Greece to turn its last royal palace into museum

ATHENS (Reuters) - Greece said on Tuesday it plans to turn the long abandoned summer palace of its disenfranchised monarchy into a museum.

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The Greek government said the Tatoi palace north of Athens -- which the family left behind when they fled the country in 1967 -- will be renovated, its contents restored and then turned over to the public in a move signaling that Greece is finally coming to terms with ex-King Constantine.

“Whether we like it or not, these items and buildings are part of our history and they should be exhibited,” Culture Minister George Voulgarakis told reporters during a tour of the grounds. “This will become a museum and a large park, an area of recreation and environmental education for Athenians.”

Located on the slopes of Mount Parnitha some 25 km (15 miles) from the capital, the last of the royal estates is buried deep in a lush forest of cypress and pine trees.

Kings and queens, including Constantine’s parents Paul and Frederika, are buried at its royal cemetery and until 1967 it was a family haven for the monarchy.

The main palace in central Athens was given over to the government long before the royal family fled the country and was turned into the Greek national parliament.

Constantine fled Greece in 1967, shortly after a military junta took over, and was deposed in a 1974 referendum after democracy returned. He remains unpopular because of his decision to swear in the colonels and briefly cooperate with them before staging a failed counter coup.

For decades the Tatoi palace, a large stone mansion with Gothic details, was neglected to the point of collapse as lawyers fought over the property and governments hesitated to handle a royal hot potato.

The European Court eventually ordered Greece to compensate the former king for his family properties and pay him 12 million euros ($16.01 million) in 2002. Constantine was allowed in the early 1990s to retrieve many items from Tatoi, filling up nine containers.

A group of archaeologists, scientists and other experts are now sifting through what was left behind - thousands of items ranging from paintings and priceless ancient artefacts to religious icons and children’s toys.

“We have made great strides in documenting and restoring the objects,” Dimitris Kazianis, who heads part of the recovery and restoration effort, said.

All objects still in the compound will be restored and then placed back in the palace buildings, after they themselves are also renovated. The multi-million project should be finished in the next five years, Voulgarakis said.

“We are doing a very systematic work to recover, restore and eventually exhibit all these objects.”