Following in the Footsteps of Monty Don Part 1 – Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre

Most keen gardeners, especially if you live in the UK will know of Monty Don. He is a regular fixture on our TVs, where every Friday evening he makes us all green with envy as he potters around his beautiful garden at Longmeadow. He has also made some fantastic programmes about gardens across the globe including Around the World in 80 Gardens, Monty Don’s Italian/French Gardens and Monty Don’s Adriatic Gardens to name a few. It was during the latter that he visited Athens and one of the destinations was the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre (SNFCC). Since watching this several years ago, this has been on my list of places to visit in Athens – though I haven’t managed to fit it in – until today that is.

I arrive at Syntagma Square a little early for the bus so I decide to swing by the Evzones. As I stand at the edge of the busy road trying to cross, an elderly lady grabs my elbow and tells me that we will cross together! She begins chatting away with me on some really random topics. She asks me where I’m from and when I tell her the UK her expression turns to one of concern. “Everything is bad there”. She says. Thinking about our current political crisis, I concur! Anyway, we eventually find a gap in the traffic and she escorts me across singing a song to me in Greek. A bit of a random experience but that’s what I love about Athens!

I notice that the Evzones are today dressed in their ceremonial uniform again. It’s Monday and not a national holiday so I ask one of the uniformed soldiers why. He tells me that the Prime Minister of Cyprus is on a visit to the city and they are wearing their ceremonial uniform as a mark of respect for him. Ah – that will account for the leather-clad policemen dotted about the city yesterday. As I make to cross the road towards the bus stop, police appear from all directions on foot and on motorbike and the traffic is brought to a standstill. A cavalcade of cars pull up outside the Hotel Grande Bretagne. I can’t quite see who is getting out of the cars but assume it is to do with the Prime Minister of Cyprus and his entourage. Once the party of dignitaries have been despatched into the hotel, the traffic is given the go-ahead to continue.

I will be visiting the the SNFCC via the free shuttle bus that departs from Syntagma Square. The website tells you that the bus stop for the shuttle is located near the junction of Syntagma Square with Ermou. Now there is more than one bus stop here which is confusing. I spot a ticket seller for the Hop On Hop Off buses who tells me which one it is. As you look at the parliament building with your back to Mcdonald’s it is the one on the far left next to the kiosk.

The timetable for the shuttle bus is here:

It’s a pleasant enough journey down the busy highway to the NSFCC and takes around 15 – 20 minutes depending on the traffic. The bus parks on the edge of the site from where it is a short walk to a wide concourse and the entrances to the various facilities.

The SNFCC sits in the vibrant neighbourhood of Kallithea adjacent to the bay of Faliro and a short distance to the port of Piraeus. In fact, if you continue on from the National Museum of Contemporary Art (Andrea Syngrou Street) which I visited yesterday, you can’t fail to stumble across it.

The SNFCC is built on the site of the former Hippodrome horse racing track. Back in 1998, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation was considering making large donations towards the development of a new National National Library and also a new National Opera House building. It was decided several years later to combine the two projects and develop the cultural centre that we see today. The building was designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano who’s previous projects include the Pompidou Centre and the Shard. The 861€ million project was completed in 2016 and opened in 2017.

The first building that I visit is the National Library of Greece- a truly magnificent piece of architecture. Amongst the books and areas to study and to use technology there are a couple of small art exhibitions to view including one by Athenian artist Andreas Vourloumis and another emotive exhibition by Yannis Kondoratos called Lamentation. Is that Rishi Sunak playing the piano?

Now onto the Lighthouse and the urban park. There are several ways to access it. Via a long flight of steps along the side of the National Opera House or by elevator from inside the main building or the Agora. Make sure you get into the correct set of elevators. If you’re not sure the people on the desk are very helpful.

The elevator stops on the 8th floor and as I exit I get one of those “Woooah” moments as my vertigo kicks in. I walk speedily along the narrow walkway onto what feels like safer ground. I arrive on to a broad terrace that offers 360 degrees over the city with the Acropolis and Mount Lycabettus on one side and Pireaus and the Saronic Gulf on the other. Sitting in the middle of this space is The Lighthouse, a large, glass-walled event space topped with an energy-producing canopy. This sits atop the National Opera complex.

