It has elements of Trafalgar Square, The Mall and Whitehall. But this is Athens, so Syntagma Square, the city’s central and most important square, is made of white marble.
It sits in front of the royal palace, home to the Greek Parliament, and gleams beautifully in the sun. But its appearance isn’t the only reason for tourists to visit. They also go there for a very different changing of the guard ceremony - and a tube station like no other.
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, in front of the Parliament, is protected by members of the elite Parliamentary Guard called the Evzones.
Their elaborate ceremonial uniform includes tasselled caps, embroidered tunics, wide-sleeved white shirts, blue and white silk pleated kilts, tights with garters and shoes with black pom-poms. They march in a most distinctive way with a high-kicking step.
The uniform and marching style have strong symbolic links with Greek history and only strong and fit soldiers are selected to perform the slow, almost balletic steps. The slamming down of the heavily-nailed shoes is meant to make a sound like a battle, the marching step partly represent the movements of a military horse and the pom-poms would have traditionally concealed a dagger.
Every 15 minutes the two evzones on guard swap places, the guards are changed every hour, there is a more elaborate ceremony at 11am every day and a grander ceremony at the same time on Sundays that is usually well-attended.
Unlikely though it seems, the square’s metro station is also a museum
It’s no surprise that in the years it took to build the Athens underground system tens of thousands of historic artefacts were discovered. Many of them are displayed in the Syntagma station. It has marbled stairways and floors and wall displays from Byzantine to prehistoric times.
The square itself has plenty of history. It was once part of the royal palace gardens. It became the Palace Square after the capital of Greece moved to Athens from Nafplio, in the Peloponnese, early in the 19th century.
An uprising in 1843 forced the king to grant the people a constitution. Palace Square was re-named Syntagma, the Greek for constitution. The royal family had the fountain built in the centre of the square and created the large and still lovely national garden beside what became Parliament House in 1935.
Busy Syntagma Square is still a centre for demonstrations and political rallies and a meeting place for locals as well as tourists. There are benches, cafes, shady areas and free wi-fi. It is at one end of a road called Ermou, the city’s traffic-free High Street and start of the hugely-popular shopping area.
The square is also the home of the Grande Bretagne, Athens most famous hotel. Legions of celebrities have stayed there – kings and queens, presidents and prime ministers, stars and celebrities.
When Winston Churchill was a guest in 1944 terrorists made a failed attempt to blow up the hotel. Actress Brigitte Bardot did manage to ride a motorbike down the staircase. Heads of state continue to stay there when in Athens.
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