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Someone pushes Don from behind, determined to get past him to the barricade; Don stands his ground, right behind me. I’m up against the barricade, a temporary rope-and-post affair. There’s a crowd about three deep behind us, and before us lies an almost empty parade ground in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

I have my “front row” position because, of course, we’d arrived early, and had been milling around on the parade ground with a steadily growing crowd, waiting for it to start. As the time draws near, the barricade is erected and we are all ushered behind it. Across the street, with the parade ground in front of them and Syntagma Square behind them a huge crowd has gathered. It is along this street in Athens, for now closed to traffic, that the Evzones will make their entrance.

The Evzones are an elite group of Greek soldiers and members of the Presidential Guard, and there are two of them standing to attention just outside their sentry boxes, one on either side of the Tomb. Another soldier, dressed in army fatigues, goes from one to the other, adjusting the pleats in their kilts, straightening the long silk tassel on their hats after the breeze has disturbed it, making sure all is perfection.

This is the 24-hour honour guard for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and for the Greek Parliament building behind it. Every hour the two guards change positions, crossing each other to the opposite side. In slow motion.

After standing perfectly still for an hour circulation has slowed and blood pooled in the feet and lower legs, so once they start moving they deliberately go very slowly to get the blood circulating properly again. If they move too quickly, too suddenly . . . . . well we don’t want anyone getting light headed do we?

Their uniforms just about beg to be made fun of (mini skirts! woollen stockings! pompoms on their shoes!), but they’re no sillier than the Pope’s Swiss Guards, or many other ceremonial outfits worn throughout the world. A little context:

Their uniforms evolved from those worn by revolutionaries during the Greek War of Independence in the 1820’s and are painstakingly handmade. The skirt, topped with an intricately embroidered vest, has exactly 400 pleats representing the 400 years that Greece was under Ottoman rule.

There are nails on the soles of their shoes; sixty per pair. According to the mythology the striking sound they make is so the ancestors can hear that the Greeks are alive and well. Since the shoes were worn in rural and mountainous areas for centuries perhaps those nails originated to aid with grip on icy terrain, much like a pair of crampons. Each shoe weighs over two kilograms (4.4 lbs). The pompoms on their shoes help protect from cold and snow; they also hide knives for kicking the enemy, an effective weapon for close combat.

Only men at least 1.88 metres (6ft 2in) tall are accepted into the Evzones. They must also have the right temperament; presumably not too temperamental. They undergo strenuous military training and are highly disciplined soldiers. Serving in the Evzones is considered an extremely high honour.

You can go to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier any time of the day, any day of the week, and every hour you will see the guard change as three soldiers arrive and two of them stay, replacing those that are there, the whole movement a carefully orchestrated five-minute ballet. But this is Sunday, and on Sundays the whole regiment will appear. In a ceremony led by a military band.

We hear them before we see them. The band, in their starched white jackets and black pants with a stylish blue stripe, playing a slow march, arrive first. They are followed by the Evzones, the full regiment in all their glorious colours. With dozens of soldiers all perfectly in step the nails make a loud striking clatter. Step crack! Step crack! Step crack!

Once they’ve arrived it’s a largely silent slow sedate performance. Like all soldiers on parade, with shouted commands they turn, stomp their feet, lower their rifles.

After the regiment is in place the two at the sentry boxes begin their slow balletic exchange, each foot flexed then pointed with each raised leg.

They disappear behind the sentry boxes and three replacements stride forth from the ranks.

After a neatly choreographed exchange three leave and join/rejoin the ranks. Two are left behind at the sentry boxes.

The band starts up again and the regiment turns and leaves,

heading back to their barracks the same way they arrived.

The whole solemn colourful performance takes about twenty minutes. Military theatre indeed. If you only have a short time in Athens and you want to see the two single most iconic, the two single most Greek things to see, then go to the Acropolis, and go to the Evzones parade on a Sunday.

So. From one historical monument to another. This next one lies in central Athens and has been there for nine hundred years.

It’s the Byzantine church known as Panagia Kapnikarea. It was constructed in the early 11th century, and as was common practice at the time it was built over an ancient Greek temple. We walk past it several times. It’s right in downtown Athens, on Ermou Street, a major shopping street, part of which is pedestrian only. This ancient little church sits on one of the five most expensive shopping streets in Europe, and among the top ten in the world. If we didn’t know any better, that all of Europe is a juxtaposition of the old and the new, it would seem quite eccentric, this quaint little stone building sitting in the midst of a modern city on a street dedicated to consumerism; this conspicuous clash of what was worshipped then, and now.

Kapnikarea, regarded as one of the most important monuments of Byzantine architecture, almost didn’t survive. King Otto of Greece brought in a Bavarian city planning architect who wanted to destroy it. It was saved, fortunately, by King Ludwig of Bavaria. Such are the whims of fate.

Finally one day we venture inside,

and all is glorious Byzantine beauty even though some restoration and most of the paintings were done by Fotis Kontoglou and his pupils in the first part of the 20th century.

And now, from the sacred to the profane: Varvakios Central Market. Don doesn’t really want to go.

From his notes:
Finally leaving the Acropolis and after a few wrong turns and more grumping from me we found Anafiotaka Cafe, and I had a large breakfast of three fried eggs, a mound of bacon, bread with butter and jam and two cups of black tea. I felt a bit better after that but still not great. I wanted to go back to our hotel, while Ali wanted to go to Athens Central Market. As we continued walking I began to feel better so agreed to walk to the market as long as we could get a taxi from there back to our hotel. But by the time we got to the market I was feeling so much better that I was ready to walk back.

I guess he just needed some fuel. And I always want to go to the local market because I get to see real life as opposed to tourist life.

We arrive at the meat hall first, bright with overhead lighting and a long skylight.

We amble past the long row of old-fashioned butcher shops set side by side, all shining brightly with neon, each vendor having their own cubby hole for display and the familiar butcher block out front. It’s very quiet and most are chatting amongst themselves,

while some take a smoke break,

and others are busy prepping.

I can imagine the hustle and shouting and crowds at a busier time of day; the same at the fish market,

and fruit and vegetable stalls.

The market reminds me that despite the millions of tourists, and the iconic sites of the city that attract us, ordinary life goes on here, the same as everywhere, and it reminds me of our daily walks through a local residential neighbourhood. This is the Athens of Athenians.

Like any European city Athens is a treasure trove of the old and the new, the mundane and the exotic, and in our brief stay we experience a small taste of all of it. Like any big city you need time there to really have it get under your skin, to feel the pulse of it in your veins, but we don’t have long enough, and for various reasons it never feels like we find our rhythm there. Even so, in our five brief days we see the market, the changing of the guard, and a Byzantine church; we climb a couple of hills, one of which is the Acropolis, and explore several different neighbourhoods, a couple of museums and the ancient Agora. It retrospect it feels like a lot.

And then we take the overnight ferry to Crete, our island adventures begin, and we fall in love with Greece.

Next post: swinging back to Australia for our most recent visit there for Christmas with the whole fam damily. And then Crete.

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2023.