Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Sierra, GOOD, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, including in the book The Future of Transportation.
These elaborate mini-chapels abound on twisty highways off the mainland.
Road safety infrastructure isn’t all stop signs and steel barriers. There are locally made traffic interventions all over the world. Take the “Slow Down Cat” of Sebastopol, California, the Transformers-esque robots of Kinshasa, and that PVC pipe stretched across the pavement in a suburb of Arkadelphia serving as a DIY speed-bump.
Some of the richest examples of citizen infrastructure are the roadside shrines of Greece. The twisty mountain highways of the Peloponnese peninsula is particularly packed with them. You’ll pass a couple of these tiny, pedestaled constructions, usually topped with a cross, nearly every kilometer.
Some kandylakia (as they’re called) are simple wood or metal boxes; others are elaborate, multi-story models of Greek churches made of ceramic or marble. Virtually all have tiny doors, and those that are maintained generally house an icon of a saint (or two), an oil lamp, a bottle of extra oil, and often a handful of personal offerings (on a recent trip to Greece, I saw lots of Coke cans).
You might think these shrines mark the sites of fatal accidents, akin to roadside crosses or wreaths. And some of them are. More often, though, the shrines commemorate a driver’s brush with mortality: a close-call around the bend, or a crash where a life was ultimately spared. Still other times, the shrines are meant to invite prayer or rest on a long journey, in a spot with a gorgeous view.
For all of these reasons, the shrines are a especially common sight on steep highway passes. Thus they serve as warning signs to passing drivers by the local families who maintain them: Slow down, bucko, and enjoy the trip.