Wayfinding in Greece

Wayne Hunt's "Waynefinding"

Read Time: 4.5 minutes

By Wayne Hunt

August 2019 "A Great Place to be Lost"

I take back everything bad I ever said about wayfinding with Google Maps. Without the cool disembodied voice calmly but firmly calling out turn-by-turn we’d probably still be lost among the curving and narrow olive tree-lined roads in the rural Peloponnese area of Greece. “In 400 meters make a sharp left onto Ioannou Giannouias Mpoutre and stay on the left to merge onto EO Kalamatis Spartis.” While I still like an old-school paper map, you know, the large ones that unfold bigger than your rented Fiat Panda, they are of little use without posted street names or road numbers. A key principle of wayfinding is orientation: You need to know where you are on the map, or the map is virtually meaningless.

And in Greece, even with good maps, it’s never easy to know where you are, whether wandering the tiny old streets of Athens or driving in the hills on the beautiful Island of Tinos—there are very few street name signs or posted road numbers. It isn’t that they lack directional signs, which are seen at most key intersections in rural areas and on the modern highways, you just don’t know what road you’re on. So, bust out the iPhone and blow out your data plan and figure out where you are. Then you can wayfind, either with the traditional paper version or go with Mrs. GPS.

Cities, towns and villages in Greece are not exactly orthogonal in layout. When a country is only 300 miles wide but has over 8,000 miles of coastline and is 80 percent mountains, you know there are going to be some curved roads. Straight streets and roads don’t exist. In fact, there are so few straight lines and right angles that I don’t know how the ancient Grecians built the Parthenon to such perfection. Throw in the hilly topography—the famous Greek islands are all tops of ancient mountain ranges—and the result is a Greek salad of curving, winding and switch-backing streets, roads, allies, paths and walkways. If you want urban planning logic and modern traffic engineering, you are on the wrong vacation. But this organic streetscape and unique urban evolution are some of the many reasons Greece is so compelling to experience. This really is a great place to be lost.

However, if you want right angles, and a few acute ones, too, take a look at the fascinating Greek alphabet. The all-caps half of the Greek alphabet is a master class in geometric typography design—elegant, strict, authoritative and probably easier to chisel into marble than more curvilinear fonts. After a few days in the country one can begin to recognize and even sound out all-cap words—triangle for Delta (D), upside-down L for Gamma (G), Pi for P and so on. Greek lower case letters? No so much. Lacking distinctive geometry, the lower case defies easy recognition for English readers; the individual letters just don’t differentiate for our eyes. Unfortunately, many Greek signs are rendered in caps and lower, making "reading" difficult.

Fortunately, all recent highway signs, thanks to the 2004 Athens Olympics, present place names and directions in both Classic Greek, in yellow characters, and a phonetic version in white English letters. But except for the English word EXIT, this is not true bilingual signage—Korinthos, not Corinth and Athina, not Athens. Driving in rural Greece is a real joy and except for the unfamiliar signage you could be on the back roads of Santa Barbara County, USA. However, be prepared to be occasionally lost or at least disoriented. This is where the miracle of GPS saves the day, but in the turn-by-turn the complex and similar sounding Greek road names are not easy to differentiate.

Wayfinding on foot on the Greek islands or in the small towns and villages of the Peloponnese is icon-oriented, based not on signs but by involuntarily getting oriented to church towers, plazas or other civic landmarks—one stroll around town and your hotel is easily re-found after a night at the taverna. Paths to historic sites generally have a sign to start the journey, and, hotel staff over-serve with detailed directions to anywhere.

Athens works the same way around your hotel but is ten times more complex with its crazy network of tiny archaic streets and alleys, many dating back a couple thousand years(!). If you look hard enough, some street names are seen on building-mounted small plaques. But, like much of Europe, the name of the street changes every few blocks and, and as we know, few right angle intersections exist (don’t try walking around the block to get reoriented). Real barriers for us Westerners are the seemingly complex Greek street names—not too many Oak, Main and State streets. More like Navachou Nikodimou and Thoukididou (an intersection near our hotel). And soon you come to one of the huge traffic-snarled arterial streets with nary a crosswalk in sight. A map, digital, or otherwise, is mandatory for finding anything.

And, in spite of the legendary Greek hospitality (very real and seen everywhere), you’ll not get a lot of help on the street. Unlike, say, Scotland or Italy, where a confused tourist attracts immediate assistance—in Greece they wait for you to ask. Then the natural Greek wayfinding help kicks in. Just like GPS.

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