The historic estate of Tatoi awaits its future

The huge Tatoi Estate, once the country home of Greece’s former royal family, may now be under the jurisdiction of the Greek state, but the maintenance, protection and management of the extensive grounds and buildings has been largely neglected. On the 2,200 hectares of land, the 40 listed buildings or ruins thereof, the gardens, stables and other structures, neglect has now given way to looting. According to Constantine Stamatopoulos, researcher and vice president of the Hellenic Association for the Protection of Nature and Cultural Heritage, ancient oil flasks, statues and other artifacts that once graced the interiors of the buildings – even door frames and iron railings – have been removed. Some have ended up in antique shops, others at stalls in Monastiraki. «It is impossible to guard 2,200 hectares with just six policemen over a 24-hour period,» said Stamatopoulos. This is an estate that was paid for – let’s not forget that – by the Greek state, a property that combines unspoiled natural habitats, architectural monuments and which represents a long chapter in Greece’s history. Tatoi, however, has been left wide open to any passer-by who wants to make off with, or even destroy, parts of it. Six years of research by Stamatopoulos have led to the publication of two large volumes (456 and 320 pages respectively). «The Chronicle of Tatoi (1800-2003),» Kapon Publications, details the history of the estate, four or five generations of owners, the people who worked there and those who farmed the land. Documents, correspondence, diaries, photographs, drawings and maps illustrate the history, with details of the buildings, their architecture, the production of the Chateau Decelie wine on the property’s vineyards, as well as its dairy products. The great value of Stamatopoulos’s book, according to Constantine Mitsotakis, honorary president of the New Democracy party, is its «inside view of the royal home and the history associated with it.» «Reading this volume reminds us of what we had considered self-evident – that the monarchs were people, too. People with good points and failings, people who made mistakes, but also achieved things in the country they loved and with which they identified themselves,» wrote Mitsotakis in the prologue to the book. The idea for the book was born, according to its author, during an evening walk along the «Guitar» Lake (so named for its shape), looking out at the view toward the Saronic Gulf. «I thought that I could not bring about the preservation of the place by force, but I am a historian and could write a book,» he said. According to the memoirs of the famous neoclassical architect of early Athens, Ernst Ziller, it was he who suggested that King George I buy Tatoi. The young king, then 25, and his queen, Olga, 19, who already had three children – Constantine, George and Alexandra – were looking for a place near Athens to build a first real home of their own, where they could get out of town without being too far away. Ziller first built a house in a «Greek-Swiss» style, originally destined to be a guest house. It was used as a temporary home for the royal family until their own home was built, a replica of a house in St Petersburg. The royal couple sent the architect Savvas Boulis (the great-grandfather of Peggy Zoumboulaki, the art gallery owner) to St Petersburg to copy the design of the building, for which the foundations were laid in 1884. There are some elements missing in the history however. «We would love to know why Queen Olga chose this particular building, which was the most architecturally uninteresting in the Peterhof palace complex, and did not belong to her father, but to her uncle, the tsar,» said Stamatopoulos. The first building erected at Tatoi was the Church of Profitis Ilias. The grave of one of the king’s daughters, who died at 8 months of age, lies at Palaiokastro, properly called «The Site of the Royal Cemetery at the Acropolis of the Lacedaemonians.» The bill of sale was finalized on Monday, May 15, 1872 at the home of Scarlatos Soutsos. «On this day, Mr and Mrs Soutsos sold to King George two separate but neighboring properties. The first, to the east, was the estate of Mahonias Kiopesis, owned by Scarlatos Soutsos, on the boundary of the Municipality of Acharnes. The second, to the west, called Tatoi, was also in the Municipality of Acharnes and belonged to Soutsos’s wife Elpida A. Katakouzinou.» The cost of the two properties, divided by the Athens-Halkida road, was 300,000 drachmas, paid by the Palace Fund. On the day the contract was signed, 80,000 was paid as a deposit, with the remainder paid in installments of 80,000 drachmas in September and January, and 60,000 in May, 1983. The estate was intended for recreation, not a farm, claims Stamatopoulos. Of the total 4,500 hectares, just 850 were cultivated. «This was its economic weakness,» notes the author, adding that the rest was forest, mostly pines that had been planted. The estate’s wine was one of its best-known products, and continued to be produced right up until the 1967-74 dictatorship. Its butter, milk, olives and other products were sold at a shop at 19 Voukourestiou Street. Hunting was banned at Tatoi, so the deer imported from Hungary survived. Later, some of them were seen on Mt Parnitha. The main problem with Tatoi today is the multiplicity of organizations involved in running it, including many ministries and services. Stamatopoulos suggests setting up a single agency. Both the Culture Ministry and the Environment and Public Works Ministry are responsible for restoring the listed buildings (by decision of the Council for Contemporary Monuments). Despite signs erected by the latter ministry, the damage continues. «The guard house at the main gate, which had been stripped bare, has been repaired, but this took three months. The looters made off with windows and doors. All of them have been replaced but the work is shoddy,» he said. Some of the ideas he suggests for the use of the site include museums, spaces for cultural events, and low-impact sporting venues. The Hellenic Society for the Protection of Nature and Cultural Heritage is to hold an exhibition on the subject this coming December.