Parque del Buen Retiro
Once a private retreat used exclusively by Spain’s royalty, Madrid, Spain’s Retiro Park today is the playground of the common man. However, there is nothing common about this historic, stately and scenic public park in the heart of Spain’s capital city.
Parque del Buen Retiro or Jardines del Buen Retiro (literally “Park” or “Gardens of the Pleasant Retreat”) is aptly named. The park is home to sculptures, monuments, ponds and botanical gardens that provide a year round retreat for locals and tourists alike. With a tall, shady canopy, vast grassy spaces, wide promenades, open air cafes and natural beauty all around, Retiro certainly reinforces Madrid’s reputation as one Europe’s greenest capitals.
Retiro Park as it is commonly known is located in the smart upscale Salamanca section of Madrid near the famous Prado Museum. The 142 hectare (approximately 350 acres) park is nearly half the size of New York’s Central Park. Once well outside the city’s walls on the eastern boundary, the park is now entirely surrounded by the present day city.
The park has a distinguished history. Originally planned in the 1550s, Retiro was redesigned on the instructions of the chief minister to King Philip IV in 1620 as a second residence and place of recreation for the Spanish royals. At its peak, the Palacio del Buen Retiro (Royal Palace Retreat) consisted of more than 20 buildings including a theatre where the royal family enjoyed the works of prolific Spanish playwrights. Surrounded by stately trees, lush gardens and numerous ponds and water features, the royals spent Christmas and Easter as well as most of their summer days at the palace.
When the palace and theatre were burned in 1734, King Ferdinand VI ordered that the palace be rebuilt with all haste. In 1808 during the War of the Independence, French troops occupied the palace and its annexes. During their stay, the gardens were irreparably destroyed. Having been erected hurriedly and with low quality materials, the buildings rapidly deteriorated and most were subsequently razed.
Today, one remnant of the palace serves as Spain’s War Museum (Museo de Ejército) where you can see El Cid’s sword, the museum’s most famous exhibit. Along with other artifacts, visitors can see a cross carried by Christopher Columbus on his voyage to the New World.
Another remnant of the once sprawling second royal complex is the Casón del Buen Retiro, the former ballroom and formal garden. As an extension to the Prado Museum intended to display a collection of 19th century Spanish paintings and sculptures, the Casón recently underwent a ten year, 33 million euro renovation to eliminate problems with humidity.
Originally open only to royalty and later to the ruling classes, Retiro Park was opened in 1767 to clean, well-dressed Madrileños who could afford the entrance fee. Not until 1868 were the gates finally opened to the general public. Today, Madrileños of all social and economic strata and all ages enjoy the wide open spaces of the park free of charge.
While parts of the park are laid out in a formal French style, other areas are more natural resulting in a stunning mix of formal gardens, gentle slopes and wide open spaces. Retiro Park is home of more than 15,000 trees. In fact, some of the oldest trees in all of Madrid can be found inside the park near the Alfonso XII gate, one of the eighteen gates leading into the park.
As you walk through any of the gates, there’s an immediate feeling that you’re entering someplace special. This is especially true as you enter the Independence Gate (Puerto de la Independencia), the most impressive and important of these gates. The towering double wrought iron gate was originally designed as the entrance to the palace that Fernando VII built for his second wife, Maria Isabel de Bragança.
Upon passing through this gate, you’re led down a path of lush, green topiary trees and seasonal flowers. A few steps further, you’re greeted by the wide open spaces of green grass and cool shade. The sounds of the city give way to cheerful songs from the many bird species that nest throughout the park, the squeals of children at play and the quiet of lovers seeking a little privacy in one of the park’s secluded nooks.
Although the park has numerous spaces planted with seasonal blooms, La Rosaledo (rose garden) is the major floral attraction. Planted with 4,000 roses of 100 different varieties, the garden was designed by Madrid’s head gardener, Cecilio Rodriguez in 1915 and modeled on the gardens at Bagatelle in the Bois de Boulogne, one of the most spectacular parks in Paris. Stone benches and water fountains in the center of the garden provide a picturesque sunny spot to rest and enjoy the natural splendor and sweet fragrance of the garden’s crimson, pink, white, yellow, and lavender roses.
Just west of the rose garden is a unique fountain statute entitled El Ãngel Caido (Fallen Angel). It is thought to be the only statute in the world that depicts the dark angel, Lucifer, during his banishment from Heaven after defying God’s command. Inspired by a passage from John Milton’s Paradise Lost, the statute was built in 1877 by Ricardo Bellver. Cast in bronze for the Exposition Universelle of Paris (1878), the statute has been located in Retiro Park since 1885. You can find it by walking down the Avenida de Cuba through the Plaza de Honduras.
With its history of regal patronage, Retiro Park is also the site of many beautiful buildings. One of the most beautiful is the Crystal Palace (Palacio de Cristal), designed by architect Ricardo Velázquez Bosco and originally created to house exotic plants from the Philippines. Completed in 1887 and located at the southern end of the park, the all glass pavilion was inspired by The Crystal Palace in London and now showcases traveling art exhibits or various seasonal flora. Palace admission fee varies depending on the exhibition.
