Though very much unknown and out of the way, the garden of El Capricho (literally, a whim) is one of the most beautiful and attractive parks in the city
The 14-hectare garden, located in the area of Barajas district, dates back to 1784 when the Duke of Osuna, from one of the most illustrious and powerful of the city’s families, acquired the land for the specific purpose of giving expression to the family’s visionary and artistic values aas well as to give the family a place to escape city life. The prime mover was the Duchess Lady María Josefa de la Soledad Alonso Pimentel. Thought to be among the most intelligent women of her time, and a patron to many artists, bull-fighters and intellectuals, she designed the garden bearing in mind a sort of artistic-nature retreat for the more illustrious figures of her day and which the most prestigious gardeners, artists and scene designers contributed in designing.
After she died, her eldest grandchild inherited the duchy of Osuna, along with El Capricho garden. The park was maintained throughout his life, but following his death the property passed on to one of his brothers, under who’s oversight started a long period of decline. Profligate and eccentric, he set about wasting and losing the family fortune, to such a point that after his death it was necessary to sell the garden in order to pay off his debts. It was acquired by the Baüer family, which did its best to keep up the property, but the decline was already too far gone, and it was necessary to slowly get rid of some of the holdings.
During the Civil War another change came about, since what was once considered a place for leisure and strolling, became the Staff Headquarters of the Central Army. To this day, the garden shows the structural accommodations for a line of defence bunkers. At the end of the war, the property passed through a number of different hands, until it was bought by the Town Hall in 1974, followed by renovation works carried out several years later. After several periods of inactivity, this work as finally taken up again in 1999, and went on to win a Europa Nostra award in 2001.
On the way to the estate, one passes a circular plaza which used to be the site of a bull-fighting ring and which later became the Paseo de los Duelistas, with two sculptures representing the distance separating two people about to engage in a duel unto death. A little further is the Plaza de los Emperadores, showing the busts of two Roman emperors along with the Exedra, which is a semi circular building in the classical style, and from which one then proceeds into the Palace’s front gardens.
The art of landscaping in El Capricho is displayed in three different styles of classical gardenscapes: the ‘parterre’ or French garden, English landscaping and the Italian giardino. Facing the western approach to the palace is the ‘parterre’ whose hedges look as if they had been directly embroidered on the earth. In the lower part is the Italian giardino in the oldest part of the estate in which hedges alternate with tree-shaded corners, where one can soak up winter sun, or take cover from the heat in the shade of the branches. Nearby is the labyrinth which is expressly designed for playful hiding or amorous frolicking, is a laurel grove set as per the original wishes of the Duchess herself. Finally, there is the rest of the park, which is a typical English landscaped garden, echoing the natural forms of nature, most inviting for a stroll and finding a quiet corner. There are many love trees, elms, almond trees, Holm oaks and lilac bushes, which contribute their colours in springtime.
As for the palace itself, only the walls are left from the original building, rising three floors and finished off at each corner with towers. The inside has been remodelled, and houses the offices for the park services, but it also has kept some reflections of the past, as the Ministry of Culture would have it. So there is a grand ballroom, dining salons, a 6000 volume library, as well as the alcoves and chambers of the family members. As great patrons of the arts, the private quarters of the family were each decorated with some of the best art work of their day. In fact some of Goya’s best work, such as El columpio (The Swing), Las cuatro estaciones (The Four Seasons), La merienda campestre and La pradera de San Isidro (The Field of San Isidro) were commissioned for this palace.
Not far from the palace is the temple of Bacchus, which is a classical style garden structure with an oval floor base, surrounded by twelve Ionic columns and set on a rise, making it a romantic view from other parts of the garden.
Besides the gardens the estate holds a number of decorative structures that are both temporary and unusual and which make the whole place into a sort of theme park. For playful exertion there is both an adult and children’s play area comprising a small fort that even has canons and a moat, and from which departs the stream watering most of the garden area. The Casa de la Vieja (Old Woman’s House) brings back the typical lifestyle of simple folk. There is also a hermit’s dwelling in ruins, and in which once lived an actual hermit who used to startle lost passerby. These are the ‘caprichos’ built to recall the lives of the more humble classes.
Water is present throughout the walk. A sinuous stream goes makes its way across the property, deep enough for row boats and in fact, uniting the games area and the lake with the Dance Casino, which can be reached by a small wharf called the Casa de Cañas. Decorated with mirrors and a large fresco, the casino is the work of Martin Lopez Aguado, and the top floor as well as the terrace were meant for holding grand parties, which gave the guests all the prestige that they believed themselves to have.
Parque de El Capricho
Address: Avda. de la Alameda de Osuna, s/n
Phone number: (+34) 91 455 01 29
Metro stop: El Capricho (L5)
Bus: 101, 105, 115
Opening times: Winter (October to March): Saturday, Sunday and public holidays, 9am to 6.30pm. Summer (April to September): Saturday, Sunday and public holidays, 9am to 9pm. Closed on January 1st and December 25th.