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For a taste of foreign culture a little closer to home, Tarpon Springs, Florida, is the perfect place to visit.
Located just 30 miles (48 km) northwest of St. Petersburg, Tarpon Springs is often referred to as the “sponge capital of the world.” Large numbers of Greek sponge divers immigrated to this small community near the turn of the 20th century to work the bountiful sponge beds in the Gulf of Mexico.
Today their descendants continue this old world trade, along with the customs and traditions of their ancestral homeland. In short, Tarpon Springs is a little piece of Greece on Florida’s Gulf coast, and it’s nicely accessible.
Your first stop in town should be the Tarpon Springs Cultural Center. You can’t miss it; if you’re traveling north, it’s on your right as you roll into downtown. You’ll find accessible parking, and the barrier-free cultural center offers tourist information and showcases the work of local artists.
There is elevator access to the second floor and level access to the theater. A National Geographic film that chronicles the history of the local sponge industry is shown on demand, provided there are no special events in the theater. It’s a good place to get a feel for the history of this unique community.
The historic St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral is just down the street from the cultural center. A ramped entrance is located on the left side of the building. St. Nicholas is the patron saint of mariners.
Pop in and have a look at the beautiful rotunda, patterned after Istanbul’s St. Sophia Church. St. Nicholas also features beautiful Grecian marble, which was originally part of the Greek pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair.
And when you get hungry, authentic Greek cuisine is just a short roll away. Try the dolmades (stuffed grape leaves) or pastitsio (a baked pasta dish) at Mama’s Greek Cuisine, located just a block from the docks. Mama’s has a ramped entrance, accessible restrooms and an extensive menu of Greek specialties.
This area of town is really alive with Greek culture. You’ll see strings of sponges swaying in the breeze, and smell tempting aromas from bakeries that border the waterfront. Access is good in this area, with wide sidewalks, curb-cuts and level access to most of the shops.
Of course, the sponge-dock area is the real heart and soul of Tarpon Springs. This is where it all happens, from sponge harvests to the weekly wholesale sponge auctions.
Stop and see the sponge-diver’s suit (complete with lead booties) on display in front of the Billiris Sponge Warehouse. The whole sponge-dock area is nicely accessible, as it’s flat, and there’s plenty of room to roll around.
For a closer look at the sponge industry, take a tour with St. Nicholas Boat Line, located in the back of the Billiris Sponge Warehouse. In order to board the boat you have to be able to negotiate two steps, but there is plenty of room for a wheelchair aboard this authentic 50-foot (15 m) Greek sponge-diving boat.
Feast of Epiphany
The half-hour tour includes a brief history of the sponge-diving industry in Tarpon Springs, as well as a demonstration of sponge harvesting by a diver in the traditional helmet and diving suit.
Anytime is a good time to visit Tarpon Springs; but if you want the full spectrum of Greek culture, be sure and visit during the feast of Epiphany. Held annually on January 6, this massive celebration marks a sacred day on the Greek Orthodox calendar.
The festivities begin at St. Nicholas Church, and then move on to nearby Spring Bayou, where young Greek men dive for a cross that has been blessed and thrown into the water. This day-long festival also features the blessing of the fleet and lots of entertainment, dancing and food.
Tarpon Springs in a section of Florida is truly the best of both worlds — it’s a little bit of Greece not very far from home. So stop in next time you’re in the neighborhood.