After our lunch we decided some walking was good, (did you see how much food that was??) and seeing something that didn’t lock us in to any time commitments was even better – given Scott’s screwed up body clock and the aforementioned possibility of face-planting. So we headed in the direction of Syntagma Square and Parliament, where the Evzones guard the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. We were really fortunate that we arrived just a few minutes before the changing of the guard took place.
The full changing of the guard, including the special event white, cotton, kilted uniform, military band, and entire guard occurs only on Sunday at 11am, so we wouldn’t be in Athens to see that. But the “little change” happens every hour on the hour, 24 hours a day, and is also quite elaborate and worth the stop.
The guards are all part of a special elite light infantry unit called the Evzones, and when we were there, they were wearing the modernized mainland uniforms. These are Khaki and more resemble military uniforms we are used to, but they still have the kilt, stockings, pommed shoes, and fez, so it is enough different to be an unusual site. And there is the marching style of the change…
While the uniforms look a bit strange to us, it is very meaningful to the Greek people. The kilt, or foustanella, is actually made of 30 yards of material, with 400 pleats, representing the 400 years of Turkish occupation. And yes, the soldiers have to do the ironing themselves. The dress waistcoat, or phermeli (not in my pictures), takes up to one month to sew by hand, while the entire dress uniform is created by hand in 80 days. The tsarouchi, the clog-shoes they wear, are made by 2-3 men specifically trained to do so, and the soles are studded with 60 with nails.
The Evzones all come from the Hellenic Army’s Infantry Corps, and they all volunteer for this duty. They must be at least 6’1.3″ tall, and are required to serve at least 6 months in the Army’s Infantry Combat Battalions before they can be inducted into the Presidential Guard.
Evzones are paired for the duration of service guarding the Tomb of the Unknown so that the two become extremely synchronized, perfectly coordinating their precise movements.
The Evzones stand guard for 1 hour shifts, three times in a 48 hour period, and must stand completely still for that hour, except for when they change places every 15 minutes. This includes no facial or eye movements. And they are serious about not moving. During a 2001 demonstration a Molotov cocktail was thrown at one of the guard houses, which the guards stand beside and are partially sheltered by (you can see it in my second photo from the top). The guard on duty did not move, news stories pointing out that he didn’t flinch or blink, while the small wooden guard house was engulfed in flames, until an officer gave him the order to move. When he did, he had a scorched and partly smoking uniform. In 2010 the guards refused to leave their post even though a “medium-sized bomb containing dynamite” had been placed 20m from them. Since they wouldn’t leave their post, their sergeant in charge stood with them through the blast.
Our visit was, thankfully, not as exciting as all of that – though we did see a couple of tourists scolded and shooed away by the sergeant in charge who protects the guards from harassment and interference while they stand their posts and perform the actual changing. It should be evident that while the Changing of the Guard is happening, you do not run up beside them – or worse directly in front of them as they are marching forward, which happened – for a funny photo op. But apparently some think this is a great game. I just found it rude and sad, and kind wanted the Evzones to just march right over them. A little respect, people!
The stoic standing guard, and the precision changing, I think, are moving and impressive. Completely worth the 15 minutes or so that it takes of your time to stand and watch.
For a handy traveler’s map of our favorite stops in Plaka, see our post: Map of Top Things to Do