Tuesday 3 March 2009

Madrid is not just the Prado - 1

This is the first in an occasional series that will strive to demonstrate that Madrid is more than the three Ps: The Prado, the Palacio Real, and the Plaza Mayor. Madrid is a diverse city, full of hidden delights. Some are large, like the park I describe below, others are more compact. The three Ps are indeed a very integral part of any visitor’s itinerary, but, as you will see, should not be the only places you visit.

El Parque Juan Carlos Primero

If you glance at the Google Earth view of Madrid out to the East, not quite before you get to the airport, there is a curious faint circle, almost like a watermark. They have up-dated the picture now, but when I first saw it I had the impression it was some sort of sewage treatment plant. Zooming down on to the picture just confirmed that impression. Visible water and swathes of concrete dominated.

Then one morning I took the metro out to El Capricho to visit its eponymous park and found it closed. Its gates were locked and its surrounding brick walls obscuring the gardens and the Greek temples I had heard it contains. Curious to see over those walls I followed an ascending rough track until I found myself scuffing along the kerb stones of a busy highway. The never-ending stream of cars was a danger but nothing thwarts me on my intrepid search of the backwaters of this wonderful city and I did get a glimpse of half a Palladian portico, so mission sort of accomplished.

The far side of the highway was fenced by a seeming infinity of chain-link fencing, so I was forced to continue braving the dangers of Madrid traffic until eventually I found a gap in the barrier. In a brief hiatus between convoys I crossed the road, followed a winding pathway up a slight rise until the ground in front of me fell away to a view of a lake.

And what a strange sight that was! It was a stretch or water bounded on all sides by sheer walls of concrete. The path led right to a small grassy knoll or left to a long, narrow bridge. More concrete, trimmed with galvanised steel, predominated.

The bridge took me above the lake. To my left, apparently walking on the water stood four gruesome characters, three large and one quite tiny, from some low budget science fiction movie. A nearby plaque informed me they were a family, a legacy of the blood, based on Eolos, the god of the wind. Of course! What else? I should have realised from the propeller vanes that previously had done service driving some ancient barge that sprouted from their heads. The plaque went on to describe the vanes as representing the Anhk, the cross that symbolised life. The knowledge that these figures, built from recycled parts of antique boats represented rebirth suddenly made everything clear – er – I think.

And before you think that’s weird, you have to see the rest of the park.

I have written about the Parque Juan Carlos Primero before in my post about the holocaust monument. I wrote how moving, how awesome, in the true sense of that word, how downright strange that monument is. Let me tell you now that that monument is probably one of the more conservative, least whimsical, least abstract of the park fixtures.

I have this fantasy in my head that when the powers that be opened these two hundred and twenty-nine hectares of rehabilitated refuse tip as a park in 1992, the sheer immensity of its size defeated all rational thoughts of what to display in it. So nothing, no matter how strange, off the wall or drug fuelled hallucinogenically inspired idea was ignored. Around every corned is something that makes you exclaim, “What the heck is that?”

But I digress. Running through the park is a wide, two kilometre long, S shaped watercourse. Water is definitely the theme here. But there are no grassy banks lined with weeping willows. Instead the channel is bounded by concrete cliffs. And there are low peninsulas of concrete slabs on which idle men sleep while ostensibly fishing. Out in the channel water spouts launch liquid, rainbow refracting arches high into the air.

On one peninsular a tangle of steel slowly reveals itself to be a fallen tree with nesting birds. A rusting rectangular arch frames a view along lines of olives. A broken pyramid topped with the word “NOS” lies beneath a place where virgins are sacrificed.

Well, actually it’s a monument to Madrid’s ties with the Mexico City. It’s a long, rising roadway where an imaginative mind can see a procession of Aztecs leading a young girl to be offered to the gods, at the summit, on a blood red doughnut pierced by the crimson rays of an angry sun god.

Beyond the pyramid a sequence of waterfalls and fountains break the all pervading, severe outlines of rising blocks of sombre concrete. A rippling stream gushes down towards the channel. Above the rise a playground of swings and seesaws and a paved plaza where random water spouts cool shrieking children on hot Madrid afternoons.

Near here you can rent a bicycle to explore the park, buy an ice-cream or picnic. But this is just a respite. There are more wonders to see.

Not the least of which is what I thought could only be the world’s only transparent loo, except there’s another one on the other side of the park. I know the Spanish attitude to personal space and privacy allows for a more intimate nature than that of Northern Europe or North America, but surely there is a limit?

