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Passing by the upper part of Syntagma Square in front of the Greek Parliament House in central Athens, you are most certainly going to notice small crowds waiting patiently while having their cameras at the ready no matter the time of year.
Take this chance to join them and witness the famous Evzones and the Changing of the Guard that takes place every hour. If you’re wondering what this is all about, keep reading to find out why this is a must-experience for your visit to Athens.
Who are the Evzones?
The Evzones are an elite unit of the Greek military that form the “Presidential Guard”. They are instantly recognizable by their flamboyant uniforms called “foustanellas”. You’ll see them standing in pairs at their posts, perfectly still and looking forward, 24/7 and all year round.
Don’t be fooled by the Evzones’ theatrical appearance. This isn’t just a stunt designed to lure tourists in. These soldiers have undergone a very intense month-long training period which only the most well-disciplined and tough candidates are able to complete.
Even though their role is exclusively ceremonial, serving in the unit of the Evzones is considered to be a very high honor and an extremely challenging military service.
The Evzones are tasked with protecting the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier – a war memorial that’s located right beneath the Greek Parliament Building, symbolizing the Greek struggle for freedom and commemorating the courage and bravery of the fallen.
In order to do so, they have to stand perfectly still in front of the monument for one hour each time no matter the weather conditions until the time for the Changing of the Guard comes.
In addition, they are responsible for hoisting the Greek flag on Acropolis Hill on national holidays. This is truly a sight to behold, especially on the 25th of March – the Greek Independence Day.
The Changing of the Guard
The Changing of the Guard is the most impressive part of the tradition of the Evzones and the reason why you should spend at least a few moments at Syntagma Square while roaming Athens.
Once every hour, on the hour, the two Evzones switch places with their replacements in a carefully choreographed procession that lasts several minutes.
Holding their rifles over their shoulders and raising their legs up as high as their heads, the two soldiers pace very slowly in complete coordination while stomping on the ground in a display of perseverance and determination.
There has been a lot of talk about the symbolisms behind this ritual but it is widely accepted that stomping on the ground is a way for the Evzones to let the dead know that the Greeks are still free.
It’s also said (though this is not confirmed) that the procession is taking place at such a slow pace in order for the Evzones to recover normal blood circulation after staying absolutely still for a whole hour.
The Official Sunday Ceremonial Parade of the Evzones
If you happen to be in Athens on a Sunday, make sure to head over to Syntagma to witness the official ceremonial parade of the Evzones.
Every Sunday at 11 am, a parade of Evzones marches down Vasilissis Sofias avenue, from the Presidential Guard camp towards the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, where the official Changing of the Guard ceremony takes place.
Around 10 am, you’ll notice Vasilissis Sofias avenue filling with people holding cameras and Evzones platoons getting ready for the march.
At about 10.20 am, the Evzones proceed to march in perfect coordination towards Syntagma Square, under the sounds of a marching band. There they begin the ritual of Changing of the Guard, relieving their colleagues from their duty.
This spectacular ceremony never fails to draw in large crowds and evoke awe and admiration – definitely one of the most unique experiences you can have in Athens!
The Extraordinary Uniform of the Evzones
The thrilling ritual of the changing of the guard is not the only thing that brings visitors to Syntagma Square. The eye-catching uniforms of the Evzones are a spectacle in their own right. The towering soldiers wear several different kinds of uniforms originating from different parts of the country.
From Monday to Saturday, the Evzones wear an impressive cotton uniform with immaculate pattern details that is called “Doulama” (in two different versions – for summer and winter), along with “tsarouchia” shoes and white stockings.
In official ceremonies, depending on the occasion, the Evzones might also wear traditional uniforms originating from different parts of Greece like Pontus, Crete, and the Aegean islands.
Without any doubt, however, the most impressive uniform of the Evzones is the formal ceremonial uniform that is worn on Sundays and on national holidays. This includes the famous “fustanella” kilt, a red fario cap with a long tassel, and the distinct tsarouchia shoes with the black pom poms.
How to get to Syntagma to see the Changing of the Guard
Getting to see the Evzones and Changing of the Guard is going to be very easy. All you need to do is hop on the metro (red or blue line) and get to Syntagma Station. As soon as you exit the station, you’ll find yourselves right in Syntagma Square.
Climb the stairs right behind you and cross Vasilissis Amalias avenue towards the Greek Parliament House. The Evzones and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier will be right in front of you.
Interesting Facts about the Evzones
- The Changing of the Guard at Syntagma Square takes place every hour, on the hour all year round regardless of weather conditions
- Candidates for the unit of the Evzones need to be extremely disciplined, to have displayed extraordinary will during the month-long training and to meet a height requirement of 1.9 meters
- While on duty, the Evzones are prohibited from interacting with anyone. They are always accompanied by a common soldier. If it’s crucial to communicate, the Evzones will hit the butt of their gun to the ground. The soldier will then answer questions and the Evzones will blink once for yes or twice for no
- The fustanella kilt is made with over 30 meters of fabric and it has 400 pleats that represent the 400 years of Ottoman occupation
- It’s permitted to be photographed close to the Evzones but it’s strictly prohibited to interact with or annoy them in any way
- The writings that you’ll see over the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier are actually excerpts from the “Pericles’s Funeral Oration”
- The tsarouchia shoes are held together by 60 nails, making each one weigh around 3,5 kilos
- The Evzones always work in pairs. Upon acceptance to the presidential guard, each soldier is assigned with a “brother”. If one of the two is unable to perform their duty, the other one will also be excluded
- It takes about 1 hour for the Evzones to get dressed every day with the help of their “brothers”
- There is absolutely no financial reward for joining the unit of the Evzones. They are paid the same as regular army conscripts, which is around 8 euros a month
- The word Evzones roughly translates to “well-equipped” or “well-girt”
In short, witnessing the Changing of the Guard ritual and getting to see the famous Evzones up close is one of the most unique experiences you can have in Athens – especially if you are visiting on a Sunday when the official ceremonial parade takes place. Make sure to be there early for some amazing photo opportunities!
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