When I moved to Madrid last spring, I thought El Parque Retiro would merely be my running route. Since then, the nearly 400-year-old park has become so much more: a refuge, a playground, a people-watching hub, an entertainment venue.
One could call the park Madrid’s beating heart, a verdant retreat for tourists and locals alike right in the middle of the city. (Its location is so good, in fact, that Napoleon’s troops set up their headquarters there during the Spanish War of Independence.)
Hundreds of species of trees, plants and flowers thrive in Retiro along meandering trails and bubbling streams. It also has marble monuments, spectacular rose gardens and a placid lake. In Madrid, a city without a coastline or a roaring river, it is the most enticing place to experience nature, far superior to the vast expanses of Casa Campo, the old hunting grounds located on the Royal Palace’s outskirts.
Flanking the park are a few of Madrid’s major tourism attractions: the world-renowned Prado, the Puerta de Alcala, and the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza. Each neighborhood surrounding the park also has a different flavor — bourgeois Salamanca to the north with its Fifth Avenue-style Calle Serrano; trendy Malasaña to the west; and Atocha to the south, featuring the Royal Palace and Madrid’s main train station (the site of the devastating 2004 terrorist attacks).
Every person comes to the park searching for something different. The locals come seeking peaceful contemplation during their lunchtime siestas; a green place to jog or bounce a soccer ball away from city traffic; or a seat at the glass Retiro Library where they can chew on the words of Miguel de Cervantes from yellowed copies of “Don Quixote.”
For tourists, it is a place to imagine the noblemen and women who once frequented the gardens, to glide across the great lake in a wooden canoe, or to take in an art exhibit at the Palacio Velazquez.
Wonder after wonder
I happened upon the enchanted wonders of Retiro one by one — as if they were surprises left for me to discover by a devious fairy, or perhaps the green elf that plays the flute atop a crumbling edifice in my favorite garden.
First, it was the peacocks. Entering the park from Principe de Vergara, I first passed through the pink remains of an 11th century Romanesque church, the Ruins of San Isidoro, admiring the graceful arcs of the marble.
I then encountered an area I find more intriguing each time I visit. The shuttered green buildings and the open central pit used to be home to monkeys, giraffes, elephants and bears. La Casa de Fieras, Retiro’s zoo, was a main attraction for almost 200 years, only closing its doors in 1972.
(The zoo has a shameful history. In 1887, set up next to the animal cages was a human zoo composed of “43 indigenous Filipinos, a Negro, several Tagalogs, the Chamorros, the Carolinos, the Moros de Jolo and a group of Bisayas,” according to researcher and author Christian Baez.)
Leaving the former zoo, I came to a set of stone lions guarding an arched walkway fit for a wedding procession.
Running through them like a bride fleeing the altar, I passed two duck ponds, then entered Los Jardines de Cecilio Rodriguez. Rodriguez was Retiro’s main gardener at the turn of the 20th century, and his graceful touch can be found everywhere. Checkered paths weave through gardens framed by alabaster ivy-wrapped columns, trimmed cypress trees, box hedges, pergolas and ponds with floating lilies.
A pop of cobalt blue and fluorescent green suddenly emerged in front of me, stopping me mid-stride as I gaped at this creature in my path.
The proud peacock walked daintily down the stone steps, showing off his feathers to a bevy of cooing tourists as if he were Cinderella descending the red velvet staircase. But he wasn’t the only peacock. As I looked around, I realized that they were everywhere, peacocks meandering right and left across the lawn and stone steps. It was obviously their home, and we were the uninvited guests; they could have been the reincarnation of the princesses and kings who once strolled these gardens, shunning visitors from the outside.
For at one point, only the royal family and the aristocracy could enter the park. It was designed in the 1600s specifically to be a retreat (retiro) for the kings, and even held a second palace. Over time, the general public was sparingly permitted access to pieces of the park, until Queen Isabella II was deposed by La Gloria — the Spanish revolution — in 1868, and all of the park’s wonders finally became open to everyone.
An outdoor orchestra
The next time I spun into the park, I was swept away by a different one of my senses — hearing. Each curve in the path presented a new panoply of pitches and melodies. First it was a wrinkled Spaniard in front of the Palacio Cristal twinkling his hands across glass flutes, his notes piercing the air with the clarity of the waterfall descending across from me.
The Palacio Cristal epitomizes what the Spanish would call “tranquila.” The glimmering crystal palace invites you in, while swans linger on the pond in front. Once exhibiting tropical plants from the Philippines, the former greenhouse now hosts rotating art exhibitions. When I ventured in, I encountered a ceramic snow-white man atop his gallant horse, and a ceramic woman lounging nude across the way.
Ambling back to the lake, I encountered a young violinist and violist indulging in the dulcet harmonies of Mozart, their bows frolicking across the strings with the skill of seasoned musicians.
Finally, I stopped to lounge on the elegant white marble steps of the palatial Monumento del Alfonso Rey III. The sun was setting over the lake, and as a jazz guitarist with tousled dark hair spun solos, the notes seemed to bleed into the orange and fuchsia streaks drenching the sky.
The thread unifying all of the park’s musicians was joy — rather than play for euros, they plied their instruments with the tenderness of musicians who play for themselves.
Books and roses
Parque Retiro is also a bastion for books. Real books, with pages you can touch and words that can channel you to an enchanted jungle far away as the breeze licks your hair, without a text message jerking you back to reality with a hissing buzz.
Every day, book sellers set up their wooden stalls on the Cuesta de Moyano, featuring ancient maps of disappeared Spanish cities and worn copies of novels about the Spanish Civil War.
Once a year, a huge book fair — el Féria del Libro — fills a half-mile of the park. When I went, it was packed with book lovers, giving the writer in me hope that the written word is not, in fact, dead.
On my next journey, I encountered a rose garden so marvelous I was embarrassed to enter in such plebeian attire. Designed in 1915, La Rosaleda bursts with wine-colored, magenta, peach and soft pink roses, many from France and Denmark, laid out in a circular design. Stone angels peer out over the roses as they trickle water into elaborate fountains. I vowed to return in crimson lipstick and my finest ballgown. The garden is at its fullest bloom in late April through early June.
French roses were a fitting transition to the stately French gardens, La Parterre, which gracefully lead to the Prado. At one time, the grandest of Italian operas were performed here. As a former opera singer and thespian, I became enamored of the gray statue in the middle, a mourning woman holding a theatrical mask atop the head of a stately gentleman. He was Jacinto Benavente, a Spanish playwright and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1922, and she the representation of his works. I appreciate that about the park — rather than every statue representing a general or a king, playwrights, poets, writers and their stories are peppered throughout, showing an appreciation of the cultural side of history.
Although my time in Spain is dwindling, I plan to spend as much of it as I can running through Retiro’s gardens and serpentine trails. Or perhaps I’ll ditch my Nikes and dance among the roses in my finest attire the way the queen once did.
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Park hours are 6 a.m. to midnight April through September and 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. October through March. Admission is free. Rowboat rentals on the park’s lake cost $7 Monday through Fridays, $9 Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays; hours are seasonal. For more information, call 34-91-574-40-24. Visitors can also ride on a solar-powered boat Tuesday through Sunday and holidays; hours are seasonal. Rides cost about $2.