It’s a new dawn for Athens’ historical flower shop area – on the west side of the Parliament’s forecourt, on Vasilissis Sofias Avenue.
The official opening took place on the 26th of October, in the presence of the Greek Prime Minister. The difference compared to the past is that out of the 11 flower shops that used to be on this site, there are only two left. The space between them now sells souvenirs from museums around Greece, replicas from the workshops and works from the collection of the Hellenic Parliament Foundation Publications.
Spyros Kontogiannis is the veteran of the area, as his family has owned a flower shop here since 1932. “I’ve been here since I was a child in short pants,” he says, while people are standing at the door of the shop, greeting him warmly and welcoming him back – he is, after all, the only person who comes from the old days of the flower shop area, thus connecting the past with the present.
“Since I have lived in the old days of the flower shops, what would be ideal for me would be to have all 11 stores that were originally here open again. However, due to the current economic situation, it is impossible for 11 professionals to survive side by side, fighting for a piece of bread. We don’t know if even we will make it to the end either,” he points out, realizing that in crisis conditions, the market in which he trades is difficult.
“The fact that this space now exists and was combined with a store by the Ministry of Culture is good, because culture and flowers go together; it’s a nice combination,” he notes, while from outside you can hear the characteristic pace of the Evzones (members of the Presidential Guard) going up the street after the changing of the guard.
Eyewitness to Historical Events
Mr. Kontogiannis recalls a series of historical events he witnessed while in the family flower shop: “I have experienced a lot in my life. I was seven years old when I saw the junta’s tanks passing outside the shop. In fact, a soldier, who was sitting on the tank track, fell on the flowers,” he says with a laugh and adds: “I’ve witnessed a lot of hilarious situations and pranks; this spot used to be a landmark and a meeting point. But times have changed.”
“I had the privilege to live in the good old days, when things were more humane and calm. I have many stories to tell, from the 50s to the late 70s, when our shops were open 24 hours a day. Nightclubs were booming back then, when bouzoukia (nightclubs that feature live urban folk-pop music, deriving from the plural of the musical instrument bouzouki) were really popular. The florists were really busy back then, for example Tolis would pass by [Apostolos “Tolis” Voskopoulos – legendary Greek singer], looking for a specific flower and he would say ‘load them all’. And many other examples…”
Of course, the events were not always pleasant; when you are in the very center of the capital, you see a lot of things: “We certainly also had some bad experiences. There was chaos at the Karamanlis campaign rally in 1974; the Egyptian embassy was attacked, panic prevailed and there were victims. Then, we had the protests against the memorandums. They didn’t just influence us, they brought us to our knees. A crowd passed through the flower shop at the demonstration in support of pensioners, after which there were no flowers or vases left…”
The Power of Flowers
At the other end, on the side facing Syntagma Square is “The Power of a Flower,” a Social Cooperative Enterprise of 11 young people with special needs.
As they informed us in the store, the social cooperative “employs people with mild mental disabilities, in order to give them the chance to work. They have been given a plot at the airport, where they grow plants and flowers with the help of an agriculturist. Then, they harvest them and make bouquets that are offered to subscribers – this is how the association survives.”
“This week, four such young men and women have come to work in the flower shop, and made the bouquets themselves,” they say, noting that the purpose is social: “To offer work and social integration.”
Between the two flower shops, there is now an elegant space, a long narrow zone, where items found in museums around Greece are sold.
One section is focused on Athens, while others feature souvenir exhibits from various iconic places, and you can also find exact copies from trusted workshops. Due to the limited space, a number of targeted choices have been made.
In one of the sections, the Hellenic Parliament Foundation exhibits its own publications.
The Historic Flower Shops
The history of the flower shops of the Parliament begins in 1932, when the first flower stalls appeared after the construction of the monument to the Unknown Soldier. Then, by law, 11 flower shops were designed and created under the courtyard of parliament. Over time they developed into a landmark in the center of Athens.
The reconstruction and renovation project of the historic flower shop area was developed by a joint initiative of the Hellenic Parliament, the Ministry of Culture and Sports and HPPC.
This article was previously published in Greek at kathimerini.gr.