CULTURE

Escaping summer in the city

The public has access to less green space in Athens than in any other European city, with 4.6 square meters per person compared to 18 in Barcelona and 23.6 in Berlin, according to European Union figures for 1996. Yet their rarity is perhaps what makes the parks that are available all the more welcome. Some of them, such as the Kaisariani Forest around the Byzantine monastery, Philopappou Hill with its view of the Acropolis, and even the National Gardens, laid out by the first queen of modern Greece, bear traces of the city’s long history. Some are generally well cared for, others have been subjected to a pre-Olympic facelift with new benches and herbaceous borders, but all provide a respite from the car fumes and honking horns, even for a few moments. Two of the largest are presented here – one in the city center and the other in the northern suburbs between Maroussi, Kifissia and Halandri. National Gardens The most centrally located park, sought out by visitors weary of tramping the dusty streets, is the National Gardens, behind the House of Parliament and bounded by Zappeion Hall, now being used as a press and information center, Herodes Atticus Street and Vassilissis Sofias Avenue. The National Gardens were originally created in the mid-19th century for use by Greece’s new royal family which arrived from Bavaria after Greece was liberated from Turkish rule. In 1923, the park was opened to the public. Improvements were made in the following years, up until 1940, and after World War II. The landscape architecture follows a 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. The meandering paths give a feeling of depth, then emerge suddenly into open glades, past a sunken Roman mosaic floor, a duck pond, a fountain, an alley overhung with wisteria, a section of an ancient column overgrown with a vine. Light and shade alternate, as open spaces contrast with overhead vegetation. Athenians have always used the park for recreation or just to pass through on their way through the city. Pensioners discuss politics, grandparents with children head for the playground and duck pond, and young lovers find quiet glades. Water rushing along stone channels alongside the many footpaths has always been part of the park’s charm, particularly on a hot day. However, the gardens have been having a tough time of it lately, as their water supply that had flowed from a spring north of Athens via the Peisistrates aqueduct under the city was recently cut off by the construction of an underground garage and has yet to be restored. Bore holes have been drilled to reach ground water, and more is trucked in to water the annuals planted in time for the Games. But the gardens’ age-old trees and shrubs are showing the effects of the shortage. (Open sunrise to sunset. Entrances on Vassilissis Amalias Avenue, the rear of Zappeion Hall, Herodes Atticus Street and Vas. Sofias Avenue. A shady cafe is situated just inside the first entrance on Herodes Atticus Street, after turning in from Vas. Sofias Avenue.) Syngrou Estate In Athens’s northern suburb of Maroussi, on Kifissias Avenue, lies a piece of unspoiled countryside where people can forget for a while that they are near the center of the capital city. The forest is indeed beautiful. To the right of the main entrance on Kifissias Avenue are the original stables of what was once a major country estate; charming old buildings now house administration offices around an enclosed garden. No traffic is allowed except for staff vehicles. The narrow roads meander under age-old trees, mostly huge Aleppo pines and cypress trees, interspersed with open meadows throughout. The estate is open from dawn to dusk to the public, who are free to explore 97 hectares of classic Attic landscape that is much the same as it was when Iphigenia Syngrou bequeathed it 80 years ago for the purpose of «training good farmers and gardeners.» About 70 hectares of the estate are forest, with 20 hectares given over to agricultural activities such as orchards. Among the few buildings is the former owners’ villa, now in a rather decrepit state. (Agronomic Research Institute, tel 210.801.1146/808.2496. By metro on Line 1 (ISAP) to Maroussi or KAT; by bus nos. 550, A7, B7, or E7 along Kifissias Avenue. By car from Athens, turn right through the entrance gate at the lights for the «KAT» turnoff on Kifissias Avenue. Parking is available.