You want to rub your eyes in disbelief when you first espy the square towers and elegant ramparts of the Pyrgos Vassilissis (Queen?s Tower) in Ilion, a rather nondescript neighborhood in western Athens. More than anything, it is a reminder that however well you think you know a city, there is always something new to explore.
The Queen?s Tower is one such landmark, and the January opening of the Kentro Gis (Earth Center) in the gardens of the recently renovated castle provides a unique opportunity to discover an exciting part of Attica, in one of its biggest green spaces, the Antonis Tritsis Park.
The tower is located on a 30-hectare plot of land purchased in 1838 by Britons John Williams and George Miles in the fertile valley of the Kifissos River, which they hoped to develop into a model farm.
Their plans failed and they sought a buyer for the land. By good fortune, in 1848 Queen Amalia, renowned for exploring the city on foot or horseback, was enchanted by the area during one of her strolls and convinced King Otto to purchase it and turn it into a farm. She also wanted to build a hill to bring to seven the number of vantage points on her newly acquired expanse, and in 1854 she built her tower on her seventh hill, which also gave the area the name Eptalofos, or Seven Hills.
According to Maro Kardamitsi-Adami, an architect and author of the Greek book ?Castles of Greece? (published by Melissa and the National Historical Museum), the Queen?s Tower was designed and built by French architect Francois-Louis-Florimond Boulanger (1807-1875), who, among other important landmarks in Greece, also built what is now known as the Old Parliament on Stadiou Street. It was basically designed around an earlier castle on the location, possibly from the Venetian era.
Kardamitsi-Adami informs us that in his brief monograph ?The Queen?s Tower,? Georgios Laios explains that the decoration of the walls was inspired by Bavaria?s Hohenschwangau Castle, where Otto was born, which was much larger in size and designed by architect Domenico Quaglio for Otto?s brother, King Maximilian II of Bavaria.
Despite the difference in size, the two buildings share numerous similarities in their neo-gothic composition, such as the square towers, arched windows, the imposing grand entrance and interior features as well.
Once the tower was built, Queen Amalia ordered the farm to be developed with thousands of fruit trees, vineyards and olive groves. Today, cypresses that are over 150 years old and wonderfully preserved stables are among the most impressive outdoor elements of the estate.
The current owners of the Queen?s Tower, who declined to be named, renovated the building and revived the gardens around it, while also providing headquarters for the nonprofit environmental group Organosi Gi (Organization Earth), which established the Earth Center.
The Earth Center went into operation just a few days ago and is an environmental education center, covering 2.5 hectares and with a permanent exhibition and gardens that are open to the public. The group also holds educational activities (mostly for children, though adults are more than welcome), which will in the future extend to guided tours of the castle.
The Earth Center is open Tuesdays to Sundays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. To participated in a group tour, call 210.232.5380 or 210.238.8275.