Parque del Buen Retiro
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Parque del Buen Retiro information
The glorious gardens of El Retiro are as beautiful as any you’ll find in a European city. Littered with marble monuments, landscaped lawns, the occasional elegant building and abundant greenery, it’s quiet and contemplative during the week but comes to life on weekends. Put simply, this is one of our favourite places in Madrid.
Laid out in the 17th century by Felipe IV as the preserve of kings, queens and their intimates, the park was opened to the public in 1868 and ever since, whenever the weather’s fine and on weekends in particular, madrileños from all across the city gather here to stroll, read the Sunday papers in the shade, take a boat ride or nurse a cool drink at the numerous outdoor terrazas . Weekend buskers, Chinese masseurs and tarot readers ply their trades, while art and photo exhibitions are sometimes held at the various sites around the park, but it’s so big that even on weekends there are plenty of quiet corners away from the crowds (apart from the lovers under trees locked in seemingly eternal embraces).
The focal point for so much of El Retiro’s life is the artificial lake (estanque ), which is watched over by the massive ornamental structure of the Monument to Alfonso XII on the east side, complete with marble lions; as sunset approaches on a Sunday afternoon in summer, the crowd grows, bongos sound out across the park and people start to dance. Row boats can be rented from the lake's northern shore - an iconic Madrid experience. On the southern end of the lake, the odd structure decorated with sphinxes is the Fuente Egipcia (Egyptian Fountain) and legend has it that an enormous fortune buried in the park by Felipe IV in the mid-18th century rests here. Park authorities assured us that we could put away our spade and that the legend is rot.
Hidden among the trees south of the lake is the Palacio de Cristal , a magnificent metal and glass structure that is arguably El Retiro’s most beautiful architectural monument. It was built in 1887 as a winter garden for exotic flowers and is now used for temporary exhibitions organised by the Centro de Arte Reina Sofía. Just north of here, the 1883 Palacio de Velázquez is also used for temporary exhibitions. Another building occasionally used for temporary exhibitions is the Casa de Vacas , on the north side of the lake.
At the southern end of the park, near La Rosaleda (Rose Garden) with its more than 4000 roses, is a statue of El Ángel Caído (the Fallen Angel, aka Lucifer), one of the few statues to the devil anywhere in the world. Strangely, it sits 666m above sea level… In the same vein, the Puerta de Dante, in the extreme southeastern corner of the park, is watched over by a carved mural of Dante’s Inferno . Occupying much of the southwestern corner of the park is the Jardín de los Planteles , one of the least-visited sections of El Retiro, where quiet pathways lead beneath an overarching canopy of trees. West of here is the moving Bosque del Recuerdo (Memorial Forest), an understated memorial to the 191 victims of the 11 March 2004 train bombings. For each victim stands an olive or cypress tree. About 200m north of the monument is the Bosque del Recuerdo information office . To the north, just inside the Puerta de Felipe IV, stands what is thought to be Madrid’s oldest tree , a Mexican conifer (ahuehuet e). Planted in 1633 and with a trunk circumference of 52m, it was used by French soldiers during the Napoleonic Wars in the early 19th century as a cannon mount.
In the northeastern corner of the park, there’s another information office in the cute Casita del Pescador, a former royal fishing lodge. Inquire here for the free guided tours of the Parque del Buen Retiro, which cover bird and plant life as well as history and architecture; reservations are essential. A stone’s throw from this information office are the pleasing ruins of the Ermita de San Isidro , a small country chapel noteworthy as one of the few, albeit modest, examples of Romanesque architecture in Madrid. Parts of the wall, a side entrance and part of the apse were restored in 1999 and are all that remain of the 13th-century building. When it was built, Madrid was a small village more than 2km away. Southeast of the hermitage, beyond the children’s playgrounds and the Casa de Fieras – which served as Madrid’s zoo until 1972 and was once home to camels that appeared in Lawrence of Arabia – are the sculpted hedgerows, wandering peacocks and lily ponds of the Jardines del Arquitecto Herrero Palacios .
With playgrounds dotted around the park and plenty of child-friendly activities, El Retiro should have more than enough space and interest to keep children happy. If they need something more, puppet shows are a summertime feature (look for signs to Titirilandia – Puppet Land – in the park’s northwest). The Casa de Vacas also sometimes hosts children’s theatre (teatro infantil ) on weekends. Ask at one of the information offices to see what’s on.