Venture into the park's forested coolness on a beautiful summer's day and discover layers of Madrilenian history.
Parque del Buen Retiro means ‘Park of the Pleasant Retreat,’ and it’s a well-earned moniker. Sat at the edge of Madrid’s city centre, what was originally a zone for royal relaxation has been open to the public since 1767, and provides a wonderful escape from the bustle of the Spanish capital.
A retreat was first built here in 1505, to adjoin a new monastery built by Isabella I. Subsequent kings and queens extended and improved the park, adding various other buildings and features, including formal avenues and the great pond Estanque del Retiro. Its improvements in the 1630s by the Count-Duke of Olivares made the park one of the last great wonders of the Spanish Renaissance, and it was the centre of the Habsburg court at a time when Spain was the world’s greatest power.
Today Olivares’ artificial pond remains, close to the northern entrance and adjoined by an impressive Monument to King Alfonso XII, which sits atop a semicircular colonnade. Boats are available to hire for a pleasant paddle round the lake.
The park contains a number of other renowned statues: a highlight is the 1922 statue of El Angel Caído by Ricardo Bellver, which crowns the Fountain of the Fallen Angel. Inspired by John Milton’s descriptions in Paradise Lost of Lucifer falling from Heaven, this is believed to be the only public statue depicting Satan in the world. He is found in the Rosaleda del Retiro, a wonderful rose garden featuring arched entrances and fountains.
Only a few of the park’s older buildings are still standing: the Casón del Buen Retiro and Salón de Reinos were the only portions of the Buen Retiro Palace complex to survive the French bombardment of the Peninsular War between 1808 and 1814. Today, the Casón holds collections of 19th and 20th century Spanish paintings.
A second artificial pond was built in 1887 along with the Palacio de Cristal, a beautiful construction imitating London’s Crystal Palace and designed to hold an exhibition of indigenous flowers for the Philippine Islands Exhibition - it now contains an art gallery. The Palacio de Velázquez was built for the 1883 National Exhibition of Mining, Metallurgical Arts, Ceramics, Glass and Mineral Waters.
Indeed, the park has been host to a number of spectacular events over the years, and continues to hold many concerts and shows to this day; there is also an annual book fair. Popular with runners, roller-bladers and cyclists, the park is also used by many locals as a venue for botellón - a boozy picnic in the evening. This is not strictly allowed, but the authorities tend to turn a blind eye.
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