National Gardens | Attraction Guides | History Hit

National Gardens

Athens, Greece

Lucinda Smyth

21 Apr 2021
Image Credit: Shutterstock

About National Gardens

The National Gardens (formerly the Royal Garden) are a public park of 38 acres in the centre of the Greek capital, Athens.

History of the National Gardens

In 1838, Queen Amalia of Greece commissioned the German horticulturalist Frederic Schmidt to build a garden spanning 38 acres outside the Royal Palace. Amalia was on a mission to shake things up in Greece: originally from Germany, she was a fashion influencer, a staunch Protestant (in a country devoted to Greek Orthodox), and ultimately became a controversial political figure who was the target of an assassination attempt.

For the gardens, she imported 500 species of plants from all over the world, and animals including turtles, peacocks and ducks. In what might retrospectively serve as an omen, many of the plants died as they couldn’t adjust to the Mediterranean climate.

Over the next two centuries, the garden became the site of a number of modern Greek tragedies. Most notable was its role in the events leading up to the Asia Minor catastrophe. While walking in the garden in September 1920, the Greek King Alexander was bitten by someone’s pet monkey and subsequently died from sepsis. As a result of Alexander’s death, his father Constantine was reinstated as the King (he had been ousted for his Pro-German sympathies during World War One).

The new king Constantine defeated the prime minister in the next general election and rapidly began changing the political landscape to resemble an authoritarian monarchic state. This was an influential factor in the decision of the allies to withdraw their support, leaving Greece in a state of political and financial turmoil.

In 1923, following the defeat of Greek troops in Smyrna by the Turks, the ‘population exchange’ of Asia Minor caused over 1.6 million people to be forcibly made refugees and denaturalised as citizens from their respective homelands. Winston Churchill wrote that: “It is perhaps no exaggeration to remark that a quarter of a million people died from this monkey’s bite.”

The National Gardens today

The National Gardens are surprisingly often overlooked. Since it was opened to the public in the 1920s, the National Gardens have remained a surreally tranquil park – and there are still a huge variety of tropical plants, despite it not quite fitting Queen Amalia’s original plan.

The overall effect is a peaceful respite from the dusty centre of the city, which wouldn’t look out of place in a classical painting. Henry Miller described it as “the quintessence of a park, the thing one feels sometimes in looking at a canvas or dreaming of a place one would like to be in and never finds.”

Terrapins swim in the shallow pond under a statue along the walkway. Butterflies and green parrots flit around the orange trees. Tall thickets of tangled bracken have been fashioned into arches to provide shade.

The Gardens are free to visit, and hard to beat for those looking to rest after a day sight-seeing. (If you see a monkey though – run).

Getting to the National Gardens

The National Gardens are 5 minutes’ walk from the Acropolis, between Pangrati and Kolonaki.

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