A Loo with a View

We have climbed again. Suddenly from the empty swathes of parkland Modern Madrid is now just a stone’s throw away. Glass clad office blocks gleam in the sun.

Park entrance and the head of Don Juan de Borbón

Below us lays the Glorietta (roundabout/intersection) of his Highness Don Juan de Borbón, King Juan Colos's father, with his craggy head constantly reviewing the parade of traffic entering the city from the M40 motorway. The white roofs of the Feria de Madrid, a place for trade fairs and conventions, lay like a far off sea and before them rests a cantilevered Japanese (to my eyes) temple, but is actually a sculpture of girders that conceptualise a rising arch above the land and manifests liberty and space. At least that’s what it says on its plaque.

Then there’s a white, giant, wriggling worm.

At least it looks like a worm. It depends, literally, on your point of view. As you walk around it slowly a shape devolves. Finally I see a supine figure with something crawling on its belly while another figure leans tenderly over. There is a slight resemblance to teletubbies. This is the “Manolona Opus 397” and represent “in many ways an intertwining in a play of multiple tensions”, whatever that means. But don’t misunderstand my ironic philistinism. I really like this sculpture. It makes me smile.

There’s more water and concrete to our left as we descend past the teletubbies until we find a small copse of trees. Now seriously, this is taking maintenance free gardening to an extreme. The trees are made from rusting metal. In this small grove it is forever autumn, the leaves dully reflecting oxidised sunlight from their shrivelled surfaces.

Then onward and upwards. Past a curving rendition of a home decorating shop’s cards of a thousand shades of paint, a cat’s cradle of a climbing frame for children that looks decidedly lethal and into the woods. Looking back over our shoulders we can see all of Madrid laid out before us; the four high new skyscrapers of the Cuatro Torres looming menacingly or thrusting decisively, depending on your point of view, over the city.

At the top of the hill, to your left, lies the Holocaust Monument, and beyond a series of small, pleasant gardens that seem somewhat incongruous, with their burbling fountains, trickling streams and shady tree lined groves of sanity in the eccentricity of this place. This is the place of delights. It is called the pathways of three cultures. You will find an Arabic garden with broad-leafed, shady palm trees among an oasis of reflecting pools, a Christian garden with its belfry inspired pergolas and a cloister for quite contemplation.

A few more steps and we stand high on the brim of a concrete cliff. Below us the wide water channel drifts to our right. Above us, on a green knoll, a pair of apostrophises converse. We pass through them like a quotation and look down onto the boating lake. Two water spouts shoot high in the air. In summer this is a place of music and coloured fountains. Beyond them a regimented olive grove and on the distance the great red doughnut broods silently waiting for its next victim.

It’s a strange place, the Parque Juan Carlos Primero. It symbolises Madrid’s desire to forge on into the future. It is both separated and part of the city. It excites and pacifies; it surprises and reassures. The swathes of green and terraces of concrete, the real and the artificial, somehow fit together.

I stand by the water’s edge and watch a plane take off from nearby Barajas Airport. There was a time when I would have been keen to be on it. Now I contemplate the ripples on the lake and the new leaves sprouting on the olive trees. I am content.

With 229 hectares of land in total, this is undoubtedly one of Europe's largest parks. Everything here is on a grand scale. The massive olive grove has a diameter of 1km. The avenues that cross the fields are huge. There is even a 2km-long river where you can sail a catamaran. The most impressive feature, however, is the water-show, accompanied by music and lights that takes place at 10:30pm Thu-Sun between June and September in the auditorium. You can take a cute little train ride round the most important sites, depending on the weather, of course. Admission: free. Water-show or catamaran: EUR2.40; train: EUR1.80; catamaran and train: EUR3. Discounts of EUR1.20 for children and senior citizens. The nearest metro is Campo de las Naciones on line 8.


  1. When will you write a book (on anything)? I really enjoy reading these blogs....mahalo and gracias.

  2. I am not sure, but that statue of the head that you say is Juan Carlos I looks like Don Juan, who was the father of King Juan Carlos I and he was never King as Franco stopped him from doing so and chose Juan Carlos as his sucessor.

  3. Isabel, You are absolutely correct. I have made an error. If I had done my homework I would have seen that the glorieta in which it stands is that of S.A.R. Don Juan de Borbón y Battenberg. Well spotted and I will amend the post. Thank you.