Saturday 6 June 2009

A View of Madrid's Retiro Park

By Richard MorleyI have written in an earlier post that my very first evening was spent in the Retiro Park and that it was there that my love affair with Madrid first began. Since then I have visited those quiet wooded acres many times and I am as familiar with its shaded walks, sloping lawns, silent clearings and running waters as if it was my own garden. For us apartment dwellers, who can’t even claim a few square inches of window box as a back yard, that is exactly what the Retiro is.

I discovered the park that first evening purely by chance, I know, but it surprises me when returning visitors tell me they haven’t been there, or as recently related, “We went up the side of the Prado and found the Retiro”. That person’s serendipitous discovery was just like my own and yet I couldn’t help but feel wonder that this inveterate Spanophile had not been there before and not know it was so close to the centre of town. How you hide one hundred and eighteen hectares of parkland behind a relatively small art gallery is a mystery.

In a comment on a recent post, the writer had just never found the time to visit the park, but wished she had. The problem, I am sure, is the fault of those dreaded three Ps, the Prado, the Palace and the Plaza Mayor. Unless well instructed the short time visitor hardly ever ventures out of the centre. I can identify with this. Before I actually started living in the east of the city, the Retiro was the furthest in that direction I had ever travelled. It is as if the Puerta de Alcala, that massive arch that marks the ancient eastern access through the old city walls, rather than being a gateway, was in someway a barrier to further exploration.
Puerta de alcala
The Parque del Buen Retiro, ( literally, “Park of the pleasant Retreat”,) to give it its full and proper name, is just outside those old city boundaries, but is now completely surrounded by high rise apartments and offices on all sides. Yet to walk there is to forget the bustle, noise and pollution that encircle it. Away from the periphery, probably the loudest noises you will hear will be the chirping of birds, the crunch of roller blades on asphalt, or the laughter of children as they scream at the “Guiñoles”, the Spanish Punch and Judy shows.
It has been said that the Retiro is probably the last great creation of the Renaissance in Spain and was at the centre of the Habsburg court when Spain was the world’s only superpower.

The origins of the park go back to the latter half of the sixteenth century during the reign of Fellipe II, but by the end of that century Spain, following wars and losses in trade, some of that to English pirates, sorry, privateers, was almost bankrupt and the park remained a pleasant meadow, but not much more. The Spanish for meadow, incidentally, is “prado”. Ring a bell?
Cristal Palace lake
At the beginning of the seventeenth century king Fellipe IV built a palace on the grounds, which were now extended thanks to the generosity of the king’s favourite and all round sycophant the Conde Duc de Olivares who gave some of his land to the king and set about landscaping the place for his master.

Apart from three areas that have a definite plan about them, the majority of the park is a pastoral delight of rambling, meandering shady paths and lawns. On a sunny evening, one could imagine the ladies and gentlemen of the court strolling, taking a picnic or perhaps engaging in some romantic dalliance. But there were rules: Gentlemen had to be well dressed, capes, topcoats or hats were not allowed and hair had to be well combed. Ladies similarly: A parasol was acceptable, but they could not wear either a mantilla, that large fan-like comb stuck on the back of the head with a wisp of silk draped over , or a headscarf. This was a place for the sober and well-dressed higher classes.

Today it is a place for everyone, (and there is a more relaxed dress code!), to relax and literally smell the roses. The Rose garden is one of the few formally laid out areas and at this time of year is a joy to behold.
Designed in a large oval with a central pool and fountain, there are thousands of different breeds of rose to see and sniff.
A Rose by any other name!
Over the years much has been built – and knocked down. Much if this demolition attributed to the forces of Napoleon during the French occupation. The original palace has gone, as too has the zoo. What remains today is partly practical and partly whimsical.
The centrepiece is the lake, where you can rent a boat and watch the fish watching you, hoping you have a bag of breadcrumbs. On the eastern bank is a memorial to king Alfonzo XII, an imposing edifice of columns and carvings with the king mounted high on his horse. Today it is rumoured this behind this grand edifice one can buy something illegal to smoke, but I wouldn’t know anything about that.

At the gate of Felipe IV, opposite the Casson del buen Retiro, now part of the Prado, is the most formal of all the gardens laid out like Versailles, in the northwest corner, near the entrance at the junction of O’Donnell and Menédez Palayo, is a mountain with water falls and white water rapids. I did say, “Whimsical!” And in another part, near the old zoo, find the hut with the gnome on the top!

