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Syntagma (Constitution) Square

Syntagma Square is the most famous in Athens if not all of Greece. No matter where you have to go in Athens, if you can find Syntagma Square you can find your way there.

Syntagma SquareSyntagma Square is back and better then ever. Well maybe not better than ever. It was probably at it's best in the early 1900's when there were not cars and buses whizzing around it and it was shaded by large trees. But with the re-routing of the traffic, the opening of the new metro and the removal of the wooden billboard covered walls that for at least an entire year, hid the construction site that was once Athens most popular platia, Syntagma looks better then it has in many years. Well actually it looks sort of the same as it looked before the renovation. But who cares? We have Syntagma back and hopefully they won't have to redo it again for many more years. Of course there is one small difference in the appearance of the square and the reason for the renovation in the first place. At the top of the square are two stairways and an elevator leading to the Syntagma Metro Station, one of the most beautiful metro stations in the world, with its own museum of artifacts found at the construction site.

Makriani and Kallerges demand a constitution from King Otto in Syntagma Square The name Syntagma means Constitution. When Greece was liberated from the Turks the great powers decided that they needed a king and chose Otto of Bavaria. Since he was too young to actually rule he came with a military force and three regents who ruled as dictators, imposing heavy taxes, and stealing from the country. When the king finally came of age the Greeks who had fought to free the country from Turkish occupation were now fed up with the tyranny of the Bavarians. With the support of British diplomats, two Greek soldiers, Dimitrios Kallerges and Ioannes Makriyannis led their troops to the palace and demanded the king get rid of the foreigners and within thirty days produce a constitution. This was the end of foreign domination of Greece (supposedly)

British soldiers fighting in Syntagma Dec 3 1944 The Square has a long history. It seems every major event in Greece has either been mourned or celebrated here. It has held some of the biggest political pep-rallys that have ever been seen on the planet. In the nineteen forties it was the sight of a battle between the communists and the right-wing government. Greece had been occupied by the Nazis and like many countries, the resistance was made up primarily of communists. In December of 1944 British forces arrived to liberate Athens but the Germans had already left. Instead they turned their guns on the Partisans who had fought the Germans and sided with the collaborators to create a Greece that would not be communist. Churchill wanted to restore King George to the throne but the majority of Greeks who had suffered through the Metaxas dictatorship under the King neither wanted his return or the return to power of the right wing royalists who had collaborated with the Nazis. Unfortunately for the people of Greece their fate had been decided by England and Russia at a meeting in Moscow. Greece would fall under the influence of Great Britain in return for Rumania, Bulgaria and Hungary coming under the control of the Soviets.

Procession of victims of the attack on demonstrators in Syntagma Square passes the Temple of Olympian Zeus on the way to be buried On December 3rd a demonstration in Syntagma turned into a battle when the police fired upon the crowd. After the shooting while the wounded were being attended to more shots were fired. In the end there were 23 demonstrators dead and 140 wounded including many women. The British were ordered by Churchill to treat Athens as a captured city. Athens had survived World War 2 only to be bombed from the air and have its working class neighborhoods attacked by its own allies. The British who had supported the resistance against the Germans now were fighting against them in a class war, defending Syntagma and the wealthy neighborhood of Koloniki against the poor and working class neighborhoods that comprised the rest of Athens. This led to Civil war throughout the whole country, with Britain and later the USA providing guns and money to the establishment to destroy the left. That it was viewed by many as supporting the collaborators against some of the heroes of the resistance did not seem to matter and Greece, after suffering through the occupation, instead of experiencing the joys of liberation was thrust into a war that pitted brother against brother and caused more death and despair than the Nazis had. The resistance and heroism of the Greeks against the Italians and the Germans had been an inspiration to all the subjugated people of Europe. But this did not matter when a new world order was being carved out. You could say that the events on December 3rd in Syntagma were the beginning of the Cold War. Though these events are known to few people outside of Greece, when you consider the effects that the policies of the cold war had on the entire world, it is a wonder that there is not some kind of international recognition of the importance of that day in Syntagma Square in the last half of the twentieth century. It was a defining moment in history. The first shots of the cold war. See also my History of Greece

Syntagma Square 1963Syntagma has also seen it's shining moments. When the Military Junta that ruled Greece from 1967 to 1974 fell and Constantine Karamanlis came back from exile in Paris to lead Greece back to democracy, it was in Syntagma that he first spoke to his newly free constituents.

