The Queen’s Gardens

The National Garden

Behind the Old Palace (Parliament Building), lies a 16-hectare (40-acre) park, cherished by all Athenians. Formerly known as the “Royal Garden”, it was renamed the National Garden by decree in 1923.

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The Queen’s seat, this vantage-point once offered the Queen amazing views over the Acropolis and the Phaleron Bay. Photograph by Konstantinos Despotis

The park was commissioned in 1838 by Amalia of Oldenburg, Queen Consort of Greece from 1836 to 1862 as the spouse of Greece’s first king, Otto von Wittelsbach. Although over time it lost much of its original grandeur, the park still remains one of the most peaceful spots in Athens carrying on its initial purpose as an open-air oasis for a metropolitan city.

The park was designed by the German agronomist Frederick Schmidt to replicate a rustic field according to the German tradition of Landschaftsgarten. Queen Amalia even used the fledgling Royal Hellenic Navy to bring seedlings from around the world, over 15,000 species of plants and a variety of animals were imported including peacocks, ducks, and turtles [1].

The Queen was also happy to receive trees for her garden as gifts; the Empress of Brazil and the Khedive of Egypt sent palm trees, the King of Spain offered rose bushes from Grenada, while the municipality of Sparta presented citrus trees for the Queen’s orange grove; even a weeping willow from Napoleon’s tomb on Saint Helena Island made its way to Athens.

QueenAmalia

Queen Amalia of Greece, in her garden, c. 1855. Lithograph by Franz Hanfstaengl. National Historical Museum, Athens.

The French writer Edmund About remarked in 1854: “It will never be known how much water is required to maintain a lawn in Athens in July. It is truly a royal luxury. To water her plants, the Queen has taken over several reservoirs that supplied the city and satisfied Athenians’ thirst. The people of the capital are suffering but the lawn is doing well” [2].

It was only recently realized that the garden has been constantly irrigated with a daily rate of about 1200 cubic meters from an ancient aqueduct. The aqueduct, constructed by the Roman Emperor Hadrian in the middle of the second century AD, was rediscovered and repaired in 1847; ever since it remained the main source of water for the city of Athens till 1935, when the Marathon reservoir was completed [3].

Surprisingly a fragment of a lintel originating from Hadrian’s reservoir on Lycabettus hill can be found in the National Garden. The lintel was removed from its original location and was incorporated into the city wall in 1778; set above a gate it served as a strengthening crossbar. When the wall was demolished the lintel was left in the park as a romantic garden feature. Laying almost opposite to the Children’s Library, the fragment is indicated as ‘Ancient Ruins’ [4].

The Ottoman gate of Athens at the entrance from Messogeia (near the Parliament building) with the Boubounistra fountain in the center. Water color by E. Dodwell (1821).

The Ottoman gate of Athens at the entrance from Messogeia (near the Old Palace) with the
Boubounistra fountain in the center. Water color by E. Dodwell (1821).

The western part of the lintel of the propylon of Hadrian's reservoir in the National Garden.

The western part of the lintel of the propylon of Hadrian’s reservoir in the National Garden. Image source: Roman aqueducts.

The garden includes the ruins of the roman quarter of Athens, founded by Hadrian to the southeast of the ancient city. This new quarter which covered current Zappeion Gardens, and extended from the Panathenaic Stadium up to the Parliament building was named the ‘City of Hadrian’ or Hadrianopolis in the Emperor’s honor.  A mosaic of a roman villa, unearthed in 1839, was soon covered with a pergola and turned by the Queen into a banquet hall, known as the ‘Garden Room’.

The public was admitted into the gardens during certain times, but when the Queen decided that the privilege was being abused, it was resolved to admit only those holding special permits. However, when this provoked public outrage, the idea was quickly dropped [5].

Today the National Garden is open to the public from sunrise to sunset offering hundreds of special attractions across its 16 hectares. Just like Munich’s Englischer Garten the park contains a number of Romantic elements such as several man-made ponds filled with goldfish, sweeps of lawns set against groves of trees along with walking and bridle paths.

Other elements include a grotto, King Otto’s rustic hunting pavilion and a marble icehouse, where ice was stored throughout the year, (it now serves as the gardens’ restrooms). The garden also contains some smaller later additions such as King George’s neoclassical summer house. There are also: a picturesque but pricey café, children’s playgrounds, a children’s library (housed in the old hunting pavilion), and a zoo which holds ducks, peacocks and wild goats with large curved horns.

The Royal Garden c.1905. Anonymous postcard, personal collection of Martin Baldwin-Edwards.

The Royal Garden c.1905. Anonymous postcard, personal collection of Martin Baldwin-Edwards.

