I was parched and dreaming of an ice-cold beer after a three-hour walk under the beating sun in one of Attica?s most enchanting places, the Tatoi Estate. The truth is that it was not the heat that made me desperate for a break, but the fact that I was overwhelmed by the experience. This was not only my first visit to the estate that once belonged to the former Greek royal family and which came into the state?s possession in 2003, but it was also the strong dose of reality that comes from actually seeing the state of abandonment of the area?s 40-odd buildings and once-beautiful gardens.
My host and guide, historian Costas M. Stamatopoulos, was the person who provided answers to all of my queries regarding the estate?s past and its gradual demise. He has been researching Tatoi?s history since 1998 and in 2004 published two tomes on the subject, while he is also about to launch a comprehensive visitors guide to Tatoi in October.
My tour began at the chief gardener?s house, which, built in 1880, is one of the oldest and most run-down buildings on the vast estate, and continued past the palace and the tennis court and then onto the stables, the cowsheds, the dairy and the hill where the former royal family?s cemetery is located.
On the way, we met dozens of families having picnics as well as joggers and walkers enjoying the sound of the cicadas, the clean air and the wonderful views. But, the tranquillity of the natural surroundings was marred by the sight of buildings with collapsed roofs, rusting abandoned cars from another era and the feeling that the humidity had over the years eaten away at the contents of all of the other buildings that appear to be in a somewhat better condition.
Tatoi is the perfect example of what happens when the state neglects to maintain and develop a major asset and when it is too shortsighted to see the potential of such a vast park with so many buildings being turned into a model of development policy. Can this all change?
?Of course,? insisted Stamatopoulos. ?One of the few good things to have come from the crisis is that several ?cold cases? have begun to move.? The historian added that ?everyone knows that it is in the state?s interest to design a plan to develop Tatoi.?
Playing devil?s advocate, I pointed out that the cash-strapped state could not possibly come up with the funding necessary to renovate all of the buildings, spruce up the gardens and pay for all the necessary maintenance.
?I agree, but what we need right now is to take care as fast as possible of two or three buildings that are at risk of collapsing in the first rainstorm by covering them with some kind of protection. These are 19th-century constructions that are decaying fast and salvaging them from rot would be a big first step.?
Our walk continued past small houses that resembled something out of a fairy tale. Enhancing the sense of otherworldliness, we came across a flock of sheep: ?They?re not supposed to graze here, but who?s going to stop them?? muttered the historian.
The destruction caused by years of abandonment becomes more and more obvious the deeper you get into the estate. Even though there is plenty of photographic evidence of the long-lost luster of many of Tatoi?s buildings, it would be a challenge to find the blacksmiths and marble workers to restore the wonderful decorative elements.
?There?s an idea about how Tatoi could be reborn,? said Stamatopoulos. ?It could be made to contribute to the revival of lost crafts and to create a new generation of specialized craftsmen. The truth is that the issue is not really about whether or not an association or board will be put together to manage the estate, but what the philosophy will be, whether a state body is able to put back into operation buildings that are not linked with state services. I believe that the estate needs to be developed in a way so that it funds itself, and fast. For this to happen, all we need to do, for example, is introduce an admission fee. We could revive agricultural activity here and sell products with a Tatoi brand name. On this level you could have a lot of synergies with private companies. We could also lease some of the buildings.?
I interrupted my guide to ask for his thoughts on the possibility of the estate being rented out for weddings, a booming industry in Greece.
?Despite what many people believe, the Tatoi Estate has always exuded a kind of modesty. The tenants of these buildings never lived in a provocative manner,? he responded. ?The buildings were never endowed with ostentatious luxury in neither their interior nor their exterior decor. This spirit of modesty continues to survive here. So of course it can host events, but they have to be carefully selected and hosted only on certain parts of the estate. Everything is possible, as long as we respect the natural surroundings, which should always come first.?
To be fair, one of the reasons the Tatoi Estate has been left to deteriorate is its connection to the former royal family and the fact that for many Greeks that is an era of the country?s history best forgotten.
?This is one of the most beautiful parts of Attica and it is now the property of the state,? Stamatopoulos said. ?I think it?s ludicrous, criminal in fact, to leave it to its own fate and to deny citizens its beauty, the revenues it can bring in and even this chapter of history, which no one can erase. Enough time has passed for us to now look at the monarchy from a more mature and level-headed perspective. Let us look at the facts clearly, without passion or stereotypes, without leaving anything out or distorting events. I believe that Tatoi should remind us of what it once was, remind visitors where they are, not be transformed into something that appears detached from its own history. I would suggest, for instance, that the palace be transformed into a museum on the monarchy and its roots. We could have a museum about the estate itself, as well as a another with the old cars and carriages that are still here, and this would be something unique in Greece.?
Our walk ended on the hill with the royal graves. Some have tried to scratch over the names on the tombs with knives. Looting, meanwhile, remains a common phenomenon.
?Over the past 12 years that I have been visiting the estate regularly,? said Stamatopoulos, ?I have seen a lot of damage done: buildings being smashed and objects being broken or stolen. I must admit, though, that in the past few years there has been a lot of renewed interest in the fate of Tatoi, and especially from young people who have formed groups on social networking websites. It was through such initiatives that the Friends of Tatoi was recently established. And, together with the Mount Parnitha management association [a part of the Tatoi Estate comes under its jurisdiction] and the Ministry of Culture?s collaboration, I no longer feel as though I?m alone.?
The time for a cold beer was upon us. We sat at a taverna near the estate and enjoyed the breeze and the view.
The Tatoi Estate is densely wooded, mostly with pine trees. I asked my guide, historian and Tatoi expert Costas M. Stamatopoulos, what measures were being taken to protect the estate from forest fires.
?The fire service is very vigilant and conducts regular patrols,? he said. ?Of course, developing the estate would be a great improvement as there would be a lot of people all day long who worked here. The 4,000 hectares that make up the estate are separated into three areas: the court, the administration and the ?village,? where agricultural activity and livestock farming took place. Finally, there is the royal cemetery on Paleokastro Hill, and the acropolis of Ancient Decelea [on which Tatoi stands]. Surrounding the estate is the garden, and around that the woods.?
As far as the constructions on the estate are concerned, Stamatopoulos explained that thanks to the efforts of the Hellenic Society for the Protection of the Environment and Cultural Heritage, the core of Tatoi, or 1,800 hectares, and 28 of the 40 buildings have been listed for preservation.
?No one knows by what criteria the rest of the buildings were denied listed status,? he said. ?But at least that decision was important so that we can protect the area from further damage and looting.?