To avoid any confusion, let me point out that Syngrou Park surrounding the hospital “Andreas Syngros” in Ilissia, and the Syngrou Estate located in Marousi on Kifissias Avenue are two entirely different places – even though both are legacies of the same national benefactor.
The Syngrou Estate, which I am visiting, extends over an expanse of nearly 240 acres and includes the only remaining old-growth forest in the greater Athens area. The estate also houses the facilities of the Institute of Agronomic Sciences (offices, classrooms, greenhouses, and fields), both the Anavryta Middle School and the Anavryta High School, and two historic buildings.
It’s those buildings that I head towards as I leave my car in the institute’s parking lot, which can be used by the public daily after 14:00 (most visitors, however, reach the grounds via the series of small entrances spread along the forest edge). According to a map on the website of the association The Friends of Syngrou Forest, the historic buildings are in the northern section of the estate, not far from the parking lot.
First I spot the listed Chapel of Aghios Andreas, whose neo-Gothic style appears somewhat incongruous, and soon after I arrive at the grandiose Villa Syngrou, the listed building that was once the country residence of Andreas Syngros and his wife, Iphigenia.
In front of the two structures I notice the ponds, referred to as “quaint” on the association’s website, which in truth have seen (much) better days. I move past them and start down the road leading to the southwestern edge of the estate, with the hum of the traffic of Kifissias Avenue constantly reminding me that I am not, in fact, in the countryside.
On the way, in addition to flushed joggers or cyclists, I also come across the institute’s greenhouses, beehives and olive grove. It’s across the grove where the park’s most frequented entrance is located. Just as I get there, a group of elderly people arrive, most probably to take their daily walk.
I continue along the edge of the park and, a little before I reach the next entrance, I turn left onto another road, this one lined with tall cypress trees. There’s a bit more life here: young kids on bicycles, neighbors who’ve come across one another and are sharing their news, a man walking his dog. This estate is, in fact, quite the hangout.
Having walked through the southern section of the estate, home to the fields where the students at the institute learn to sow and tend crops, I decide to leave the central pathways behind and get lost on the sidetracks, much like a romantic poet, in a forest that extends northwest and covers an expanse of approximately 180 acres.
Its flora includes Aleppo pines, wild olive trees, kermes oaks and Pistacia lentiscus shrubs. With the hope that deep in the forest the sound from the cars on the nearby avenue will disappear, I follow the paths “less traveled,” but fail to find that absolute silence; it seems I expect a little too much.
Reaching a clearing, I scamper up onto a small plateau with views of the Olympic Stadium and the OTE building in the distance, and take a tangerine out of my bag. It occurs to me that having a few benches here and there in the park wouldn’t be a bad idea, so that people – like myself, at this moment – could take a break and rest. Although their absence is likely deliberate, so that picnicking and the potential litter that comes with it are kept to a minimum. In fact, the forest is truly spotless, if you exclude the occasional dog droppings, most probably left behind as “fertilizer”…
I begin heading back, using my internal GPS system to try to orient myself. As I reach the parking lot, I realize that even though parts of the estate seem clearly neglected, its forest is a heart of green in the city and I’ve enjoyed walking through it, breathing in the fresh air.
The grandiose Villa Syngrou, with its neo-Gothic and classical elements, was constructed at the end of the 19th century based on designs by the German architect Ernst Ziller for Andreas Syngros.
In 2006, after persistent efforts from the “Friends of Syngrou Forest,” the villa was named a listed building and, now fully renovated, is home to offices, a bee-keeping museum featuring the oldest and rarest bee hives from all parts of Greece, and the library of the Institute of Agronomic Sciences, with its rare 19th-century works.
The small Chapel of Aghios Andreas was also designed by Ziller, and is the only neo-Gothic Orthodox church in Greece.
The country residence and the legacy of the Syngrou family
The history of the Syngrou Estates begins in 1875, when national benefactor and philanthropist Andreas Syngros (1830–1899) decides to purchase the verdant expanse bordering the settlements of Marousi and Kifissia from a British archaeologist, who had been conducting excavations on the land at the time. It was Syngros’ plan to build a country residence there (let us not forget that this was considered the countryside at the time), possibly as a gift for Iphigenia Mavrokordatou (1849–1921), whom he had married that year.
This plan came to fruition with the assistance of architect Ernst Ziller and the villa was built. The estate encompassed the area surrounding the villa as well, where there once stood a series of auxiliary buildings including workers’ quarters, stables, carriage houses, an olive press and a flour mill.
Syngros loved his mansion very much and lived here for extended periods of time until his death. His equally active philanthropist wife, who wanted to realize their shared visions for the country, continued to live in the villa until her death. Then, in accordance with the terms of her will, the Syngrou Estate was bequeathed to the Greek Agricultural Society for the foundation of a school for gardening, poultry-farming, beekeeping, sericulture (silk farming) and livestock rearing, in order to provide training for “good farmers and gardeners.”
In 1991, the forest was named “a site of outstanding natural beauty and of archaeological importance.” Even though there has been no systematic archaeological excavation of this area to date, random findings have surfaced from time to time, indicating the site was probably inhabited from prehistoric times.
Since 1998, the Estate has been managed by the Institute of Agronomic Sciences, under the auspices of the Ministry of Agricultural Development and Food.
Sources: The Institute of Agronomic Sciences and the “Friends of Syngrou Forest”.
This article was first published in Greek on kathimerini.gr