So I posted a little while back about wanting to write more about Madrid. I had in my mind ‘Madrid Mondays’ to write about Madrid every week! Although I have a decent amount of free time, last month I was writing every day for National Novel Writing Month, and although I managed to complete the challenge (50,000 words in 30 days, whoot!!) I was quite burnt out from writing after that! So I’ve vowed to start anew and hopefully actually keep Madrid Mondays going! (or..erm..started..)
What better place to start than one of my favorite places in Madrid: El Parque del Buen Retiro (Park of the Pleasant Retreat).
There are many parks in Madrid, in fact it has one of the highest acreage of green space of any European city! The grandest (and in my opinion best) of them all is El Retiro, which is conveniently located just a few blocks from where I live. Score! The park was born as the backyard of a monastery over 500 years ago, in 1505, and began to take more of a formal shape following King Philip II’s move to Madrid in 1561, finally making Madrid the capital. It’s been updated and enlarged since then to become the park it is today.
“Squirrels! You can go see them in the Retiro!” One of my students exclaimed once during a lesson on animals. This wasn’t the first time I had heard about the mythical squirrels in Retiro Park, in fact. Several Spaniards had already recommended that I go there to view the little tailed creatures. The first time someone told me that I could see them there, I straight up laughed.
“But…squirrels..you can see them anywhere!” I answered with mirth. This was in my first few weeks in Madrid when I had other things on my mind besides noticing the city’s rodent population. But then after I had been in Madrid for a few weeks I realized something. I hadn’t seen a squirrel yet. And then suddenly all the tourists in New York parks stopping to gawk and take photos of what I deemed to be perfectly normal and at times undesirable animals made sense. (I will admit I was guilty of squirrel photography in Poland, but the squirrels there were red with cute tufty ears! They needed to be documented.) I tried then to explain the squirrel situation in the United States. “Squirrels are like rats…they’re everywhere! Not special.” I said, which didn’t seem to help at all and I realized maybe rats weren’t as abundant over here either. I was still urged to go see the squirrels.
I spend a lot of time running in Retiro Park but I have yet to see a squirrel. Liars! I was deceived!
Luckily for visitors, squirrels aren’t Retiro’s only draw. The main event is a large rectangular man-made lake over which a statue of a man on a horse towers while park-goers in rowboats navigate the waters below. Around this hub congregate all the usual suspects at a touristy location, from knock-off bag sellers to puppeteers, which seem to be a European thing; I remember seeing them as a child in Paris (of course that’s one of the things I remember of my first time in Europe).
A walk through its 350 acres can lead to stumbles upon a variety of cute little buildings, including some that aren’t so little. My first time exploring the park I happened upon a sign that said ‘Palacio de Cristal’. “Yes, park. Crystal Palace, show me that.” I thought, and meandered down the path. I was not disappointed.
As with many parks, there are musicians tucked into every leafy nook, their tunes softly wafting up the paths at all times of day and into the night until the park closes. In my first day of explorations, I happily stumbled upon a smiling man playing El Valse de Amélie on the accordion and a man playing bagpipes. Spanish, bagpipes, what? You might ask. The northwestern region, Galicia, actually has a lot of Celtic influence, including playing the bagpipes!
Retiro also claims the only statue of Lucifer (available for public viewing) in the world, a work which was inspired by Milton’s Paradise Lost, which I had the misfortune to ‘read’ while I was in my wayward first years of undergrad while I was still trying to figure out what to study. As if being the only statue of the devil in existence wasn’t enough, those who put it up in Madrid in the 1920s (it was sculpted in 1878 but was housed in El Prado first) decided to locate it exactly 666 meters above sea level. Getting flashbacks to The Omen now…
The park is also home to The Forest of Remembrance, or The Forest of the Departed, which pays homage to the victims of the March 2004 (earning the attacks the moniker 11-M) terrorist bombings in Madrid, when bombs exploded on four commuter trains, killing 192 people. In remembrance of each person, there are 192 cypress tress in the forest.
Finally, there are also gardens more in the royal style located nearest to El Prado, the world-famous art museum.
El Retiro is without a doubt one of my favorite places in Madrid; I’d urge any first time visitor to make a bee-line there as soon as possible!
Are you a fan of parks too? Where is your favorite?