I feel an intense personal connection to my running spot, and I am sure other avid joggers can relate to this sentiment. So what if it’s Buen Retiro Park, the center of outdoor activity for many “madrileños?” I still declare it my property! What I love most about this place is that, while I feel like I know it inside out, I am also constantly discovering new gems hidden in unexpected corners. And I’m blown away each and every time I enter one of its many grand entrances.
Originally built as the private retreat for the royal family of Felipe IV in 1632, the park contains a plethora of hot spots definitely worth seeing on a trip to Madrid. You can rent a rowboat at the park’s central lake and admire the enormous monument behind you of Alfonso XII, erected by his mother in 1922. If that’s not your cup of tea, you can wander along the surrounding path and listen to street musicians, watch various entertainers, and most importantly, find out how the rest of your vacation will pan out from the always-colorful tarot card readers.
Close to the lake, but somewhat hidden in the trees, stands the breathtaking “Palacio de Cristal,” inspired by the Crystal Palace in London. Erected in 1822 to house exotic plants from the Philippines, the castle now displays rotating contemporary art exhibits. Until May 2011, you can experience a stunning piece by Jessica Stockholder called “Peer Out to See,” which consists of a series of stacked, plastic laundry baskets. This basic household item is transformed into a fascinating, intricate sculpture and its beauty is certainly enhanced by its surrounding structure.
Situated behind the castle, as you walk away from the lake, is “El Angel Caido,” the only statue in the world dedicated to Satan. You can enjoy a sinful “caña” (small beer) or glass of wine in one of the outdoor cafes as you admire the view, but be careful not to get run over by a Retiro rollerblader, as they are extremely intense and take cone weaving to a whole new level.
Next to the Fallen Angel Statue is the “Rosaleda” or rose garden. I stumbled upon this lovely sanctuary on a run last spring and have since made it a highlight of my Retiro tours given to friends and family. The garden, built in 1915, has a circular lay out that echoes the natural shape of the flower and is jam-packed with different types of roses in every color imaginable. If you hit Madrid at the right time of year, you will find yourself stumbling from one cluster of flowers to the next, overwhelmed by the vibrant colors and smells. It’s an absolute feast for the senses that many visitors often overlook.
Finally, located further to the left of the rose garden, lies my latest and most exciting discovery. I spent a year and a half running daily in this park never to have entered the serene peacock garden. Situated along the border of the park that touches Avenida Menendez Pelayo, this garden, in my opinion, is the treasure chest of the Retiro. It is virtually always empty, as many people don’t realize it exists. The peacocks, however, don’t appear to mind occasional human contact. Each time I slow my pace to get a good look at these magnificent creatures, I am shocked that they don’t scurry off in the opposite direction. On the contrary, they seem to revel in the attention. If you make it to Madrid, definitely don’t miss out on this experience, but shhhh don’t tell anyone else about it.
Like the city of Madrid itself, the Retiro is a dynamic place that is constantly changing and always has something new to offer its visitors. I urge travelers to not make a rigid plan and instead just allow themselves a day to get lost in and absorbed by the wonders of this one-of-a-kind park. And if you see a gangly girl in running shoes circling the peacocks, don’t hesitate to say hello!
Photo credit: Cristina Behrens