National Garden facelift begins

Three years ago, when management of Athens’s National Garden passed from the Agriculture Ministry to the Attica regional goverment, there were those who were concerned that the Garden as they knew it – a cool network of paths under canopies of trees, some over a century old, among thickets of typical Greek flora sheltering native and migratory birds – would soon be no more than a memory. Fears were expressed that at best there would be attempts to introduce flora from other parts of the world and to create a «foreign,» more formal park, or at worst that the entire nature of the site would be changed with the introduction of other activities foreign to the original nature of the site. The 15.5 hectares, originally laid out by Queen Amalia in the early 19th century, is owned by the State and currently managed by a seven-member board for the Region of Attica. However, it is soon to change hands again, following a government decision to transfer management to the City of Athens and the signing of a decision to that effect is pending. As yet, the municipality has made no final decision about the park’s future, according to press officer Sotiris Xenakis. «For the time being, a number of options are being considered. Several studies have been done in the past by various agencies. These are being looked at, as well as international experience with similar areas, historical and cultural monuments,» Xenakis told Kathimerini this week. Meanwhile, the current administrators have been engaging in a cleanup which has focused more on infrastructure than the actual vegetation, which bears evidence of some years of neglect. Playground equipment has been renewed and a non-slip surface installed on the ground, the public toilets renovated, and benches replaced throughout the walkways and clearings. The lakes have been drained and their beds replaced and insulated to prevent water loss through cracks in the old concrete, according to park officials, who told Kathimerini English Edition that this part of the renovation process will be completed by next month. The Children’s Library, now closed for the summer, will reopen with the schools, but the Botanic Museum is closed pending a new design of the exhibits; and there are also plans to incorporate an outdoor botanic garden. No doubt many of the Garden’s fixtures were due for renovation, although some of the changes made so far might not be to everyone’s taste. In some places the old-fashioned charm has been replaced by a more modern look, such as along the pergola-covered walkway from the gate to the Zappeion to the playground, where the old stone columns have been replaced by modern brick. The small zoo is still there, including a few of the traditional Cretan mountain goats (Capra Aegagrus). The undergrowth and some of the formal beds around the statues are looking a bit dry, and some of the clearings are in need of a good weeding, but it is summer in the Mediterranean, and the Sophora trees are in flower and such dense vegetation is to be found nowhere else in the city. The National Garden was originally created for the use of Greece’s new royal family who arrived after Greece was liberated from Turkish rule. In 1923 it was opened to the public and the name «National Garden» introduced in 1927 by ministerial decree. Improvements were made in the following years up until 1940, as well as after World War II. The landscape architecture follows that of the style popular in England in the 18th century, in which human intervention was in harmony with nature, in contrast to the more geometric French style adopted in the adjoining Zappeion park. Attic ecosystem An excellent guide (in Greek) to the park’s flora and fauna has been published by the Greek branch of the World Wide Fund for Nature, which is in favor of retaining the existing ecosystem that provides a habitat for many species of birds and is a nesting place for migratory species. «It would be good if the municipality would let everyone know when it has decided on a final plan for the Garden, and what the criteria for the planting scheme will be in future,» WWF official Eleni Svoronou told Kathimerini English Edition. «When the garden in the Ancient Agora was designed many years ago, there was a specific policy not only to focus on Mediterranean plants, but particularly those known in ancient Greece. We believe something similar should be done to retain the National Garden as a small ecosystem, and not just to use plants as decorative elements,» said Svoronou. The wandering paths give a feeling of depth and provide surprises as one comes across an open glade, a sunken Roman mosaic floor, a duck pond, a fountain, an alley overhung with wisteria, part of an ancient column overgrown with a vine. Light and shade alternate as open spaces contrast with overhanging vegetation. Pensioners sit discussing the state of the world in a little square off the main entrance. Tourists collapse on shady benches, finding respite from tramping around the city’s sights, and grandparents let their charges run ahead without fear of passing vehicles. So far at least, there appears to be no threat of a theme park or entertainment center making inroads on what is the only nature refuge in the city center and one of the greatest benefits to the city’s atmosphere.