TARPON SPRINGS –On a chilly Sunday night, belly dancer Mari Lewis sways to the music of the bouzouki, a melodic Greek string instrument.
She moves around the tables at Mama’s Greek Cuisine enticing customers to join her in some hip-jiggling moves. A balding middle-aged man tries to keep up but appears to be doing a slow version of the twist. A young blonde shimmies up and is greeted with cheers and clapping all around.
The ever-smiling Mari continues her exotic movements with flowing grace. Equally dramatic across the room, a waitress carries in a pan of saganaki, a flaming cheese appetizer.
“We like to keep the Greek traditions going,” says Georgia Memisakis, owner of Mama’s, which was named after her mother, Maria, who opened a restaurant in the Sponge Docks District here in 1961.
Tarpon Springs, about 30 miles northwest of Tampa, is about as close to an authentic Greek coastal village as one can get outside of Greece, says Nick Karterouliotis, who runs the town’s famed Hellas Bakery and Restaurant, home to more than 80 types of Greek pastry.
“We have generations of family-owned businesses here,” he adds. Many gift shops, Greek restaurants, sight-seeing cruises, bakeries and attractions along Dodecanese Boulevard are owned by second- and third-generation residents of Greek heritage.
A mix of Old Florida and Greek culture, Tarpon Springs is celebrating its 125th year as one of Florida’s unique treasures.
From the aging sponge docks along the Anclote River to the small historical downtown with its Victorian homes and the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral, the town has maintained a quaint, laid-back atmosphere.
Memisakis says “Mama’s is the only restaurant on the docks that has belly dancing now, and it’s only on Sunday nights.” Lewis, who hails from Panama, is not Greek, but she looks the part. “I like it when the customers get up and try to dance along,” she says.
Come spring, there will be belly dancing on the streets here during the monthly “Night in the Islands” weekend street festivals.
In December there is only a trickle of tourists, but soon the town will swell with winter visitors. January brings thousands for the annual Epiphany Day on Sunday, sponsored by the St. Nicholas Cathedral.
It’s part of a three-day celebration that includes the annual blessing of the fleet at noon on Saturday. At about noon on Sunday, the priest will lead a procession from the cathedral to nearby Spring Bayou at the edge of town.
A cross will be tossed in the chilly waters, and dozens of young men will dive for it. The one who brings it up gets a year of good fortune. Hundreds of spectators line the shore to watch, and a day-long festival of food, drink and fellowship follows the dive.
“We have many Greek traditions here,” says Karterouliotis, who spent much of December overseeing the baking of hundreds of loaves of the traditional Christmas Sweet Bread and the New Year Bread (with a coin inside each loaf to bring good fortune).
Greek divers from the Dodecanese Islands first came here in the late 1800s to harvest sponges from the Gulf. The docks have since become a tourist attraction that includes a small aquarium, the Sponge Factory and the kitschy Spongeorama Museum, which has been closed for renovation but is expected to be open this month.
Stroll along the docks district and you may hear locals speaking Greek or see them playing social card games in pubs and cafés off the main drag. The city sits between a stretch of Anclote River and several bayous and lagoons. Manatees can be found in Spring Bayou at the edge of downtown.
“A lot of people come to Tarpon Springs for the food,” says Memisakis. On or near Dodecanese Boulevard are Hellas Bakery and Restaurant, Yanni’s, Dimitri’s Mykonos, Costas Greek Cuisine, Cage Greko, and Plaka. Seafood is served at the popular Rusty Bellies, Paul’s Shrimp House and Capt. Pappas Fish House.
Beer lovers can quench their thirst at the recently opened Anclote Brew where owner Tommy Koulouris, 27, a third-generation Greek resident, stocks brews made in the area, such as Tarpon Springs-based St. Somewhere.
Tarpon Springs also is home to Castle Winery, in the historic downtown district. The winery, which makes one bottle at a time, has a romantic garden and courtyard. The building was constructed to resemble the 1820 Federal-style found in such coastal towns as Savannah and Charleston. For information on tours and tastings go to www.tscwinery.com.
It’s only a short drive or long walk from the Sponge Docks District to the Historic Downtown District. A trolley circulates through both districts on weekdays. Parking near the docks runs $2 to $3. There is free parking in town and a limited number of free spaces in the blocks near the docks.
“The docks are a draw, but there is so much more to do in Tarpon Springs,” says Kathleen Monahan, director of cultural and civic services for the city.
“In the early 1900s, Tarpon Springs was a vacation spot for the wealthy who came down here by train,” she says. “There would be opera and concerts on floating barges. Today we have become a mecca for artists.”
Antique shops and art galleries can be found downtown. There are Victorian-era homes and the impressive St. Nicholas Cathedral, a replica of St. Sophia Cathedral in Istanbul, where the ornate Byzantine interior is open to the public.
Also in the historical district is an early 1900s railroad station that has been converted into a free museum. It’s located on the Pinellas Trail, which also runs through Tarpon.
The city’s Cultural Center is in the historical former town hall built in 1915 and houses exhibits. It is open 9 to 4 p.m. weekdays.
The Heritage Museum in Craig Park on Spring Bayou traces the development of Tarpon Springs with vintage photography. A permanent interactive exhibit, “The Greek Community of Tarpon Springs,” explores domestic traditions, food, religion and celebrations.
The 1883 Safford House Museum has been restored and is open to the public Wednesdays and Fridays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Admission is $3.
The city also has a small beaux arts style Performing Arts Center located in a former school that was built in 1925. The center offers theater productions, jazz and folk concerts. Performing tonight is Jewish folk singer Lil’ Rev. See www.tarponarts.org for information.
“We also work to help preserve the Greek culture here,” says Monahan. The city’s Center for Gulf Folk Life sponsors classes in Greek cooking and music. “You can learn to play the bouzouki,” says Monahan.
The Folklife Center also sponsors festivals and concerts. Friday, for example, violinist Michalis Kappas and bagpipe player Manolis Choullis will present music and dance from the Dodecanese Islands at 8 p.m. in the Kalymnian House, another performance venue for art and culture, located downtown.