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  • Writer's pictureAlex King

A Brief History of the National Garden in Athens

What is the National Garden?

The National Garden is a former royal garden commissioned in the mid-19th century that was redesignated as a public garden in 1927.

National Garden History

The National Garden is an island of peace, order and greenery that offers sanctuary from the cacophony, chaos and concrete of the modern city that surrounds it. With temperatures two-to-three degrees lower inside than outside, for generations, it has offered Athenians respite from the heat – and romance, too. But it’s also a relic of the long-abandoned utopian project to turn Athens into a modern, ordered and dynamic European capital city modelled after Paris and Berlin during the mid-19th century.

In the 1820s, the Greeks fought a War of Independence against the Ottoman Empire, which had ruled the region for nearly four centuries. Despite its proud history, during this time Athens had become a small and irrelevant backwater, compared to the other great cities of the Mediterranean. Following the war, the capital of the fledgling Greek state was established in Nafplio, a picturesque port city to the southwest, in the Peloponnese. But in 1834, the newly installed King Otto decided to move his capital to Athens in the hope of restoring Greece to its former glory.

A turtle sits on a rock at the national garden in athens

The second son of King Ludwig I of Bavaria, Otto himself, was shipped in, aged just 17 years old, in the hope that his Germanic royal blood would help lead Greece away from its eastern-facing Ottoman past and build a new western-facing state. Under Otto’s rule, inspired by Baron Haussman’s remodelling of Paris, grand new Neoclassical public buildings were arrayed around a modern city plan in the shape of a huge triangle, with Syntagma Square and the Old Royal Palace, which is now home to the Hellenic Parliament, on its western corner.

As workers toiled to build Greece’s brave new capital city in the 1830s and ‘40s, Otto’s bride, Amalia of the Grand Duchy of Oldenburg set to work on the royal family’s private garden, behind the palace. Commissioned by Amalia in the 1830s and completed two decades later, the meticulously ordered 15-hectare gardens contain six lakes, 7,000 trees, and 40,000 bushes and other plants, comprising over 500 Greek and imported species.

Thoughtful design and labyrinthine walkways trick you into thinking this small park is much larger than it really is. It’s said that Amalia personally spent at least three hours each day tending to the garden and it was viewed as a shining example of German-style rational planning and benevolent rule, which reformers hoped would help lift Greece out of banditry and backwardness. But Otto’s grand designs and his rigid German style of leadership were ultimately rejected by the Greeks and, after three decades on the throne, he and Amalia were forced out of the country, leaving aboard a British warship, the same way Otto had arrived.

Athens’ grand avenues are now arteries clogged with traffic and the space around them has been hurriedly and haphazardly filled-in, to accommodate the surge of refugees who arrived following the Asia Minor Crisis in the early 20th century and during the reconstruction boom after the Second World War. But the sweet air and serenity of the National Garden stands as a beautiful reminder of what could have been. In 1927, the area was opened up to the public and redesignated as the ‘National Garden’. While Otto’s legacy is still contested, Amalia’s gardens continue to be enjoyed to this day, a favourite haven for families with children, young lovers and elderly Athenians.

Open from dawn till dusk, you’ll find plenty of quiet, shady nooks to unwind in among the National Garden’s green embrace. There’s a huge amount packed in, such as statues; the Neoclassical Zappeion Hall (built for the revival of the Olympic Games and named after their founder Evangelis Zappas); a Botanical Museum, where you can learn about the creation of the palace and park; and even a small zoo. The park’s permanent residents include turtles, peacocks and tawny owls, some of whom were originally presented as gifts from around the world to the Greek royal family.

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