Soon after moving to Athens, I heard whispers about an abandoned palace in the surrounding hills, where you could walk through the grounds and freely explore the slowly decaying buildings. There were said to be luxury cars rusting in ruined garages, as if the former inhabitants had been forced to flee in a hurry. Eventually, I discovered that the rumours were true: 35 kilometres outside Athens lies Tatoi Palace, the former Greek royal family’s summer retreat.
The Tatoi estate covers 10,000 acres of serene, pine-covered hillside above Varibobi and provides plenty to fill an adventurous day’s escape from Athens. It has been partially tidied up with a recent European Union grant, so is less lawless and decadent than it once was, but still holds a peculiar sense of foreboding; an historic relic slowly wasting away on the edges of civilisation. A timeless antidote to the irrepressible hustle of Athens.
King George I bought the Tatoi estate from Skarlatos Soutsos, a Greek from Istanbul, chief of court and government minister, in May 1872. Until the abolition of the monarchy in 1974, it was the official summer residence of the royal family, and witnessed many important events, such as the birth of George II in 1890 and Constantine I swearing in Eleftherios Venizelos' government in 1915.
But when the royal family bought the estate, there were just a few scattered buildings, farm huts, a mill and a five-room house. In 1880, Savvas Boukis, a young architect, was sent to St Petersburg with orders to copy a mansion in the Peterhof royal complex. Construction of the main residence began in 1884. After decoration and landscaping, the royal family of King Constantine I and Queen Sophia eventually moved in in 1889. Over the years, a variety of buildings were added, which can still be seen today, such as a garage, winery, cemetery, stables, and a (now empty) swimming pool.
After a period of political upheaval, a military junta seized power in Greece in April 1967. King Constantine II led a failed attempt to overthrow the dictatorship and the royal family was forced out of the country in December of that year. Tatoi was frozen in time from then on. After the return to democracy in 1974, and a referendum on the abolition of the monarchy, the estate passed into the hands of the Greek state. It was left in limbo until a long-running legal dispute over ownership between the state and the former royal family was finally settled in 2002.
In 2004, the Ministry of Culture entered the Tatoi estate to see what remained after decades of neglect, vandalism, looting and the removal of nine cargo containers of treasures by the exiled royals in the early 90s. The immense recovery and conservation effort was completed in 2012, by which time the Ministry had amassed over 17,000 objects, ranging from everyday items, such as wine bottles and children’s toys, to elaborate clothing, precious antiques and artwork, which has all been photographed, catalogued and archived. Sadly, none of it is on display, as plans to turn the Tatoi palace into a museum have not materialised.
The Friends of Tatoi Society has worked hard to help save this stately home and its grounds from destruction. The Society is one of the leading voices calling for Tatoi to be fully restored and open to the public. But like many other plans for the dormant estate over the years—from reviving its farming and winemaking activities to creating a venue for sporting and cultural events—so far, these dreams have come to nothing. Tatoi remains a lost beauty, withering away in the depths of the forest.
You can get lost for hours in this sprawling complex. While the more prestigious buildings, including the main residence, have now been secured, a handful of smaller bits and pieces that have been left well alone. You will feel like you are the first to have stumbled across them. Every now again, you will run into strange objects, like gates that lead to nowhere, after being overcome by the undergrowth.
How to get there
A 45-minute drive from central Athens, the Tatoi estate is hidden in the hills above the suburb of Varibobi, in the shadow of mighty Mount Parnitha to the west. The only way to get there is by car. Aim for Tatoiou Street and follow it all the way into the forest. There are two entrances to the estate: one just behind Leonidas Taverna (143 Tatoiou Street) and another that takes you more directly into the palace complex, but is not properly signposted. You’ll find it by following a small track leading from the parking area on Tatoiou, 300 metres before the Friends of the Forest building.
Around 35 kilometres from the city centre, Tatoi is also a popular destination for cyclists. Those wanting to save their legs for the climbs or hoping to avoid the traffic getting out of town can jump on the useful but frustratingly infrequent OSE Proastiakos suburban rail service from Larissa Station towards Halkida and jump off at Dekelia, on the perimeter of Tatoi airfield. For a great day out in the saddle, follow Tatoiou all the way to the estate, then continue on to the summit and down the other side to pick up the train home from Afidnes. Or, if you have the time and the legs, cycle further on quiet, tree-lined local roads all the way to Avlona, for a good selection of tavernas to refuel and the opportunity to spot another abandoned treasure, a drive-in cinema, on your right hand side, near the motorway.
Tatoi is also popular with hikers, mountain bikers and off-road motorcyclists. While it’s hard to find information and maps on the trails (especially in English) there are many challenging but well-marked and maintained trails that criss-cross the mountains surrounding the estate.