The concept for the design for the SNFCC is that the buildings would appear like dislodged pieces of the earth’s crust. I’d read that when the architect Renzo Piano visited the site to get inspiration for his design, he realised that the view of the sea no longer existed. He acknowledged that the name of the neighbourhood Kallithea literally meant “beautiful view” so he decided to give this view back to the city. He did this by creating an artificial hill that sloped up towards the coast crisscrossed with paths giving access to the park from all directions.

The buildings have environmentally friendly green roofs covered with indigenous plants and the roofs also generate power to make the buildings self-sufficient during working hours. In addition to this, the green roofs keep the buildings cool in summer and warm in winter, reducing the need for air conditioning and heating. The substrate used on the roofs acts like a sponge, so when it rains the water is dispersed at a much slower rate which in turn reduces the pressure on the storm drains in the city. This is a truly modern and futuristic complex in every sense of the word.

There are several viewing points around the perimeter of the terrace and as I make my way around them, I find myself shaking my head in wonderment at this spectacular piece of architecture.

The coastal side of the terrace is accessed via wide concrete steps. Once at the top I am presented with fantastic views (albeit a wee bit hazy) of the Olympic Faliro Sports Complex, Poros, Aegina and set just a bit further back, the Peloponnese. Gosh, a few days previously I’d been there and yet it seems like a lifetime ago.

In the opposite direction looking back inland, there are clear views of the Acropolis shining like a golden beacon, as the sun’s rays break between the scattered clouds. Next to it is Philipappou Hill to the left and Mount Lycabettus to the right, the sprawling metropolis of the city biting at their ankles. Further over to the right are the slopes of Mount Hymettus – a hint of tomorrow’s adventures!

After exploring almost every corner of the Lighthouse it is now time to descend into the urban park and see much of the 21 hectares of space that I can. A broad avenue slopes downwards towards the edge of the city but there are pathways leading in various directions across the site. I take a path on the Western Walk that leads me to the Labyrinth, a grass maze sitting underneath a geodesic dome. The earliest reference to a labyrinth was found on a clay tablet near Knossos around 1500 BC. The labyrinth here is planted with grass and surrounded by olive trees. Visitors are invited to follow the series of concentric circles that lead to the centre of the space – a perfect place to spend some time relaxing and in peaceful contemplation.

I take any random pathways across the park and then double back on myself not wanting to miss anything – an impossible task. At every turn, there is something else that catches my eye. The beds are planted with a limited colour palate and restricted to no more than three types of plant. One bed is full of euphorbia with its acid-yellow centres edged and rows of rosemary with dark green scented leaves and tiny purple flowers. Fuscia pink cistus with petals like crumpled tissue paper is partnered with low-growing bushes of highly scented sage. I feel like a child running around a sweet shop. I can see why Monty was so taken with this magnificent place!

It strikes me that the park has been planted with low-maintenance plants but with maximum impact in mind. However, I absolutely don’t underestimate the amount of work it takes to keep this place looking so wonderful! Specimen trees including olive, carob, laurel and cyprus are strategically located to add height and interest but also to provide shade for the various seating areas.

Sitting somewhere at the heart of the park is the Great Lawn. You can’t miss it as all paths eventually lead to it. During the summer months events are held here from family activities to cinema screenings and shows. Although the lawn isn’t looking its best at the moment, part of its maintenance is closing it to the public periodically to allow the grass to recover rather than using chemical or other interventions – all part of the centre’s sustainability plan.

I feel as though there is still so much more to see but these old bones are truly exhausted. I make my way down the walkway to the waiting shuttle bus. I will definitely be back here on my next visit to Athens. It would be interesting to see it in summer when there are events taking place on the Great Lawn and also get more of an insight into how this magnificent park is used by locals. What an asset to have on your doorstep!

I nip into Psiri for a bite to eat and end the evening with a Margarita on the roof terrace of the hotel. The views from here are spectacular from over to the Acropolis and then over Psiri to the coast. More adventures tomorrow including a bit more of Monty!

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