Welcome to the National Gardens of Athens! Right next to busy Syntagma square, this visitor-friendly and historical green space is an oasis of 19thcentury romanticism. Planned in 1836, the Gardens are actually the first park/botanical garden created in the Greek capital.
7,5 kilometres of winding pathways lead us to a different picture with each turn. A fountain, a clearing, a folly, a rock garden, a pond…Statues of romantic poets of the era match the scenery.
Several ionic-style columns and capitals are scattered as decoration about the Gardens, according to European ideas of the time. The park stands on overlapping important classical Greek and Roman-era antiquities, parts of them visible along Amalias avenue and inside the Garden proper.
The park today covers an area of 158 square kilometers (288 sq. k. together with the adjacent Zappion gardens). It is open daily from sunrise to sunset and the visitor can orientate by info stands and direction signs.
The Gardens are not only a free recreation space but also host educational opportunities for kids.Programs are carried out by the Athens Municipality (managing of the Gardens), schools, environmental NGOs and the Gardens’ own excellent Children’s Library. Furthermore, there is a large children’s playground, a small zoo of barn-yard animals and a café.
The Gardens were initially planned (1836) as a closed private leisure space for the adjacent Royal Palace of the time (presently the Greek Parliament). The Bavarian architects and agronomists working in the palace employed a design for a Garden that’s similar to the “English Gardens” of Munich (hence the many curved pathways). The works were continued later under the supervision of the French agronomist of Dolmabahҁe Palace Gardens in Istanbul.
Hundreds of new species of trees and shrubs were imported from all continents of the world, reaching as far as the Americas, South Africa, Australia and China. The collection was enriched by endemic species of plants found in regions of southern Greece. Currently, some 7.000 trees (mostly evergreen) and tens of thousands of other plants belonging to 519 species and varieties are found in the park – of these only 102 are endemic. The botanical richness of flora gives the Garden an exotic look.
Not all rare and precious imported plants were suitable for the Mediterranean habitat but those who survived still thrive, several individual ones already completed a century and more. All oak trees in the Gardens date back from 1845. The trees are a welcoming sanctuary for many species of birds, including migratory ones.
The main entrance from Amalias avenue faces one of the Garden’s landmarks, the tall and slender Washingtonia palm trees.
In front of them, Athens’ only marble sundial – a good idea to tell the time for a city with an average 300 days of sunshine per year!
This is not just another fountain: it is Boubounistra, the therapeutic (low calcium) spring that used to supply drinking water to most of old Athens…Today it is one more refreshing corner in the Garden during summertime heat.
Every day these little streams distribute some 1.050 c.m. of water for the Garden’s needs via a 1920’s pipeline system that uses the ancient aqueduct of Pisistratos (600 b.C.), collecting water from Mt. Imitos.
Ever since the Gardens opened to the public (1923), the largest pond in the Gardens was the place for kids to feed the super-popular ducks and swans. After the recent poultry ‘flu outbreak these animals unfortunately had to be confined. The little wooden bridge still remains a focal point for our memories…
School kids always find it fascinating to gaze at the huge carp and other gleaming fishes swimming in one of the Garden’s fishponds, the one near the entrance from Vas. Sofias avenue being the most famous one.
Beauty and nostalgic mood easily combine while taking pleasure from the Gardens’ wonderful tranquility. A place worth-visiting, in the heart of Athens.
It remains in my memory like no other park I have known. It is the quintessence of a park, the thing one feels sometimes in looking at a canvas or dreaming of a place one would like to be in and never finds. Henry Miller, The colossus of Maroussi, 1939
Article by Sophia Nikolaou