Heavily polluted with traffic smog, hot and dry like a desert for most of the year, bereft of invigorating breezes from the sea or the mountains and yet… Madrid is one of Europe’s greenest cities. The River Manzanares that passes through the capital is only a small body of flowing water when compared with mighty rivers like the Danube but its ecological importance to the city cannot be underestimated. The Santillana Reservoir, a huge man-made lake-like water reserve northwest of the capital in the region of Manzanares el Real is Madrid’s chief source of water and consequently its life-sustaining artery and its vital root of thriving existence.
Originating several miles away from the capital at the foot of the Guadarrama mountain range, exactly where several streams and rivulets that run down the mountain slopes meet, the River Manzanares flows towards the capital passing en route through spectacular terrain before it reaches the Santillana Reservoir, located about thirty miles northwest of Madrid. Providing most of the water necessary for the domestic, industrial and irrigational needs of the capital and other cities in the neighbourhood, the Santillana Reservoir is in addition a peaceful lakeside locality where one can enjoy a one-day break at ease away from the bustling environment of Madrid.
Visitors who are reluctant or unenthusiastic to venture beyond the city limits but still crave for a spring-like ambience of grassy landscape will find right in the city centre a fair share of parks and gardens ideal for walking, sightseeing and recreation. Some of these spaces of greenery are large enough for a whole day of walking around at leisure; others are much larger and wilder and so require a good map that points out the routes and pathways so as to make navigation easy and painless. Other green zones are loaded with attractions and walking at leisure from one attraction to the other is a real pleasure, particularly in winter when the weather is fresh and allows for physical exertion without sweating and fatigue.
East of the city centre and north of the Antigua Estacion de Atocha, the Parque del Buen Retiro is Madrid’s modest answer to the chateau gardens at Versailles southwest of Paris. The gardens at Versailles are much larger and undeniably more majestic and pretentious but Madrid’s most glorious and popular public park is nonetheless crammed with attractions that make strolling around a feat of exploration. Several wide gravel-covered promenades (each is named after a South American country) lined with old trees on both sides and split down the middle by a tract of mown grass crisscross the park, giving it an air of openness and space. The extensive Paseo de Argentina on the west edge of the grounds is the park’s most extravagant walkway. Littered with marble statues of Spanish kings and bedded with patches of blooming shrubs (showy azaleas and dark pink begonias were all there when I walked along), it is a great spot to hang out in and relish at leisure.
One other spectacular promenade that visitors will probably walk along in their attempt to reach the Palacio de Velazquez (a miniature Prado with neo-classical architectural features and temporary displays of classical paintings) is Paseo de Venezuela. Wilder and more natural than Paseo de Argentina, less popular and so ideal for a romantic walk, it runs across a fertile wooded zone of old chestnut trees that afford basic protection from the weather. Midway on Paseo de Venezuela is the Fuente de la Alcachofa, a monumental stone assemblage of tritons supporting the weight of the coat of arms of Madrid. Paseo de Venezuela pays tribute to Santiago Ramon y Cajal, the Spanish neuroscientist and winner of the Nobel Prize in Medicine, who is immortalized in a majestic stone-and-bronze monument on one edge of the promenade.
Several other tree-lined avenues, some wide and straight as a roadway, others narrow and intriguing as a treasure-hunt track traverse the park providing hikers and picnickers with enough opportunities for at least a day. While walking at leisure, it is advisable to look around attentively because the place hosts a considerable number of unpretentious attractions (artistically designed and groomed lawns, elegant displays of manicured hedgerows, quaint statues holed up amidst the trees) that do not show up in guide books but are nonetheless pleasing and interesting.
Five gates allow access to the park and all are open from early morning (6:00 am daily) till late at night (10:00 pm winter season, 12:00 pm summer season) but for reasons of proximity to a metro station and guidebook hype, only two are popular with tourists. The main official gateway and the one commonly used is the Puerta de la Independencia near Plaza de Cibeles (Closest metro: Retiro). From here, Avenida de Mejico runs straight to the Estanque, a spectacular man-made pond of huge proportions and the most favoured spot within the entire park. Closer to the Prado Museum and consequently ideal for visitors who are making their way on foot from the Prado to the Retiro Park is the Puerta de Felipe IV (Closest metro: Atocha). From this entrance, Paseo de Paraguay leads to Plaza de Honduras from where the Estanque is within earshot.
The main feature of the Parque del Buen Retiro and the spot where tourists and madrilenos come together to celebrate or listen to popular music is the Monument to King Alfonso XII. A semi-circular colonnaded walkway complete with an intricately sculpted frieze and a grand staircase watched over by a pack of bronze lions, it is crowned with a prominent bronze cast of King Alfonso XII on horseback. The ensemble is unquestionably a great artistic achievement for the architect responsible for its design; it becomes an extraordinary sight when one takes into account the area where it is located. Right below the monument is the magnificent Estanque around which people gather, buskers perform and children play. Renting a paddle boat and going up and down the lake is apart from walking the best way to burn up your remaining energy.
Before you depart, make sure to look at the Palacio de Cristal, an unusual metal-and-glass pavilion that is indisputably the most extraordinary structure in the park. Further south on Paseo de Uruguay is the Rosaleda, a wonderful rose garden with four thousand species wrapped up in a maze of leaf-covered archways.
South of the Museo del Prado and only fifty metres away from the westernmost edge of the Retiro Park is the Glorieta de Murillo where the entry gate to Madrid’s Botanical Garden is located. Small when compared with the Retiro Park and apportioned into sections so as to make navigation effortless, it is a sanctuary of world plants, some providing a source of astonishment for visitors on account of their peculiar exotic beauty, colour or queer appearance. Students of Botany and Biology will find in the gardens enough Latin names to fill a book; non-specialists will be aroused by the unusual collection of Namibian cacti that look more like lifeless stalagmites rather than respiring living plants. Even if your knowledge of world flora does not go beyond the plants in your back garden, make sure to spend some time in the garden’s archive to inspect a priceless collection of plant drawings that are as awe-inspiring as the real thing.
Madrid’s visitors whose craving for the wild goes beyond groomed parks or who insist upon more challenging terrain than the Retiro Park affords should in no way feel dissatisfied. West of the city centre and only a short metro ride to station Moncloa is the Parque del Oeste, a forested area where the ambience is definitely tougher and more crude than within the prescriptive Retiro Park. Parque del Oeste is not only a natural wild zone of tree-infested tracts ideal for walking but is in addition Madrid’s serendipitous spot where simple attractions are thrown in here and there solely for the sake of discovery. The park’s huge Rosaleda, though not as well-kept as its equivalent in the Retiro Park is nonetheless a prime attraction.
Near the park’s Rosaleda on Paseo del Pintor Rosales is the lower station of the teleferico or cable car that whisks visitors up to the Casa de Campo, an indigenous area afforested with pine, oak, ash and chestnut trees. The view from the cable car over the entire capital of Spain is the reason why visitors should use the teleferico rather than the metro to reach this amazing playground. Ideal for trekking, picnicking and cycling, probably with few visitors around, Casa de Campo comprises in addition a zoo, an extensive recreation area, an artificial lake and an amusement park. Nothing unusual or extravagant but there’s so much to see and so much to do that a whole day is needed if one wants to get anything more than a general overview. Adults will find the leisure areas and the park’s theatre appealing, interesting and relaxing; children and children-at-heart will find the roller coaster rides joyous and entertaining. Who would want to leave?