Adventures in Tarpon Springs

Greek food, culture, and sponges

Story and Photography by Becca Barton

When my mother and her siblings were younger, my grandfather began the tradition of going around the table and having everyone share one thing they had learned that day. He saw it as a way to reflect and realize that we never stop learning. Sometimes at family gatherings, we still go around and share what we’ve learned.  

The Mindset

So when my grandparents took me on a tour recently of Tarpon Springs, the area where my grandfather grew up, I kept this tradition in mind. 

The Experience

Tarpon Springs is like a piece of Greece tucked away in a corner of the Tampa Bay area. Walking the streets, Greek chatter filters out of open shops, as men stand puffing away on cigars, watching people walk by from their doorways.

We visited National Bakery and picked up some kourambiethes, delicate little shortbread cookies dusted with confectioner’s sugar, that look like mini snowballs and melt in your mouth the same way. Overflowing piles of fresh bread stuffed into bags sat on top of the three display cases. The inside of each case carried shelves upon shelves of more sugary Greek treats. My grandmother picked up a couple of loaves of bread, taking a bit of the freshly-baked scent of National Bakery with us as a souvenir.

Visiting a few local churches was next on the agenda. We made it just in time to see the stained glass windows in full display, when the sun was high and cast stained glass shadows that made the floor look like the inside of a kaleidoscope.

It’s hard to walk past one storefront in downtown Tarpon Springs without seeing at least a few baskets overflowing with sponges inside. My grandparents and I had perfect timing, and made it to the dock as sponge divers unloaded one huge batch of freshly plucked sponges.

One of the best parts of Tarpon Springs is, of course, its flavor. Saganaki, feta cheese served—literally—flaming hot; the alternating flaky layers of spinach and phyllo dough in spanakopita; the bitter grape leaves rolled like mini burritos, stuffed with slightly sweet rice-and-beef to make dolmades. Oh, and the half pound of feta cheese in salt brine that my grandparents sent me home with.

The Takeaway

What did I learn on this trip? You don’t have to travel too far to get a taste of other cultures. Sometimes, as in the case of Tarpon Springs, it’s right on the other side of Tampa Bay. And when I finally run out of that feta cheese or need a fix of phyllo, I know where I’ll be going.

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