One of the most popular parks in Athens

Once notorious, in the 1980s it became a park. Now it gets 5,000 visitors a day, making it the most popular park in a city that has never learned to live with open spaces. Veikou Park is living proof that people will flock to other places apart from shopping malls, though the state has paved the way for one of these monstrosities in the same space as the park, infuriating its fans. It is a sunny Sunday in summer and already by 9 a.m. the roads around Veikou Park in Galatsi have begun to fill with parked cars. In the morning, it’s mostly families with children and elderly people. Around midday comes the turn of the 20-40 age group, who come to exercise or enjoy a coffee in the shade of the pine trees. It would be hard to find a nicer place for children to play in urban Athens. It’s fenced, with winding paths perfect for cycling, a playground for the littlest kids, and a basketball court and soccer ground for the older ones. In short, Veikou is just the kind of friendly, well-tended park the average, harassed Athenian needs. And that is one of the reasons it is one of the most popular – if not the most popular – green spaces in Athens. «It’s a really lovely green space, where it’s easy to spend time, go for a walk, have a coffee, take your child to the swings. We’re very lucky to have such a place nearby,» local resident Dimitra Maxidou told Eco. «In fact, Veikou Park organizes lots of cultural events in September and for the Clean Monday holiday,» she added. «And it’s a great place for sports. I often come here with my friends to play basketball,» said her fiance Leonidas Kantzidis. «We come here often, especially on weekends. It’s ideal for families with small children,» said Vasso Kamba. «It’s really important to me that animals are not permitted in the park. So children can play on the grass without worrying that they will catch anything. Most parks in our neighborhood have been turned into pets’ toilets.» What makes this park different? It’s a bit like the old question about the chicken and the egg. Is it the fact that the public likes to go there that eventually made the park well-tended, or is it looking after the park that brings in the public? Veikou Park is a model of how to manage a green space and recreational area. Its 25.6 hectares contain a small outdoor theater, a children’s playground, an outdoor swimming pool, soccer facilities, tennis and basketball courts, an indoor gym, a cafe and a summer cinema. The park is guarded 24 hours a day and, apart from the guards, the staff includes gym trainers, a doctor, a nurse, gardeners and cleaners. Achilleas Vretzos from the Galatsi Municipality, who is in charge of the park, explained that it was once part of the Veikou Estate that belonged to a big landholder who owned a large part of what is now Galatsi. In the mid-1980s, the mayor of the time, Vassilis Papadionysiou, encroached on part of the estate to create the sports center that would become the nucleus of the park. Gradually the area lost its notoriety (rapes and even murders had been committed in the quarry on the estate), and became a landmark for the surrounding area of Galatsi, Nea Ionia and Filothei. «In 1986-87, when the sports center went into operation, the park used to get 300-400 visitors a day. Now an estimated 5,000 people a day visit the park, including many schools that come here on excursions,» said Vretzos, who is especially proud of the park’s 920 rosebushes, «in every imaginable color.» This article first appeared in the July issue of Kathimerini’s monthly supplement Eco.

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