“The traveler was active; he went strenuously in search of people, of adventure, of experience. The tourist is passive; he expects interesting things to happen to him. He goes ‘sight-seeing.'” -Daniel J. Boorstin
I spent my first Sunday in Madrid doing homework. Not just any kind of homework, however. My communications professor wanted us to go to either El Retiro, basically the Central Park of Madrid, or El Rastro, Europe’s biggest flea market, and write a 500-word travel piece on what we found. Considering the park is not even five minutes down the road from my apartment and I had been wanting to check it out, I decided to give it a shot. I ended up spending 5 hours of my Sunday afternoon there taking pictures, interviewing people in both English and Spanish, and hanging out with a few friends. Here’s the story:
Amongst the Spanish capital’s urban buildings, crowded streets, and tapas bars, lies a lush, tranquil space that will make you forget you’re in the middle of a city. No wonder why it’s called el Parque del Buen Retiro, or Park of the Good Retreat.
El Retiro covers 1.4 km2, the equivalence of 350 acres. It is located between well-known areas such as la Puerta de Alcalá and the Prado Museum, so it offers a convenient escape from city life.
“One of the most important icons of Madrid is Retiro Park,” said David Nelson, 55, of Madrid.
El Retiro was not always open to the public, however. The park was originally built in the early 1500s next to the San Jeronimo el Real Church. In 1561, King Philip II hired architect Juan Bautista de Toledo to enlarge the park for the royal family’s use.
El Retiro continued to expand throughout the 1600s with the addition of gardens, a theater, buildings, and a pond, known as Estanque del Retiro. In 1767, the park was opened to the public.
Now, anyone can feel like royalty when entering through the park’s black iron gates and paying a visit to the Roselada garden or watching the sun bounce off the Estanque from the steps of the Monument to Alfonso XII.
“I like this spot in the park because I can sit here and watch the people in the boats,” said Mirame Keita, 20, of Germany, while sitting on the grandiose monument.
El Retiro is open everyday during the summer from 6 a.m. to midnight, but Sundays is when it truly comes alive.
From late morning through early evening, El Retiro is buzzing with people of all ages enjoying their Sunday. The wide array of activities available at the park represents the diversity of its visitors.
“There is the Crystal House at the other side with a lot of tourists visiting there,” Nelson said. “Spanish families like to come here for picnics and play volleyball, football; you name it they play it around here.”
The same goes for roller sports. If you walk down Paseo del Duque Fernán Nuñez in the afternoon, adults and children will speed past on bicycles, rollerblades, scooters, and skateboards.
For those that prefer water sports, el Estanque has row boats available to rent for 4,55€ per person for 45 minutes.
All around the pond you can catch a street performance, get a caricature, bring the kids to a puppet show, or find out what is in store for your future from tarot card readers.
Tomas Paredes, 25, of Madrid, has performed with a break dancing group all over Europe, but says he enjoys returning to El Retiro.
“Street shows are awesome,” Paredes said. “They’re always new, the public is never the same, the reaction is never the same, and your dance moves are never the same.”
Jose Luis Vegas, 75, of Madrid comes to the park to play the trumpet, which he learned only two years ago. He is a musician and used to play the drums professionally.
“In my house, my trumpet is really noisy and it bothers my neighbors,” Vegas said. “People here like my playing a lot. They are grateful that I am here playing when they are eating lunch or passing by. They say, ‘Oh, how pretty. You play very well.’”
There’s no need to venture outside of El Retiro for lunch. Traditional ham or chorizo sandwiches are available for about 4€ and dessert is around every corner; ice cream bars are 3€.
After lunch, you can take a siesta beneath the trees. The lawn is also a hot spot for local students trying to find a peaceful place to study.
“If you live in a small room, you sometimes have to get out and have more space,” said Universidad Autónomo de Madrid student Judith Fuller, 23, of Germany. “The sun is shining and I like it here a lot.”
Tourists visit El Retiro to see the famous gardens, statues, and buildings. Natives appear to enjoy these things too, but Elivia Navarro, 50, of Madrid, points out another reason to frequent the park.
“I like nature and it’s so difficult to get in Madrid,” Navarro said. “I like to see the seasons on the trees.”
Whether you want to go for a jog, row a boat, discover Spanish history, or just get some fresh air, El Retiro has it all and is open for your enjoyment.