for the head, legs and shoulders, the relevant maps, a compass, binoculars, camera, a mobile phone “just-in-case”, and a full tank of fuel. Petrol stations are scarce enough as it is on mountainous areas and many islands; it’s no good finding yourself halfway up to the Asfendiou villages on Kos only to discover that the needle is on empty. Many fuel stations take a full afternoon siesta and most don’t accept credit cards so ensure you take enough cash. During winter the necessary equipment consists of warm clothes, waterproof jacket, pair of gloves and boots.
A final requirement is to at least have some knowledge of the Greek alphabet – road signs, if there are any, are more often than not solely in Greek in rural and remote areas, and individual upper- and lower-case letters often bear little or no resemblance to each other. It’ll enable you to read the signs, make sure you’re on the correct route and is rather satisfying to say the least.
I have to say that Kos is indeed my favourite Greek island for off-roading; although the island is small, it is criss-crossed by minor roads and tracks and it’s possible to get to just about anywhere on the island without resorting to the main roads. The trip up to the Asfendiou villages from Kos Town is exhilarating, extraordinarily scenic, relatively safe and you are unlikely to meet anyone else doing the same all day. I usually leave Kos Town to the west, travel up through Platani village and past the Asklepion. The road is narrow and twists and turns for several kilometers before a turning on the right on a hairpin bend will lead you to the Asfendiou villages via a dirt road. This IS twisty and very steep in places but the views back across to the north coast and the saltpan at Tingake are wonderful.
Looking across from the dirt road to Zia towards Tingake salt pan
It is possible to reach some of the villages without resorting to the paved road that links them all, but there are one or two spots where you will have no option as the dirt roads fizzle out to nothing or become so rocky, that only a tracked vehicle could negotiate them safely. Asfendiou, Zia, Lagoudi, Amaniou, Palio Pili and lastly, Pili comprise these charming and rustic villages.
Looking down through pine slopes from Zia
Zia tends to attract hordes of coach day-trippers from 10am through till 3pm so it may well be best to arrange your trip to avoid those peak times when it’s difficult to move in the village.
From the most westerly village Pili, it is possible to take a very rural track that swings west towards the Monastery of Pandaleimanas; this is rough, stony, often covered in fresh rock falls and in places, is several inches deep in thick, dry dust. It’s really important to be patient on this section for the track has no safety barriers and the dust is very slippery. The track eventually rejoins the paved road at an un-named crossroads some four kilometers south of Pili. There are many side tracks along this section, none of then are marked, most are extraordinarily rough and no doubt lead to isolated farms and smallholdings. This is where the compass comes into it’s own although the map should solve most quandaries at rural junctions.
I last went off-road on Kos two years ago; I always enjoy the experience, it allows me to see the “real” parts of the island, is peaceful, unhurried and relaxing and gives the opportunity for photography that would be out of reach for regular visitors to the island. Most rental agencies on the island have Jimnys for hire and you can expect to pay around 35 euros per day or less if renting for three days or more.