To appreciate what the absence of Syntagma for all these years meant, while they built what is probably the world's most beautiful Metro station, imagine Greenwich Village without Washington Square or Boston without the Commons. It was a large public square with tree shaded walkways and benches and cafes where Athenians and travelers could talk politics, sports or whatever it is people talk about when they are hanging around in squares. Syntagma was also the scene of the massive political rallies of New Democracy, PASOK and the KKE political parties as well as holiday concerts and festivals, the biggest perhaps being the New Year's Eve Concert, a giant party thrown by the City of Athens, featuring some of Greece's most popular performers. During the Christmas season the square is bejewelled in lights and full of skinny Santas with miniature ponies. (See www.athensguide.com/christmas)

Parliament from Syntagma Square At the top of Syntagma is the Parliament Building, formerly the King's Palace, built between 1836 and 1840 by King Otto and financed by his father Ludwig I of Bavaria. The original idea was to put the king's palace on the Acropolis but luckily this never happened. The classical style of architecture, known as neo-classical which originated in Greece and is the dominant style of all the old public buildings, houses and mansions of Athens, was actually re-imported into Greece in the late eighteen hundreds from Europe and then modified (improved) by Greek architects. Anyone who watches CNN or BBC is familiar with this building since every time they mention the Greek government, or demonstrations they show it.

From the top of Syntagma Square to the right if you are looking at the Parliament is the terminal for the Athens Coastal Tram where you can ride to the beaches. Across the street at the entrance to the National Gardens is where you can take the trolley buses to the National Archaeological Museum.(2,4,5,11 and 15). You can also walk it in half an hour by going down Panapistimiou and turning right a block before Omonia Square on 28th of October-Patission Street.

Syntagma Square, evzonesThe tomb of the unknown soldier is guarded by Evzones, the elite soldiers who also guard the Palace and are chosen for their height and strength. They are like the guards at Buckingham Palace with the big furry hats and are treated the same way by tourists who come to take their pictures and see if they blink. Every so often they do a little march and dance to break the monotony of standing still all day and they occasionally do this little kick step with their sarouchi shoes with the pom-poms. The pleated skirt, the foustanela, was worn by the Greek fighters of the 1821 revolution and today it serves as the official uniform of the Evzones. It was established by Otto as the formal court dress in the middle of the 19th century. At 6pm you can see the changing of the guard while dodging pigeons. If you have children they will probably enjoy feeding them with the nuts that are sold there. On Sunday at 11 there is a big ceremony for the changing of the guard with a marching bands and a whole troop of evzones.

Syntagma Square: Hotel Grande BretagneTo the left of the square is the Grande Bretagne a hotel as historically significant as it is elegant and a great place to go in for a coffee in the beautiful lobby or the bar. It is considered the best place to stay in Athens and has been since it was built in 1862 to accommodate Heads of State, for which purpose it is still used. It is one of the most well known hotels in the world. In the second world war it was requisitioned for the military for it's headquarters. The guests were given an hour to leave. Then it was the headquarters of the Wermacht during the Nazi occupation. Hitler, Goering, Himmler and Rommel all stayed here. When the civil war began it became headquarters for the British Expeditionary force and machine guns and sandbags guarded the lobby. Later that month a plot to assassinate Churchill was discovered when police found one ton of dynamite in the sewers directly under the door. For more on the history of the Grande Bretagne as well as reviews and information see Hotel Grande Bretagne

Syntagma Square, Athens, Greece At the bottom of Syntagma is the McDonalds which replaced the popular Papaspyros. The cafe was the meeting point for travelers to Greece going east and west, since it was downstairs from American express where everyone got their mail and cashed their travelers checks in the sixties and seventies. It is also the beginning of Ermou Street which is closed to auto traffic and is Athen's main shopping district which leads down to the Flea Market at Monastiriki the primary shopping area for the millions of tourists who come to Athens. An important thing to remember, just like in America when you are on the road and you want to stop to use a clean bathroom, the first place you think of is McDonalds, the same goes for Greece. Anyway most cafes really don't care if you need to use the bathroom and you can even go into the luxury hotels since the lobbies have shops and restaurants and they really have no idea if you are staying there or not. Check out Public, a huge electronics, CD, DVD and technology store at the bottom of the square good for several hours of entertainment for those tired of ancient ruins and museums. Also the cafes in the square itself are great for people-watching.

