Last Sunday was gifted with the azure sky that makes this city a sometimes paradise. Families and tourists were outside to revel in the sun, ambling down the wide pedestrian pathways amidst balloon and roasted corn vendors. At a quarter to eleven, as always, traffic through Syntagma stopped; distant sound of drums and brass grew closer, followed by the cleated STAMP of nearly four hundred, leather-laden feet hitting the asphalt in near perfect unison.The Evzones, the Presidential Guard, paraded down Vassilis Sofias Avenue toward Parliament to relieve two of their own guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
The Change of the Presidential Guard in front of Parliament happens every hour on the hour except in extreme weather conditions and moments of civic unrest. They’re there to represent Greece’s finest standing ever watchful in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a structure that has been in its place since the 1930’s to serve as a reminder of those who have fallen in battle for the sake of the Republic of Hellas. Two Tsoliades- another name for Evzone- stay motionless for two twenty minute intervals broken by a stretch on the half hour and the change on the hour with a synchronized ceremony of slow movement by those exiting and entering their posts.
Interesting Facts about the Evzones:
- The word Evzone was used in ancient times by Homer to refer to a “lightly armed soldier distinguished for their spirit, strength, and fighting ability.” – John Tomkinson in his book, Athens.
- The kilt, or fustanella worn by the Evzone was inspired by the outfit of 18th and 19th century guerilla warriors: the Klepht and Armatoles. Equal parts bandit and hero, these men spent their lives hiding in the mountains, raiding passer-bys, and are accredited with the start of the revolution against the Ottomans in 1821. Tip: The National History Museum is a great place to learn more about these reckless warriors whose names live on in several Athens streets and buildings.
- The involved uniforms of the Evzones are crafted by master tailors and said to take eighty days to complete.
- The hardened red leather shoes, called tsarouhia, have a dangerous curled toe hidden by a black pompom. The shoes weigh three kilos (six lbs) each! 60 cleats on the bottom of each shoe keeps soldiers steady on the marble paths leading from Parliament to the barracks on Herod Atticus road, just behind the National Gardens just as they kept the klephts surefooted on the uneven terrain of mountains.
- The two standing together are like brothers, paired from the beginning of their service until the time of their discharge so that they can master this “dance” with the same partner.
The usual hourly change occurs with just two replacement guard with an accompanying guard as an escort, whereas the Sunday march is a special event involving all non-posted guard, the band, and superior officers. To see it for yourself, show up half an hour early and stand in the blaring sun along with a mob of strangers and solicitous photographers shaking pigeon food at you until you let them pour some on your head, thereby bringing on a swarm of greedy pigeons who feast in your hair. Click! They take a picture and charge you.
Sounds fun? No? My advice is to show up at 10:40 at the Vassilisis Sofias entrance of the National Gardens where you can watch the guard as they exit their barracks and follow them all the way to their posts. The downside is it can be a fight for a good place to observe the actual change, but you can always come back at a less common hour, like eight at night or two in the morning, to get a good look at the slow, mysterious dance of the Evzones.
To learn more about the Evzones, their duties, uniforms, and history, go to the website of the Presidency of the Republic of Hellas.