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Annual General Meeting 2016: The Athens Programme

by Caroline Davies
photographs by Caroline Davies

Photographs to illustrate the article published in The Mediterranean Garden No 87, January 2017

The typical Greek blue skies and sun were mostly absent during the 2016 AGM in Athens, but Caroline Davies recounts how the participants still had a great time.

The first day started with a visit to the archaeological site of Kerameikos.
Caroline writes: Its name derives from the potters who settled nearby along the banks of the Eridanos River which offered them a supply of clay, while they benefited from work at the cemetery, creating burial urns, memorials and sculpture. As well as the visible swampy areas, we noted the early drainage system and arched bridges over the riverbed which pointed back to once gushing winter torrents. The resulting vegetation at Kerameikos made it a perfect starting point for our day: hillocks with silver waves of the Mediterranean shrub Limoniastrum monopetalum backed by olive trees, places to sit under spreading fig trees, capers (Capparis sicula) spreading along walls and in the one surviving mosaic floor, and the brilliant pink of oleanders in full bloom. We even disturbed a tortoise hiding by massive stone blocks… all so close to the busy heart of the city.

Bridge at Kerameikos

Then on to the Philodassiki Botanical Garden on Mount Hymettus.
Caroline writes: The purpose of the garden, which was established in 1964, is to display the plants of Greece, including a rich collection of bulbs, shrubs of both maquis and phrygana, conifers, evergreen and deciduous trees. Despite the scarcity of rain in Attica this year, resilient Cyclamen graecum had pushed through in the rocky scree, although their stems were much shorter than the ones I had seen on C. hederifolium two weeks earlier in Corfu, following heavy rain. Colour came from the bright red fruits on Arbutus unedo,which we were invited to sample, and the highlight for many of us was an expanse of Crocus pallasii subsp. pallasii nestled between rocks. The large lilac flowers of this member of the saffron crocus group were enchanting. We ended by exploring the extensive nursery which is an important facet of the garden, propagating many species which are not generally available to the general public and ensuring the survival of threatened plants.

Cyclamen graecum at the Philodassiki Botanic Garden

Crocus pallasii subsp. pallasii at the Philodassiki Botanic Garden

The gardens surrounding the new Opera House and Library financed by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation have recently been opened to the public.
Caroline writes: Here we were to encounter landscaping on a very large scale. These gardens were designed by New York landscape designer Deborah Nevins in collaboration with Helli Pangalou from 2010, and the project was completed at the end of August this year. An early task was to create a massive artificial hill, rising towards the south of the site which offers spectacular views to the sea. A wide range of trees, shrubs, aromatic herbs, water features, playgrounds, open spaces and curving landscaped walkways were revealed as we toured with Helli, learning much about the park’s construction, choice of plants and purpose, also taking in views away from the sea, towards the city, as far as central Kolonaki. I conclude this description with some of my favourite plantings:  mature olive trees surrounded by a sea of lavender and other silver shrubs, an entire garden of Rosa chinensis ‘Mutabilis’, with single blooms resembling masses of multi-coloured butterflies, and the extensive use of local Attica grasses, shimmering in the sunshine.

Olive and lavenders in the Stavros Niarchos Gardens

Attica grasses and the long view from the Stavros Niarchos Gardens

Caroline noted that all her previous visits to the MGS garden at Sparoza had been in the spring, so for the first time she saw the glories of the autumn bulbs; Cyclamen graecum, Sternbergia lutea, and Narcissus obsoletus along with the outstanding Mandragora officinalis.

Narcissus obsoletus at Sparoza

Mandragora officinalis at Sparoza

The final visit was to a private garden which many of us believe is in the league of some of the famous Mediterranean gardens in Italy or the south of France.
Caroline writes: Wide stone staircases led from the house into a seemingly endless series of walled gardens that reflect diverse Mediterranean gardens from the Moorish water gardens of Spain to the Provence garden created by Nicole de Vésian at Bonnieux with its clipped shrubs and variations in colour, scale and texture, but not detracting from the garden’s unique character. Expansive green lawns and wide borders were reminiscent of England with long views to a sculpture as focal point, a pond or fountain. The steeply sloping site was terraced, with levels constantly changing as we clambered up and down the stone staircases, built with a soft-gold limestone, mainly quarried on the site. At every turn were distant views to pull us further into the outer reaches of the garden which covers some 3.5 hectares. In a hidden corner was the octagonal Secret Garden where, inscribed on a stone slab, lines from “Voices” by the famous Modern Greek poet C.P Cavafy recalled the beloved voices of those who have died or are lost. We were touched by the poetry of this peaceful spot, as well as by the spirit of the entire garden.

 

Gold-coloured limestone used for hard landscaping

The long pool lined with olive trees

A walled garden room

Wide steps by the house

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