People who’ve never been to Greece but who might be curious what the culture is like should check out the 28th annual Greek Festival, hosted in downtown Augusta by the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church.
In recent years, radio talk show host Austin Rhodes has called it one of Augusta’s best festivals, second only to the Arts in the Heart of Augusta Festival.
The Greek Festival’s chairwoman, Penelope Ballas-Stewart, said it probably is the closest someone can get to experiencing Greek life without actually flying to Greece. Ballas-Stewart has 100 percent Greek heritage; she’s been to the country twice, and she hopes to go for a third time soon.
“We try to present every aspect of the culture,” Ballas-Stewart said. “We have the food, the dancing, the music — we even have Greek vendors, who have items that they get directly from Greece. So we try to create that feel that you’re maybe in the Greek islands somewhere.”
Ballas-Stewart contrasted Greek culture with American culture, saying that European life is much more laid-back and focused on friendships, eating and drinking, whereas in the United States, the culture is more about finances and business.
The festival is a longtime family affair for Ballas-Stewart, as her mother was the chairwoman of the festival from its inception and was in that position for 25 years before Ballas-Stewart filled in and took over a few years ago. Ballas-Stewart also is the parish council president, and she works closely with the priest, the Rev. Vasile Bitere, throughout the year.
This year, the fall festival starts Thursday, Oct. 12, and runs through Sunday, Oct. 15. The church also puts on a Greek Festival in the spring, but Ballas-Stewart said it’s a smaller event. For example, in the fall, the church has indoor and outdoor dining, but in the spring, it’s only outdoor dining.
“So the plated dinners, we don’t have in the spring,” she said. “It’s more sandwiches; we have a few a la carte items in the spring. That’s more of like an outdoor-type street festival. Whereas, the fall Greek Festival is everything that we have to offer. It’s a full entertainment schedule, indoor dining in the Hellenic Center. And we have more vendors typically in the fall than in the spring.”
Hundreds of volunteers put in many hours every year, transforming the church property into what seems like a small Greek village during the fall. All kinds of Greek foods fill the bellies of people attending. At the festival’s outdoor dining, the church offers gyros, chicken or pork souvlaki, lamb sandwiches, feta fries, calamari, Greek chicken wings and Greek pastries. Inside the Hellenic Center will be items such as Greek baked chicken, lamb dinner, pastitsio (a baked macaroni casserole, and one of the crowd favorites), stuffed grape leaves, spanakopita and tyropita (spinach and cheese puff pastries), and more.
Starting up a few years ago was a loukoumades eating competition that takes place throughout the weekend, where some volunteers from the audience compete to see who can eat the most loukoumades and win a prize.
“Loukoumades are like little Greek doughnuts, but they’re very light,” Ballas-Stewart said. “They’re not really as heavy as doughnuts; it’s dough that’s fried into small little round balls, and they’re dipped in honey with nuts.”
The festival also will have a bar that offers Greek wines and beers, as well as American wines and beers. The “party tent” of the festival, she said, is the Taverna.
“The Taverna is where we have our bar outside, and we have flat-screen televisions. There are some appetizers you can only get there,” Ballas-Stewart said. “And we air the football games all weekend long; it’s a great place to come and watch sports and then also enjoy the Greek festival at the same time. It winds up being a party tent at the festival, for sure.”
The indoor areas at the festival, Ballas-Stewart said, are more low-key and quiet.
“Outside is where we have the bands,” she said. “We do have music playing inside, but it’s not as loud. So for people that want to escape the noise of outside and escape the heat — hopefully it will be mild, but if not — it’s air-conditioned inside.”
Also inside are tours of the church’s sanctuary, which she said generally take place on the hour throughout the weekend. She said attendees are invited to the Sunday services during the festival to learn about the Orthodox church, and the public is always invited to attend services there.
Entertainment is provided at the Greek Festival by the band A Night in Athens, a trio featuring Nick Trivelas, George Antonopoulos and Joanna Kartsonis. The band performs at festivals and Greek nights all over the Southeast.
“They come every year, and they are phenomenal,” Ballas-Stewart said. “Nick Trivelas was actually a parishioner in Augusta for many, many years, and he played at my wedding. But he and Joanna Kartsonis and the lead bouzouki player George Antonopoulos — he will stand up on the tabletops and play bouzouki, which is a traditional Greek instrument that’s shaped sort of a like a banjo and has maybe a similar sound to it. He can really play. They’re always very entertaining, and we’re lucky that we have them at both our spring and fall festival every year.”
Other live entertainment includes live Greek dancing — one of the dancers is Ballas-Stewart’s own 16-year-old daughter.
“I always love watching our dancers,” Ballas-Stewart said. “We have our own dance troupe that dances, and my daughter is one of them. To see my daughter take part in her pride and her Greek ethnicity and learning the traditional dances and performing, it makes all the hard work worth it to me.”
Also at the festival is the Greek Market, in which vendors offer clothing, silver and gold jewelry, Greek worry beads, olive oil, baked goods, T-shirts, scarves and more. Ballas-Stewart jokingly compared worry beads to being somewhat like a “Greek fidget spinner.” She said they look like prayer beads.
Admission to the festival is free, but proceeds from money spent inside the festival
will benefit the ministries of the church, both locally and nationally. Holy Trinity and other volunteers coordinate with the IOCC (International Orthodox Christian Charities) to help families whose homes were damaged by natural disasters. The Rev. Bitere recently went down to Florida to help out by delivering commodities and compassion after Hurricane Irma hit (he originally was being sent to Texas to help out after Hurricane Harvey). The church also has supported the Ronald McDonald House, Salvation Army, Golden Harvest Food Bank, Empty Stocking Fund, Toys for Tots, and other charities.
“The food vendors are where we do make money off of the festival, through the sale of our dinners, sandwiches and food. But honestly, really, considering what you pay to go through a drive-thru anymore, it’s very reasonable. And you get great portions,” Ballas-Stewart said. “The quality of our food has always been top-notch. We have brought in entertainment in the past like Greek dance troupes that have traveled to other Greek festivals all around the country, and they always rave about the quality of our food. So we take a lot of pride.”
“It’s become a tradition for so many people who come back every year, and I always love hearing people who’ve never been before come and experience and give us their feedback,” she said. “It’s definitely a party throughout the weekend. We’re very proud of all of the hard work that goes into it, and we do it strictly to help share the culture and to give back to the community because we do feel very blessed that we’ve had such successful festivals in the past. We’re proud of our heritage, so we love being able to share that with the city of Augusta.”
This year’s fall Greek Festival runs from 4-9 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 12; from 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday, Oct. 13, and Saturday, Oct. 14; and from 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 15. The festival is downtown at the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church, at the corner of 10th and Greene streets. For information, visit holytrinityaugusta.org, call 706-724-1087 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.