Rainy Day Fun: Souvenir Shopping in the Plaka

Shortly before noon on my second day in Athens it started raining, an event that always dampens my sightseeing plans. Stops on my itinerary included the Ilias Lalaounis Jewelry Museum, lunch at a taverna in the Plaka and then off to explore the historic Acropolis, the birthplace of democracy. As fate would have it, I noticed a souvenir shop, Greco Souvenir, in the distance and hoped I could find an umbrella in this emporium so I could continue on my way. My experience in that Greek souvenir shop, one of the hundreds of similar shops in Athens, was special enough to blog about.

Towards the front of the shop was a stand full of inexpensive, full-sized umbrellas. I chose an orange one and headed for the cash register. Being the shopper that I am, I decided to take a look around this jam-packed retail outlet to see if there was anything special– at the right price– to buy. Nothing caught my eye at first, but there were plenty of framed photos of Athens, art prints of the historical sights, statue replicas of Greek gods and goddesses, and of course, the typical destination monogrammed T-shirts, bags and tour books. All I wanted to do was get my umbrella and hurry on my way but much to my displeasure the weather wouldn’t let me. It started to pour down rain. Consequently, I decided to out wait the downpour and dig deep into what the store had to offer.

One of my favorite types of travel souvenirs is inexpensive, ethnic jewelry. It doesn’t take up much packing space and it’s something I enjoy for years after my trip. I noticed a rack of modern, gold Greek costume jewelry and wandered over to the display to examine the merchandise. My first reaction was I liked the shapes found in the pieces and the look of the jewelry, but I wondered would it look good on. I checked the prices; $10 for a pair of earrings, $8 for a bracelet, and the cost of the necklaces ranged from $5 to $10. The prices were definitely good so I started to try a few pieces on.

Many times, ethnic jewelry designs have meaning. Since most of the jewelry displayed at Greco Souvenir had basically four different repeating design shapes, I felt there was a significance to these patterns so I asked the friendly owner her opinion whether the jewelry communicated something. What happened next was a mini lesson on symbolism in Greek jewelry design. She explained the classic Greek key motif, known as the Meander motif, is named after the Meander River depicting its many twists and turns as is written about in Homer’s Iliad. This symbol represents the “eternal flow of things” or eternity. Also, the Meander motif can represent the bonds of friendship, love, and devotion, which she said makes it a popular jewelry gift for friends and lovers. The circular spiral design she went on to say signified a “long life,” and the four-cornered spiral communicated the “four seasons of life.”

The Hellenistic period was the greatest era for Greek jewelry. Beauty, harmony and simplicity were its guiding design principals. Gold was the favored material that made for both refined adornment and substantive value. Only the wealthy and powerful wore jewelry in this era. The design motifs always carried a deeper meaning and were connected to both religious and mythological philosophies of the time. Man’s symbiosis with nature and the supernatural was important; he or she must seek and keep the favor of the gods and goddesses to live a long, prosperous, happy life on earth and in eternity.

 

The shop owner also explained Greek symbolic jewelry could indicate allegiance to something, provide guidance, serve as a talisman, or tie the wearer to some belief system. The symbols are meant to communicate something about the person wearing the jewelry and to communicate something to the world. It is meant to represent who you are and share a part of yourself with others. As I learned more about the symbolism, I began to like this type of jewelry even more and ended up spending more than I had budgeted for souvenirs. Ultimately, I purchased eight pieces; three sets that I could mix and match the individual pieces all for right at $100. The owner gave me a discount because I bought so many items and she said she liked something about me, which led to the most special part of this rainy day encounter.

I never told her I was a travel blogger, something I like not to reveal when I am getting someone to open up to me. I am friendly by nature and love meeting new people and understanding their cultures. She sensed I was not the typical tourist but that I had the ability to connect with many different types of people. She could tell that what was in my nature was the desire for love, peace and prosperity for mankind regardless of your nationality, cultural or religious beliefs, and that I was the type of individual who exuded this persona. Her reaction to me made me elated because that is part of why I became a travel blogger: to share these philosophies with my readers and hope to make the world a better place through solo travel. Before I left she gave me two gifts, both were evil eye ornaments, one for my home to be put in the entrance way and one to carry with me on my travels.

In parting the shop owner told me these ornaments were to protect me from harm, ill will, a bad change in fortune or poor health. While I am not overly superstitious, I never question the age-old cultural symbolic customs of different people around the world. I knew these gifts were given to me in love and I deeply value them today. The rain subsided, we said our good-byes and I ventured down Kydathineon Street, a well-know pedestrian thoroughfare in the Plaka.

It was lunch time by then and I decided to slip into the first attractive taverna I came upon to sample a cultural food favorite, moussaka, and a tasty Greek salad before I headed to, ironically, the jewelry museum of Ilias Lalaounis, the famous contemporary jewelry designer who made pieces for Jackie Kennedy and the like. Being a woman and having the freedom to devote this much time to understanding Greek jewelry was delightful. I knew this would have never happened if I had been traveling with my husband and not traveling solo!

Enjoy the short pictorial documentary video on Ancient Greek Jewelry and see the magnificence of some of humanity’s earliest jewelers.

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