Of all the beautiful green areas in Madrid, Parque del Buen Retiro is undoubtedly the most popular. It is a relaxing place for locals as well as for tourists, especially on the weekends. Impressive buildings, remarkable sculptures, and plenty of greenery form part of one of the biggest parks in the city.
Today everyone can enjoy this park; however, that wasn’t always the case. And the reason is quite simple: it was the property of the Spanish Monarchy. If it wasn’t for them, this beautiful park would probably not exist today. It all started in 1632, when the Count-Duke of Olivares decided to surprise King Philip IV. He planned to build a palace and garden where the king could retreat from court life. Having this in mind, the name of the park, which translates as “Park of the Pleasant Retreat,” seems quite logical.
The Count-Duke knew the king would approve the location for the new estate, and so he had given him part of his lands as a present. Although today the park is set in the heart of the city, back in those days it wasn’t even inside the city. This was good, because, as the Count-Duke saw it, the whole project would resemble the magnificent villas built by the wealthy and powerful at Tivoli, near Rome. The gardens were entrusted to the garden designer Cosimo Lotti, known for his work at the Boboli Gardens in Florence.
The gardens were created in the Renaissance style: the lake, which is the focal point of the park today, was excavated, and ornate fountains and remarkable sculptures were added to the greenery. In the 17th century, Philip V enlarged the garden. He added the first French-style garden, which also turned out to be the last, known as el Parterre, and planted rare species of trees. Then in the 18th century, Charles IV built the Astronomical Observatory. In the garden, the royals enjoyed Italian operas and performances of famous tragedies and comedies, including those of Lope de Vegas.
In the beginning of the 19th century, Fernando VII built fairy-tale pavilions around the garden. Unfortunately, not much is left of these pavilions, but the one where the king liked to fish, the enchanting Casita del Pescador (The Fisherman’s cottage), is well preserved and one of the highlights of the park. Further noticeable modifications were made during the reign of Queen Isabella II. She planted varieties of trees, including orange and lemon trees and once more enlarged the garden.
However, in 1868, the monarchy lost the garden, because a female sovereign was unacceptable for the Carlists and Queen Isabella II was forced to abdicate. El Retiro was the most beautiful garden in the center of the city, and so it was decided that it would be opened as a public park. After a series of improvements and additions, the park was brought to its current form that we see today.
Probably the most famous addition is the iconic Glass Palace (Palacio de Cristal). It is the work of Ricardo Velázquez Bosco, modeled after the Crystal Palace in London. Once it was completed, the palace was used to store exotic plants from the Philippines, however, today it is the place where several art exhibitions take place in collaboration with the Centro de Arte Reina Sofía. The small lake in front of the palace was another later addition. Also, art collections are on display not far from here, at the Palacio de Velázquez, built in 1883.
Two new gardens were formed: Jardines de Cecilio Rodríguez, mostly known for the beautiful peacocks, and La Rosaleda (Rose Garden), planted with more than 4000 varieties of roses. Near the Rose Garden, the Statue of the Fallen Angel decorates a fountain. It is believed to be the only public statue of the devil.
The park had not forgotten about the royal family. In their honor, 18 marble sculptures representing the royals are lined up in the Paseo de la Argentina, also known as the Paseo de las Estatuas (the Statue Walk-Way). In 1922, the monument of King Alfonso XII was erected along the lakeside, which turned out to be the most recognized feature of the garden, besides the Glass Palace. Due to its long history and remarkable gardens, Parque del Buen Retiro is one of the most visited sites in Madrid.