There is another, smaller lake overlooked by the Palacio de Cristal. It was built in 1887 by Ricardo Velázquez Bosco and based on London’s famous (at the time) much larger Crystal Palace. Its original use was to house exotic plants from the Philippines, but is now used for temporary exhibitions.
I was passing recently and heard the roar of wild beasts. My curiosity piqued I entered – to find it empty. I hadn’t actually been inside before and thought it a good time to take some photographs of the interior only to be thrown out on my ear for taking pictures of the exhibits. “What exhibits?” I asked. All I had experienced was animal noises coming from some speakers; not something easily photographed. My ejector pointed out a stuffed monkey suit and a large teddy bear tied high in the roof, which I hadn’t noticed. Apart from those two artifacts, the rest of the interior was completely empty, with the exception of similarly bemused members of the public, who I think had just popped in to use the loo, if the truth was known.
Cristal inside
In some ways the whole Retiro is an art gallery of sorts. Spread throughout the park is statuary ancient and modern, permanent and temporary, serious and amusing. I wrote recently of the exhibition by Ripolles, but throughout the year, there is always at least one art exhibition on display. Of course, being so richly linked to the high households of Spain, we can find statues of important political and military personages, inventors and artists. You never have to walk far to find a small plaza dedicated to the memory of one of the great and the good.
Fallen angel - Detail

Or the bad. Madrid’s Retiro Park has the only know statue in the world of the Devil. Satan, Lucifer, call him what you will, here he is known as the “Fallen Angel”, El Ángel Caído. The statue, made by Ricardo Bellver and inaugurated in 1885, is set on a plinth and part of a fountain, shows him as he falls after being thrown out of heaven by St. Michael. I can only assume that God was having a bad day. Together with Lucifer, at least a third of all the angels were evicted that day. (Rev.12:4,9 ) Around the plinth can be seen other demons, some holding snakes, the symbol of Eve’s undoing, to keep him company.
But if it’s raining another place to see art is at the Cow Shed, sorry, I mean the Casa de Vacas. This is at the northern end of the lake and last year I saw an exhibition of 18th century painting to rival anything seen in the Prado. The exhibitions change quite rapidly, so it’s worth going back.
Of course, the time of my imaging, with ladies in crinolines under parasols and gentlemen in frock coats, was when the park was much younger than today. The trees now are mature chestnuts, beeches and oaks. Under their shade you will find groups practicing Tai Chi, skaters skating, (lessons are given in the wider part of the Paseo de Fernán Núñez), readers reading, singers singing, and couples, er, well never mind. Once a place used solely for the pleasure and relaxation of the high and mighty, the Retiro was opened to the public in 1868.

On Sundays there are musical concerts. It’s a great place to come and relax, take a drink or a meal with friends at one of several terrace cafés or at the Florida restaurant. You can row on the lake, play tennis or Paddle on the municipal courts, watch a Punch and Judy show, have your fortune told, bring your children to play or slowly amble through the winding paths.

Or remember!
I wrote earlier this year about the garden of remembrance for those who lost their lives in the Madrid bombings in 2004. This is a beautiful part of the park. It’s almost on the edge, not far from the busy Calle de Alfonzo XII, yet it is possible to lose oneself in its silent and poignant construction.
I recommend the Retiro Park to any visitor who is jaded with the three Ps, tired of the noise and the traffic, the rushing from place to place because it’s “on the list”. But I warn you, The Retiro is Madrid in microcosm, it will pull you in and make you fall in love with the city and you won’t want to leave.
And the girls on Roller skates are well worth a second glance!!!!
The amazing thing is that this park is no more than 30 minutes walk from Sol, or just three stops on the metro if you are lazy! The Retiro park can be reached by three metro lines: Retiro (L2), Ibiza (L9), and Atocha (L1), although the latter will give you a little walk.

If you have enjoyed this stroll through Madrid's central park, then post a comment in the boxes below.


  1. Hi Richard,

    Thanks for allowing me to return to one of the most beautiful places in Madrid. After several visits to this city, I was finally able to expereince Retiro Park last year and found reason to go back three times. What a wonderful place to lose yourself or spend time with friends.

    Your blog entry was a perfect escape on this cool, rainy Canadian morning. Thanks again!


  2. It was me that went up the side of the Prado and found the Retiro - I think.
    Its not that I'd never been its that I didnt realise where it was. In Barcelona I have been so often that I have the city layout, well the major landmarks, sorten in a kind of map in my heat.
    Not so Madrid - But Im working on it - see you next week!!

  3. Nice stories and information to accompany some wonderful pictures, keep it up Richard, hope to see you soon ;)

  4. Thanks Richard, even though I've got a yard I would love it if we had a park like this one to so an have a picnic in on a Sunday or just for when the world feels too full to have some me time. As always you talent in writing made me feel like I've actually been there one for the must do list next time I visit. Thanks Richard, even though I've got a yard I would love it if we had a park like this one to so an have a picnic in on a Sunday or just for when the world feels too full to have some me time. As always you talent in writing made me feel like I've actually been there one for the must do list next time I visit.

  5. I only post to say that the statue of the fallen angel is situated 666 meters over the sea level, what makes it more symbolic

  6. Thanks so much for your review. We are going to Madrid next week on a spur of the moment trip! We have been there once before and I remember my favorite part about the city was it's parks. I'm definitely going to visit this one!

  7. The Retiro Is looking spectacularly beautiful as the trees alchemise into autumn gold. Tale the teleferico across the treetops of the Casa Del Campo as well. There are magnificent views to be had.