Occupy Syntagma SquareKeep in mind that when there is a demonstration against the government, chances are this is where it is going to be held, right in Syntagma Square in front of the Parliament building within earshot of the ministers. Since most demonstrations only last an hour or two this usually does not mean much more than a minor inconvenience, for example you may have to put off your visit to see the Evzones guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier because it is surrounded by policemen protecting the ministers, dodging pieces of marble, oranges (in winter from the trees in the square) or even Molotov cocktails if it is a really big demonstration (pretty rare these days). But the good thing about a demonstration is that it can be easily avoided, unless of course your hotel is in Syntagma Square. However, since they are three of the best and the most expensive hotels in Athens they will make sure their guests can get in and out of the hotel without any problems through secret passageways and tunnels that in my opinion add a degree of excitement to a holiday. When the demonstrations end the city workers clean the streets and the cafes in the square fill up and life goes on as normal. People visiting Greece who have come upon demonstrations are often amazed at how many tourists are there watching, taking photos to send home to their friends. And how many are sitting in cafes a couple blocks away not even aware that there is a demonstration. Most demonstrations are peaceful anyway. And they are a part of any healthy democracy, and even some unhealthy ones.

Syntagma Practical Information

Syntagma SquareThere are a couple very good reasons to stay at a hotel in or around Syntagma Square. The first is that you can get there easily by the metro station, from the airport or from the port of Pireaus (though from Pireaus you have to change at Monastiraki or Omonia). The other reason is that the X95 airport bus goes to the square 24 hours a day. If you take the bus from the airport watch out for pickpockets who offer to help you with your luggage (or guys who act extra nice and invite you to their bar). You can protect yourself from petty crime by reading my article Defeating the Pickpockets. Also, never buy candy or anything from a periptero (kiosk) using anything larger than a coin or a five euro bill.

In Syntagma Square you are also within walking distance of just about everything including the Acropolis, the Plaka, Monastiraki, the National Gardens, Ermou Street shopping area, Kolonaki, The Temple of Olympian Zeus, the Panathenaic Stadium (the old marble one) and two metro stops from Gazi.

The 040 to Pireaus leaves from the corner of Filellinon and Metropleos streets. The X14 goes from the square to the New Olympic Stadium for concerts and athletic events. And the E22 goes from Amalias Ave all the way past the beach towns of Glyfada, Voula and Vouliagmeni to Saronida(Anavissos) as does the KTEL bus to Sounion.

If you are booking with Fantasy Travel their office is one block from the square on Filellinon Street.

Hotels in and Around Syntagma Square

Besides the 5-star Hotel Grande Bretagne there are two other major luxury hotels on the square: the Athens Plaza and the King George. Syntagma is on the border of the Plaka and so any of the hotels on the back streets are close by. Within a block or two are the 3 star hotels ArethusaAstor, Amazon, Athens Central, Athens Cypria, Omiros and Hermes 

The 5-star Electra Palace is on a quiet street in the Plaka just a few blocks off the square and has two swimming pools and great views of the Acropolis. Other hotels in the neighborhood include the highly regarded 4-star Hotel Amalia, and the 4-star Electra Hotel which is right on the Ermou pedestrian shopping street and as the sister hotel of the Electra Palace guests get to use the pool.

For budget travelers there are several choices including the 2-star Hotel Myrto and the Hotel Niki, both small family run hotels on Nikis Street and the Hotel Adonis right where the pedestrianized section of Voulis street begins at the entrance of the Plaka. If it is booked try the Acropolis House right across the street.

If these are not enough you can also Search Syntagma Square Hotels by catagory, price or whatever.

By the way many of these hotels are booked in advance by Fantasy Travel and Dolphin Hellas for their packages and you can often get bargain rates through the agency or even a room when other sources have told you the hotel is full.

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