Syndagma Square and the Changing of the Guard

Syndagma Square and the Changing of the Guard (39)

In almost every city in the world there is a square that is the cardinal landmark of the city. Probably, when you think of Athens, your imagination takes you to the ruins of the Acropolis, the theatres or the picturesque traditional neighbourhoods, but Syntagma Square, completely away from the Greece of tunics and philosophers that everyone has in mind, is the real heart of the city. 

This will surely be the first place you see in Athens when you visit for the first time. This is where taxis and buses coming from all destinations, depart and arrive. Therefore, and because all parts of the city are accessed from here, Syntagma Square is a real chaos of traffic and noise. If you have ever heard of the chaos and the terrible traffic in the Greek capital, you probably imagined a place like this. This said, the square has something special that makes it attractive, and not exactly the hundreds of pigeons that monopolise it. Perhaps it is a point of modern decadence, or one foot in the recent past or it may be simply the hectic pace here, so different from the silence of the ruins of other parts of the city. What is certain is that this square moves something inside you, as everything outside moves.

In this square there are many official offices, kiosks selling international newspapers, banks and exchange offices, offices of Greek and multinational companies, post offices and a tourist information centre. 

Do not think that in this square you will only meet other tourists; it is also the nerve centre for Athenians. This is where Ermou Street begins; a major shopping hub in the city. But you also have to go through Syntagma to get to the grand avenues towards Omonia, and to the traditional Plaka, and from there head on to the Olimpeion. 

Several buildings stand out in Syntagma. 

On the one hand, the luxury cars and gigantic hulks at the door of the Hotel Grande Bretagne will probably stand out. They are probably bodyguards, as this is one of the most distinguished and aristocratic parts of the city. Personalities such as Liz Taylor, Richard Strauss and Winston Churchill have stayed here, overlooking the splendour of the square from the iron balconies of their rooms. However, it would be difficult for the British Churchill to maintain a fond good memory of his stay in Athens and Syntagma specifically, because here, in the time of World War II, an attempt was made, without success, to take his life. 

Secondly, take note of the Parliament building, the former Royal Palace. It is a Neoclassical building designed by architect Friedrich von Gärtner between 1836 and 1842. With more than 115 metres of facade, this huge building was the official residence of the kings Otto and George I, until they moved to Prince's Palace in 1935. Since that year, this building as housed the Greek Parliament. 

Finally, a curious monument stands on the north side of Syntagma: the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. In it, a relief shows a dying soldier, and several inscriptions of the funeral oration of Pericles are carved. It was inaugurated on Independence Day, 25 March, 1932, and since then a flame has been lit that never goes out and it is guarded by two Evzones, members of the National Guard. 

And with them comes the biggest tourist attraction in the city, the almost "show-like" Changing of the Guard. As with Buckingham Palace in London, Athens National Guard performs its own changing of the guard, with all the pomp and ceremony that tourists revel in, burning their digital cameras cards with delight to immortalise every moment in an instant. 

Dressed in a skirt and clogs, the guards await undaunted in formation ahead of the deployment the visitors are waiting for. Cameras, telephoto lenses and videos come to light when the first musical chords sound, at about quarter to eleven in the morning. During the week, the music is played over loudspeakers, but on Sunday the National Guard is accompanied by a great band that plays live music. 

Choreographically speaking, the change and the subsequent parade is slow and exaggerated, and leaves no one unimpressed. This particular act is one of the hallmarks of the city, and dazzles adults and kids alike.

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