The National Garden also boasts numerous statues of iconic figures. On the south-east there are the busts of Count John Capodistria, first governor of Greece and of the Swiss banker and Philhellene Jean-Gabriel Eynard. On the south side there are the busts of the celebrated Greek poets Jean Moréas and Dionysios Solomos.

Throughout the year you can take a guided walking tour of the park and the city center to familiarize yourself with some of the more well-known spots related to Greece’s first royal couple.

Ilion Royal Estate

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Tour la Reine. Photo source: organizationearth.org

The Queen’s passion for trees and nature endowed Athens with yet another major green area, the Ilion Royal Estate. Located just a short distance from the heart of Athens the 250-hectare property was bought by Amalia during the period 1848-1861, in order to serve as a country retreat for the Royal Couple.

The Queen gave the name ‘Heptalophos’ (Seven Hills) to the property because it is consisted of seven hills (six natural and one artificial). Each hill has the name of an Argonaut (Jason, Theseus, Hercules, Orpheus, Peleus, Castor and Polydeuces). From the turrets of the historic Tour La Reine – the Queen’s version of Le Petit Trianon –  Amalia ran her farm, which served as a model for the improvement of Greece’s agricultural and livestock production. At the time her farm won prizes for its livestock, corn, wine, and legumes, and the wine was even exported to America [7].

The Queen’s tower, an emblem of idealized romantic architecture, was constructed between 1851 and 1854 and it follows the European tradition of the maisons de plaisance [6]. It was inspired by the Hohenschwangau Castle in Bavaria (lit: High Swan County Palace) which was built between the years 1833-1855 for Maximilian II of Bavaria, King Otto’s brother. Plucked straight out of a fairy tale both buildings feature neo-gothic architectural elements such as decorative towers and turrets, oreils, portals, balconies, pillars, and crenellated parapets.

Hohenschwangau Castle. Photo source Deutsche Welle.

Hohenschwangau Castle. Photo source Deutsche Welle.

The Orientzimmer in Hohenschwangau. The wall paintings illustrate prince Maximillian’s visit to the Royal Courts of Athens and Constantinople. Photo source Deutsche Welle.

The Orientzimmer room in Hohenschwangau. The wall paintings illustrate prince Maximillian’s visit to the Royal Courts of Athens and Constantinople. Photo source Deutsche Welle.

After King Otto was deposed in 1862, the estate was sold to the Serpieri family, who still owns it. In 2008 a group of young Greek businessmen rented the land under a special agreement with the owner and founded the Organization Earth on the premises of the Queen’s estate. Organization Earth is a non-governmental organization seeking to raise environmental awareness and bring children closer to nature [8].

Madame Jean Serpieris sits in the ballroom of the Tour La Reine in Athens, wearing a gown which belonged to the wife of Otho, first king of modern Greece, December 1961. The palace was built by Otho in 1840. (Photo by Slim Aarons/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Madame Jean Serpieri sits in the ballroom of the Tour La Reine, wearing a gown which belonged to Queen Amalia, December 1961. (Photo by Slim Aarons/Getty Images)

Throughout the year visitors can take a big stroll down the vineyards and the olive groves; observe rose chafers, newts, toads and frogs at the organic vegetable patch; visit the horse stables, the old stone farm buildings and the Queen’s tower. Every Sunday there’s a Farmers Bazaar with organic products and communal cook-ins for families.

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The vegetable patch. Photo source: organizationearth.org

Ilion Royal Estate – Organization Earth
67, Dimokratias Avenue, Ilion; 0030210232 5380; http://www.organizationearth.org

End notes

[1] Wikipedia contributors, “National Garden, AthensWikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, Retrieved October 31, 2015.

[2] John L. Tomkinson, (2006), Athens, Athens: Anagnosis. p. 91-92.

[3] Andreas Nikolaos Angelakis, Larry W. Mays, Demetris Koutsoyiannis (eds), Evolution of Water Supply Through the Millennia, London 2012, p. 408.

[4] W.D. Schram, “Hadrian’s aqueduct in Athens” in Roman aqueducts, Retrieved October 31, 2015.

[5] John L. Tomkinson, op. cit.

[6] Nikolaos Charkiolakis, Manos Mikelakis, Maria Psallida, “Historical Preview of the Recreational Parks and Botanical Gardens of Athens, Greece” in WSEAS Transactions on Environment and Development, Issue 11, Volume 4, November 2008, p. 933-934.

[7] op. cit.

[8] Diana Farr Louis, “Journey to the Center of the Earth -Bringing Nature Back to Athens”, The Huffington Post, 10 February 2013, Retrieved October 31, 2015.

Written by: Nicolas Nicolaides

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