The front of the Crystal Palace is framed by many deciduous trees some of which grow in or lean precariously toward a large pond that is home to turtles, white ducks and black swans. The spray from the spouting fountain in the middle of the man-made pond casts a mini rainbow on a sunny day. That combination of eye-catching architecture, crystal beauty, water plume and lovable animal life makes a perfect place to linger for a while. In fact, many visitors do just that. You’ll see people lounging on the sunny steps of the palace or standing at the pond’s edge feeding scraps of stale bread to the pond’s ever hungry inhabitants.
Without a doubt, the centerpiece of the park is Retiro’s Pond (Estanque del Retiro). This beautiful man-made pond, similar to New York’s Central Park pond, is located just a short walk from the park’s northern entrance. The pond was once the site of staged naval battles for the entertainment of the royals. Today it is home for large koi fish that, to the delight of those strolling by, huddle near the surface along the pond’s wall.
On the eastern edge of Retiro’s Pond is a grand statute of King Alfonso XII astride his horse. Several colossal lions guard the statute from their vantage point near its base. Visitors usually sit on the steps at the foot of statute to enjoy the view of the pond. The statute, erected in 1922, is framed by the King’s enormous semicircular mausoleum with huge white columns, a combination that dominates that side of the pond. For less than five euros, visitors can a rent boat with seating for four people and take a leisurely row around the pond.
At open air bars (terrazas) and cafes strategically situated at major intersections throughout the park, visitors can enjoy a bite to eat, a cup of café con leche (coffee with milk), a glass of vino or a Mahou cerveza (local Spanish beer). Attentive waiters provide prompt service but bring the check only when requested. So guests can linger long over even the most meager refreshment and watch joggers, cyclists, skate boarders, and roller skaters go by on the broad streets.
Street entertainers camp out at busy intersections or rove from one cafe to the next. Visitors seated under the bar’s shady umbrellas may hear a lone saxophonist play “Amazing Grace”, a string quartet performing the music of Mozart Beethoven or a polka playing accordion/bugler duo. Stationary entertainers lay out a cloth or set out a large cup as constant reminder for their audience to leave a few coins. At the end of their performance, roving entertainers make their way to each table extending a small leather coin purse and inviting diners to show their appreciation for the performance.
Sunday is the most popular day in the park. With many of Madrid’s shops closed, Madrileños escape the confines of their residence and spend the day enjoying each other in Retiro Park. You’ll find locals seated throughout the park reading the paper or just chatting with friends. You’re likely to see two matronly women plodding along arm in arm, an elder statesman walking slowly with his younger eager student or a young father keeping an eye on his helmet clad children as they race down the wide promenade on their skate boards. You’ll see old men seated around tables playing cards or other board games, friends picnicking on the grass under the tall trees, teenage girls lounging on the shaded benches chatting on the cell phone or a smartly dressed middle aged gentleman with a fedora and cane out for a walk in the cool morning shade.
At the Chopera Municipal Sports Center, the city’s oldest sports center that has the distinct advantage of being located in Retiro Park, you’ll see kids engaged in a competitive soccer match, ) a fun mixed doubles tennis match, sweaty trash talking young men on the basketball court as well as men and women of all ages working out on the running track or open-air weight-lifting circuit.
Throughout the park, you’ll find baroque statutes along the broad paths. Many of them are statutes of Spain’s kings and queens that were originally made to be decorations for the Royal Palace. The story goes that in Queen Isabela’s nightmare, she dreamed that all of the statutes crumbled down on the palace and destroyed it. The King promptly ordered most of the statutes moved to the park. And there they have remained for the enjoyment of the commoners.
The Forest of Remembrance (Bosque del Recuerdo) is a different kind of monument. Commemorating the 191 victims of the March 11, 2004 Madrid train booming and the special forces agent who died when seven suicide bombers blew themselves up on April 3, 2004, the monument is made up of 192 olive and cypress trees, one for each person killed. The stand of trees is surrounded by a channeled stream, since water is the symbol of life. You can find this monument on an accessible hill near the Atocha railway station, one of the sites of the atrocity.
Retiro Park hosts various public events during the summer including Flamenco dancers and “la Feria de libros”, a huge book fair that spans miles and miles across the park. Every Sunday at midday from late May through early October, the Madrid Symphony (Banda Sinfónica de Madrid) gives free concerts from the bandstand in the park near the Calle d’Alcala, one of the entrances to the park.
The park is open year round, 24 hours a day during the summer and 7:00 AM to 11:00 PM during other seasons. To help visitors find their way, there are Spanish language maps posted throughout the park. Even though I know little Spanish beyond numbers and few phrases, I was usually able to use the map diagrams to find my way around. When that didn’t work, I was amazed at the unintended discoveries I found as I wandered in search of my destination.
While the park is perfectly safe during the day, visitors should exercise caution after dark to avoid the shady characters that hang out in the bushes.
You can walk to the park from most tourist hotels, take the Metro Red Line to the Retiro stop or get off the big red Hop on Hop off bus at the Prado Museum stop. And don’t forget your camera.
Retiro Park is everything that a big city park should be. It’s a royal retreat for everyman, a beautiful setting in which to take a break from the hustle and bustle of working or sightseeing. It provides a peaceful place to reflect on the past, relax from the day’s pressures and rewind for the challenges to come.
Go. Experience it for yourself. I know you’ll love it just as I did.