Just a few metres away from Syntagma metro station and right next to the national parliament lies the National Garden which, together with the Ζappeion Hall, covers 24 hectares full of vegetation, rare kinds of plants, saplings and birds.
The garden is accessible from seven entrances: The central entrance on Amalias Avenue, one on Vasilissis Sophias Avenue, three on Irodou Attikou Street and two more in the area of Zappeion.
Before it was renamed “National”, the garden was called “Royal” or “The Garden of Amalia”, the queen to whom it owes its existence. The interest of Queen Amalia, wife of King Otto, in the garden completed in 1840 was such that she is said to have spent at least three hours a day personally taking care of it. She personally planted the iconic palm trees (now 25m tall) which grab the attention when you enter Vasilissis Amalias Avenue.
Next to the gate on Amalias Avenue, there’s a street vendor supplying passers-by with traditional “koulouri Thessalonikis”, bread rings covered in sesame seeds. But just a few steps into the garden allows you to escape the hurly-burly of the city. Shaded by eucalyptus trees, its benches make an ideal spot to bury yourself in a book or perhaps even start a romance as Athenians jog by.
The numbers speak for themselves. The garden is home to 7,000 trees, 40,000 bushes and other plants, making up 519 species and varieties. More than 100 of them are Greek, with Judas trees, oleanders and carob trees the undoubted stars, while others come from countries all over the world, such as Australian pines or Chinese trees-of-heaven. Centenarian Holm oaks, cypress trees and Canary Island date palms are also amongst the plants that have been a feature of the garden since it was first created.
There are also six lakes, all with a sizeable community of playful ducks. And one of the most amazing finds in the garden during 19th-century excavations is the Roman floor, uncovered at a depth of one meter, belonging to the courtyard of a Roman villa very near what is now the entrance on Vasilissis Sophias Avenue. You’ll also love the sundial at the main entrance, where visitors try to guess the time before looking at their watch.
The garden also has a conservatory, children’s library and a small café (entrance on Irodou Attikou Street). The conservatory is the place where plants are initially cultivated before being replanted in the garden and is considered to have been the country’s very first working greenhouse. The library, which has two reading rooms, a fairy tale room and a music and film room was founded in 1984. When it first opened, there were only 1,500 books on its shelves, but today there are more than 6,000.
Zappeion Hall, though officially separated from the National Garden, is effectively an extension of it, with a decorous courtyard boasting statues which recall recent Greek history, not to mention mythology. Busts of politicians, kings and historians; mischievous-looking satyrs emerging from the bushes; and little Eros statues lurking coyly, arrows at the ready make a quite enchanting collection of sculptures.
One stands out for its beauty and detail, created by Henri Michel Antoine Chapu, Jean Alexandre Joseph Falquiere and Lazaros Sohos: the figure of English poet Lord Byron, with the personification of Greece placing a wreath on his head as a token of honour and gratitude for his contribution to the struggle against the Ottomans.
Not bad for a stroll right next to the liveliest part of the capital.