Did you know that the sponge that you used in the shower this morning could have been at one time an aquatic animal? The scientific name for sponges is Porifera, which means” pore bearing,” and in the year 1900, Tarpon Springs was the largest Porifera port in the United States.
A sponge is a bottom-dwelling creature that actually looks like a plant. This simple multicellular animal attaches itself to something solid and lives off plankton.
So what do sponges have to do with Tarpon Springs and going Greek you ask?
In the early days of sponge gathering, long poles with rake-like hooks on the end were used to gather the sponges. The boats were small, and they could only work in shallower depths. In 1905 that all changed when 500 Greek divers saw an opportunity and immigrated to Tarpon Springs, where they perfected and grew the industry.
Other Greek immigrants soon followed, some to dive for sponges and others to open businesses to serve the expanding Greek community. Restaurants, bakeries, coffee houses, among other types of businesses, were started to provide the growing community with flavors from their homeland.
Today Tarpon Springs is one of the largest Greek communities in the United States, and now they are thriving in another industry as well, tourism. The sponge boats still line the docks, and the sponge industry only heightens the curiosity of would be visitors.
Dodecanese Boulevard is the main street along the sponge docks, and the street is lined with authentic Greek bakeries and restaurants, markets, shops, and places to buy natural sponges of all varieties. Greek music is heard in the streets, along with the occasional shouts from the sightseeing tour boat vendors calling out for the next boarding.
The Greek Food is the attraction for me and there are so many real authentic restaurants to chose from. It would be extremely difficult for me to pick a favorite as each one is just as wonderful as the next. Dolmades (stuffed grape leaves), Moussaka (eggplant & spiced meat casserole), Pastitsio (pasta with meat filling and sauce), and Spanakopita (spinach pie) are just some of my favorite Greek dishes that are on the menus of the restaurants in Tarpon Springs.
Another thing I love, and going hand in hand with those natural sponges, are the shops that carry all shapes, sizes, and fragrances of natural handmade soap. There are also shops that carry olive oils, spices, and linens and the shopping experience is one of being in a market place in the Mediterranean.
The community is very proud of its Greek heritage, and their faith is a significant part of that heritage. The Epiphany feast is held every January, and Tarpon Springs has one of the largest Epiphany Celebrations in the United States, drawing thousands of visitors to the Tarpon Springs area every year. Epiphany celebrates 2 events in the life of Jesus, the visit by the 3 wise men and his baptism by Saint John the Baptist. Epiphany day starts with morning mass held at Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral followed by a procession through the streets lead by the Archbishop. The procession ends at the Spring Bayou, where after the ritual blessings are spoken, and a dove is released, the Archbishop tosses a white lead-lined cross into the waters of the Bayou. Young boys between the ages of 16 to 18 then dive into the waters of the bayou in a race to retrieve the holy cross as the one who comes to the surface with it is said to be blessed with good luck for the coming year. And after all this, of course, there is a party with music and dancing and a feast of delicious and authentic Greek food and pastry.
Travel just a few blocks to the south of the Sponge Docks, and you will find the downtown historic district, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. It is fitting that here you will find antique shops galore along with art galleries and eclectic shops with wares of all kinds.
Tarpon Springs is located on the gulf coast in west-central Florida and is 24 miles from Tampa International Airport and 20 miles from St. Petersburg/Clearwater Airport. Tarpon Springs is also just minutes away or a Jolley Trolley ride from the beaches of Pinellas County. The Jolley Trolley runs up and down the beaches of Pinellas County and includes stops at Clearwater Beach, Maderia Beach, Treasure Island, and Saint Pete Beach among other stops.
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