Parque de El Retiro. Photo by Mario Martín

parks & gardens

El Retiro Park

El Retiro Park is part of the city´s historical heritage and botanical patrimony inherited from past centuries. Once a recreation area for the Royal Family, it has become a very popular park and is central to the city´s image.

A play area fit for kings

The second part of the route takes us on a tour of the Buen Retiro Park. The first mention ever of this park goes back to the era of the Catholic Kings (‘Reyes Católicos’, who were Spain’s first kings after the Reconquest’s unification of all Spanish Provinces). Founders of the Jerónimos Monastery (Monasterio de los Jerónimos), a part of them were used as royal lodgings, called ‘the Quarters’, which made this area into the temporary royal household. Under Felipe II it became a place for taking a break from the court life, as well as to enjoy religious retreat in, which it owes the present name to.

Under Felipe IV the old quarters were converted into an actual palace for the purpose of throwing balls and holding celebrations, theatre, bull fighting, etc....Designed on a grand scale, its visual aspect lacked any artistic connotation at all, and it had a rather barracks-like look to it. A succession of rulers took to reforming and changing it, but these remodelling initiatives are only witnessed today by the Casón del Buen Retiro, once the grand ballroom and today part of the Prado Museum across the street from the park itself.

When the Alcazar burned down, Felipe V decided to make the Buen Retiro Palace the court’s official home, until the present-day Palacio Real was built. Carlos III, who initiated the renovation of the whole area with a series of public works projects, had the idea of closing off the space with an iron-post fence but allowing all citizens access to the park, allowing for a minimum of additional hygiene and service areas for the masses.

In 1808 Napoleon’s troops invaded Spain and took Madrid, and the whole areas was occupied by French troops, such that the palace and the landscaped areas were destroyed. In later periods, kings took care to refurbish the French-style ‘parterre’ grounds and a few park pavilions were built.

Monument to Alfonso XII, El RetiroEl Retiro park which has come down to us today features a large statue of Alfonso XII, in the place where the old pier used in Felipe IV’s time used to stand, hovering over the pond. The monument was commissioned by the Queen Regent Maria Cristina, and the whole ensemble was begun after Alfonso XIII ascended to the throne. BY José Grases Riera, it consists of a large columned walk surrounded the statue of the monarch mounted on a horse. The ensemble also includes a series of allegorical works devoted to fatherland, peace, liberty, the army and the navy. Some of the best sculptors of the time participated in the project, including Marian Benlliure, Aniceto Marinas and Mateo Inurria.  

Whimsical architecture

Throughout its history, the park has boasted a number of whimsical structures whose existence was solely for the amusement of the passerby. Such was the purpose of the Casa de Vacas, built in 1874 as a cowshed and milking shed for both commoners, nobility and kings, to come and see the cows as well as to enjoy a recently milked glass of milk. A fire destroyed the original building, which was rebuilt by the town hall and dedicated today to exhibiting art shows.

Crystal Palace, El RetiroAlso dedicated to culture, are the two pavilions built by Ricardo Velasquez Bosco towards the end of the 19th century: The Velasquez Palace and the Crystal Palace, which is one of the best examples of iron-work architecture in Madrid. The former was created to host a temporary exhibit of Mine and Metallurgic Arts while the Crystal Palace also served as am exhibition space. Three years after the Mine expo it held an exhibit on the Philippines. Originally intended as a hot house to show off the fauna of the previous Spanish colony, the building is among the most luminous and elegant ones in the park, and is almost entirely wrought of steel and glass.

Fountains and gardens

As in any self respecting park the Buen Retiro has its share of beautifully designed fountains. This Madrid park is home to the only monument to the devil that exists in the whole world. Set amidst the waters of the Fountain of the Fallen Angel it represents the moment when Lucipher is expulsed from Paradise, a work of art that was the creative brainchild of Rocardo Bellver.

Galapagos Fountain, El RetiroThe Galápagos fountain was created to honour the birth of Isabel II, and is also one of the more notable artistic works in the park. Built in 1832 by José de Mariategui, it consists of three different tiers decorated with water plants and equipped with water spouts that jet from Galapagos tortoises and frogs. Four small angels, with dolphins and a snail surmount the ensemble and adorn the top of the fountain. The structure has symbolic meaning which all sought to emphasise well-wishing on the occasion of the birth of the queen, so there are allegories of long life, fertility, and the upholding of traditional values such as wisdom and rectitude.

In the Plaza de Honduras, there is another fountain that is also quite popular among Madrilenios. It is called the Fountain of the Artichoke and is the work of Ventura Rodriguez. The original inspiration and dedication was as a fountain to adorn the Roundabout of the Emperor Carlos V, and in fact was situated there until 1880 when the widening of city streets and publics works expansion drove it to the quiet environs of the park. It represents an allegory of Spring, made up of one tier on which there is a Triton and a Water Nymph along with Madrid’s official shield. Children hold up the platter bearing the artichoke.

Facing the only part of the Buen Retiro Palace which is still standing, the Casón, there is park area which was designed as a French style ‘parterre’ and which goes back to Isabel II. The symmetry inherent in this part of the park is broken up by the presence of large towering cedar trees and the ‘bald cypress’. This is the oldest tree in Madrid. Actually it isn’t a cypress at all but a specie of taxodium, which is native to Mexico and which may be over 400 years old. A witness to the historical events of its earliest days in this part of Madrid, it is said that the tree’s branch forks, served to rest the canon of the French troops who were aiming them at the old palace.


El Retiro


El Retiro Park
Address: Plaza de la Independencia, s/n
Metro stop: Retiro (L2), Príncipe de Vergara (L2, L9), Ibiza (L9), Atocha (L1)
Bus: 1, 2, 9, 15, 19, 20, 28, 51, 52, 79, 146 and 202
Opening times:
: Monday to Sunday from 6am to 10pm.
Summer: Monday to Sunday from 6am to 12pm.