Did you ever imagine you would find a little corner of Greece transplanted to Florida? Tarpon Springs, about 20 miles north of Clearwater, is a historic Greek seaside community with a lovely Greek Orthodox Cathedral and authentic baklava bakeries. It can be accused of being "touristy" but for a day out with a difference it is hard to beat.
Stroll down Dodecanese Street in this delightful fishing port and you can almost believe you are in the Mediterranean! Many of the shops are owned by descendants of the first immigrants and they retain a very Greek atmosphere. Stop by one of the bakeries to pick up sticky pastries or admire the strings of natural sponges hanging outside the quaint shops.
History of Sponge Diving in Tarpon Springs
Sponge diving was the industry that attracted the first Greek immigrants to Tarpon Springs in the 19th century from the Dodecanese Islands. Natural sponges grew in abundance around the shores of the Gulf of Mexico. The Greeks had been diving for sponges around the Greek Islands for centuries and they brought their skills and technical apparatus, such as it was, to Key West and later to Tarpon Springs.
At first sponges were harvested around Tarpon Springs in 1895 using “hooker boats” but by 1905 the deeper sponges required divers to reach them. Diving for sponges was a hazardous operation. Divers wore suits weighing over 170 pounds and a heavy copper helmet had a hose for breathing. By the early 20th century over 1,550 divers lived and worked in Tarpon Springs and they in turn spawned other businesses – boatyards, diving equipment suppliers, deckhands and staff to wash and sort the sponges before they were exported.
Tarpon Springs remained the “Sponge Capital of the USA” until 1946 when two disasters hit simultaneously. A red toxic tide bloomed which devastated most of the natural sponge beds and at the same time synthetic sponges were introduced to the market. Almost overnight, the natural sponge industry in Tarpon Springs died. The Greek community turned their hand to fishing and tourism and that is what supports this delightful community today, along with a few sponge divers who demonstrate their skills to visitors.
The sponge warehouses have now been converted into shops and the Victorian mansions house restaurants, museums and B&Bs. Tarpon Springs remains a Greek-American community however, with the largest concentration of Greek-Americans in the U.S.
Things to Do in Tarpon Springs, Florida
A day trip to Tarpon Springs is a real pleasure, especially if you choose a day when the weather is fine as the waterfront can be cool and breezy in a cold snap. Walk along the waterfront beside the colorful fishing fleet and tour boats near the Historic Sponge Exchange. Visit the free Spongorama Museum to see some of the antiquated equipment that is preserved there. Take a trip on a sponge-diving boat and see modern-day sponge divers at work or visit the Coral Sea Aquarium to see a living reef complete with living sponges, corals and fish. Finally, enjoy an authentic Greek meal at one of the restaurants overlooking the quay and pick up sweet pastries to take home with you.
If you are lucky, there may be a traditional Greek wedding taking place at the St Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church. It was built in 1941 as a replica of St Sophia Church in Constantinople (Istanbul) which is said to be one of the most beautiful churches in the world. Admire the Byzantine architecture, fine religious artworks and the 60 tons of Greek marble within.
Feast of Epiphany at Tarpon Springs
If you visit Tarpon Springs after Christmas, during the Feast of Epiphany on January 6 you can join in the oldest Greek Orthodox Festival outside Athens. Watch the local teenage boys dive for the Epiphany Cross, tossed into the bay by the Archbishop. The winner receives a special blessing, not to mention boasting rights for the forthcoming year.
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