01 coverOne of Fayetteville’s most popular cultural celebrations, the Greek Festival, has been offering free admission every year for 28 years now. That’s fitting, as the spirit of the event is one of sharing. This weekend, Sept. 7-9, members of Fayetteville’s Greek community invite the greater area to share in their food, dance, music, traditions and sense of family. The fest is created and hosted by Sts. Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church. Events take place on the church grounds and inside the air-conditioned Hellenic Center.

The delicious food is one of the festival’s biggest draws. Who can resist the smell of gyros and lamb shank? And who would pass up the chance to try spanakopita (spinach pie), pastichio (Greek lasagna), souvlaki (skewered meat and vegetables) or dolmades (stuffed grape leaves)? Of course, you’d need to finish your meal off with handmade baklava or loukoumades (Greek donuts with honey and walnuts) and Greek coffee.

Kelly Papagikos, who’s helped with the festival for a decade and is married to the church’s pastor, said food is an important element in cultures and communities because it brings people together. “It’s so heartwarming to watch in the kitchen a (first-generation) great-grandfather and grandfather and son,” she said. “The best place in the Greek community is in the kitchen. That’s where all the action is.” 

Throughout the festival, there will also be Greek music played live, children and greeters dressed in traditional Greek clothing as well as god- and goddess-wear, and folk dance demonstrations with opportunities for audience participation. An Athenian Playground, a marketplace full of Greek goodies, the first annual Baklava 5K Walk/Run, and church tours and services round out the festival’s offerings.

The music, a blend of traditional and contemporary Greek songs, will be played by Paschalis, a band that’s been together about 20 years. Greece is home to over 200 cultural dances, each representing a region, village or island. The church’s Hellenic Dance Troupes are comprised of kindergarden- to high school-aged students; they grow up dancing, Papagikos said. The troupes will dance at several points throughout the weekend, wearing traditional costumes. The dancers give educational demonstrations and also perform routines that include inviting guests to join in the fun. The performances will take place in the Hellenic Center and outside under a large tent. 

The Athenian Playground, located at the back of the property, includes slides, cotton candy, bouncy houses and a mini train track – “everything a child could ever want,” Papagikos said. An added bonus this year will be the adjacent Night in Athens hangout spot for adults. This will be a relaxed area to enjoy the sights and sounds in a spot away from the direct center of activity. Papagikos said it’s the element she’s personally most excited about debuting. 

Another debut this year is the first annual Baklava 5K Walk/Run. It starts at 3 p.m. on Saturday and will wind around the residential area surrounding the festival grounds. Registration is $25 and includes a T-shirt and voucher for a small meal. Participants will be handed a celebratory piece of baklava upon completing the course.

Attendees can also pick up authentic ingredients and spirits at an on-site pop-up Greek grocery store. Papagikos gives free Greek cooking lessons all three days of the festival, twice a day. “Because we’ve gotten so many people wanting to learn how to cook Greek meals, we’re going to be selling a lot more (ingredients) this year,” she said. 

The shopping opportunities do not end with ingredients, though. Vendors from all over the city will set up an “agora,” modeled after a Greek marketplace. Papagikos said they’ve got more vendors this year than ever before. Items for sale will include jewelry, leather, knick-knacks, music, embroideries, rugs, clothing, folk art and icons. The event’s press release sums it up: “Buy a Greek fisherman’s hat and a belly dancing coin belt and you will fit right in as an authentic Greek! OPA!” 

Throughout the weekend, visitors can tour the Sts. Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Church sanctuary. Times are listed at the Hellenic Center entrance. The history and faith of the Eastern Orthodox Church will be explained, and there will also be an opportunity to attend the regular church service the Sunday of the festival. 

Finally, don’t miss out on your chance to win $2,000 or a round-trip ticket to Athens, Greece, by purchasing raffle tickets for $5 each. The drawing will be held on Sunday, and you do not have to be present to win. 

The Greek Festival is great fun, and it takes a village to make it happen. 

Nobody knows that better than the army of 15-20 ladies of the church who are responsible for the mounds of made-from-scratch Greek pastries each year. 

Also bonding in the kitchen are restaurant owners from all over Fayetteville – Papagikos said about 90 percent of the city’s restaurants are Greek-owned. She said these people come together every year to cook for the festival, putting their own businesses aside. The primary and long-serving leaders of festival kitchen operations are Greg Kalevas, owner of Chris’s Steak & Seafood House; Jimmy Hondras, who works with Kalevas; and Tony Kotsopoulos, head chef at Luigi’s. Kotsopoulos helped start the conversation about bringing the community together for a Greek festival in Fayetteville in 1988. All three men have helped in many capacities since the festival’s inception in 1991.

The chair of this year’s festival is Steve Goodson.

“For me, it is such a great fulfilment of joy,” Papagikos said. “The sense of community that is there when I see non-Greek people coming to our festival is so beautiful. Our culture is so rich. Our passion and our lives, our community and family ties, are so rich that people want to come and share a little piece of that with us. And that makes me very happy.” 

Credit cards will be accepted at many areas in the festival, but three ATMS will be on-site for purchasing from vendors who only accept cash.

The church and festival grounds are located at 614 Oakridge Ave. Parking is located in front of the church property and in the Educational Building parking lot. Street parking on Woodland Drive and the surrounding residential area is also available, but make sure to allow room for residents to enter and exit their property. Saturday, enjoy free parking at St. John’s AME Zion Church or at Synder Memorial Baptist Church on Westmont Drive.  

Events run Friday and Saturday, Sept. 7 and 8, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. and Sunday, Sept. 9, noon-6 p.m. 

For more information, call the church at 910 484-2010, email fayorthodox@gmail.com, or visit stsch.nc.goarch.org/greek-festival.

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