The army sometimes uses a small part of the gardens to practise their marching and drill – it’s an impressive display if you’re lucky enough to see it.
Situated a few hundred metres east of the Acropolis, the National Gardens comprise a large, green, open space in the middle of Athens, and are a perfect place to relax for a couple of hours during a day’s sightseeing. There is a playground, a café, and a beautiful botanical garden, making a pleasant change from the often-hectic environment of central Athens.
Botching the Botany
Commissioned by the then-popular Queen Amalia as part of a wider strategy of social improvement, the gardens were completed in 1840. They were designed by plant specialist Friedrich Schmidt, who imported over 500 different species of plants to ornament the gardens, as well as a menagerie of exotic animals including peacocks and turtles. Unfortunately his expertise turned out to be somewhat lacking, and many of the plants did not survive in the dry Mediterranean climate. However, the caretakers quickly adjusted their sights, and the park is now green and lush with vegetation.
A Political Animal
The gardens were the setting for an extremely unusual episode which triggered a chain reaction of political consequences. The Greek king Alexander was strolling here in 1920 when he was bitten by a pet monkey belonging to an unknown companion. The bite subsequently became badly infected, and Alexander died three weeks later. His previously-deposed father returned to the throne and began to replace distrusted senior military staff with more loyal, less experienced officers. This was at a time when the Greek army was engaged in a fierce but very winnable war with Turkey, backed by its allies Britain and France. After the changes in military staff, however, the Western powers removed their support, and in the resulting chaos the Greeks lost several key battles and tens of thousands of civilians died in the Great Fire of Smyrna. Winston Churchill wrote that "it is perhaps no exaggeration to remark that a quarter of a million persons died of this monkey's bite”.
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