Just a few metres away from Syntagma metro station and right next to the Greek parliament lies the national garden which, together with the Ζappeion hall garden, 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 park.
Before it was renamed “National”, the garden was called “royal” or “the garden of Amalia” the queen to whom it owes its rare existence. The interest of Queen Amalia, wife of king Otto, in the Garden was such that she is said to have spent at least three hours a day personally taking care of it. She herself also planted the iconic 25-metre-high Washingtonia palm trees which grab the attention when one enters the garden from the gate on Vasilissis Amalias Avenue.
Next to the gate on Amalias Avenue, there’s always a street vendor supplying passers-by and visitors with traditional “koulouri Thessalonikis”, bread rings covered in sesame seeds, people are crowded at the bus stop and the kiosks are stocked for every contingency. 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, make new acquaintances or perhaps even start a romance. There are also many Athenians who prefer the National Garden for their exercise and every now and again you will spot people jogging through this luxuriant city paradise.
The impressive numbers speak for themselves. The Garden is home to 7,000 trees, 40,000 bushes and other plants, making up 519 species and varieties. 102 of them are Greek, with Judas trees, oleanders and carob trees the undoubted stars, while others come from different 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.
In the green heart of Athens, there are also six lakes, all with a sizeable complement of playful ducks. One of the favourite pastimes for Athenians over the years has been feeding their amphibious neighbours, something for which little children and love-struck youngsters show a particular relish.
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.
A sight that attracts not only the international visitors to the Garden, but also the Athenians themselves is the famous sundial situated at the main entrance. The shadow of the hand, depending on the position of the sun, indicates the time, which everyone tries to guess at without looking at their watch or mobile phone; a momentary return to our pre-mechanized past.
The Garden also has a conservatory, children’s library and a small café. 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 as well as 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. The entrance to the traditional café in the Garden is on Irodou Attikou Street.
Zappeion Hall, though officially separated from the Garden, is, to all intents and purposes, 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. However, one stands out and takes your breath away the moment you set eyes on it. Created by Henri Michel Antoine Chapu, Jean Alexandre Joseph Falquiere and Lazaros Sohos, the figure of English poet Lord Byron is a sight to behold, with Greece placing a wreath on his head as a token of honor and gratitude for his contribution to the struggle against the Ottomans. A statue in perpetual motion, standing free in the open space of the garden.
A walk in the National Garden is love at first sight. It isn’t only a verdant oasis in the centre of a metropolis. The heart of Greek and Athenian history beats in the National Garden and it is there waiting for you to explore it.