Parque del Capricho: Madrid’s Hidden Park

When you come up from the metro and step into the busy Puerta del Sol plaza, smack in the centre of the city, the only tree you’ll see is the one that the bear is hugging in the city’s symbolic statue, ‘The Bear and the Madroño Berry Tree.’ But don’t let the concrete-filled city centre fool you. When you think of Spain’s capital city, greenery is probably not the first thing that comes to mind but trust me, there are some stunning parks in Madrid that will blow you away!

Madrid boasts a number of amazing parks, even though most people only know of a few of the main parks (if any at all!): Parque del Buen Retiro, usually shortened to El Retiro, Royal Botanical Gardens, Casa de Campo, the biggest of all the parks in Madrid or Parque del Oeste, most famous for its English design.

During my last visit to Madrid, taking the advantage of a glorious sunny end of February I discovered Madrid’s Best Secret Garden: Parque de El Capricho

The Parque del Capricho located northwest of central Madrid,  is off the common tourist trail but is a hidden gem of Madrid as it is considered by many of capital’s residents as the finest park in Madrid. The park was designed as a retreat for Madrid’s nobility, a place to escape the clamour and commotion of the inner city during the 18th century.

The gardens were commissioned by María Josefa Pimentel (1752 – 1834) a leading and influential women in the Spanish nobility. She was a great supporter of the arts and sponsored many Spanish artists. The land was purchased for María by her husband, Pedro Téllez-Girón (the ninth duke of Osuna). In 1783 the area was used as farmland but the vision was to create a recreation property and grounds outside of Madrid’s city limits that could be enjoyed by the couple. María Josefa commissioned the royal court architect, Paul Boutelou to design the garden and work began in 1787. The gardens were designed in the French baroque style. The project was completed 52 years later in 1839 but the Duchess died without seeing her beloved park completed, she died in 1834. The park was very popular among the Madrilian aristocracy and it was an honour to be invited to visit it. The Duchess wanted to compete with the Duchess of Alba and even the Queen Maria Luisa. Therefore, she hired two well-known French gardeners who had to promise not to work in any other garden in Spain.

The closest Metro station is El Capricho on line number 5 and bus that pass the park are 101, 105 and 151. One reason the gardens are not on the common tourist trail is due to the very limited opening hours of Saturday, Sunday and public holidays between 9:00 to 18:30 (winter months) and 9:00 to 21:00 hours (summer season). After taking the L5 (green line) to almost the end of the route, I got off at the El Capricho metro stop and followed other couples and families over to the park’s entrance. Admission is free, but they keep track at how many people are in the park at the same time, and food and drink is prohibited. Is quite a journey to reach the park but the one hour and something travel time is worth it!

Upon entering, you’ll be transported to another world not just of greenery, but also whimsical architecture combining French, Italian and English styles. Start by entering the towering gates and head left towards the small house, Casa de la Vieja, which seems as if it was built for elves thanks to its stone construction, slanted tiled roof and tiny doors and windows. Casa de la Vieja (Old Woman´s House) was the place where the duchess and their friends, wearing fancy dresses, liked to imitate what they thought was typical country life. The inside, empty today, was once set as a house of farmers, with walls decorated with objects and elements, painted in Goya style instead of real ones There were also imitations of food made of wood, and perhaps, most curious, the inhabitants of the house themselves, materialized in dolls of real dimensions endowed with movement: one representing an old woman spinning and another a boy. Years after the building was completed and to complete such a unique set, another automaton representing a farmer was added to the scene. The kitchen had a closet, a coffee set, a sink, a table, three stools, a jar, pots, plates, cutlery and wood reproductions of two hams, seven sausages, three blood sausages and a cake, in addition to a melon, asparagus and some peppers.

A small wooded path will take you to another fascinating building: El Casino del Baile which constitutes one of the most significant caprices of this peculiar garden. It was one of the last constructions that were built during the life of its owner and promoter, the Duchess of Osuna, by then already a widow for eight years. With the arrival of the French, the duchess moved to Cádiz and the estate was confiscated by the invaders, who produced considerable damage. Upon her return to the property, and with Ferdinand VII installed on the throne, the Duchess put great effort into recovering the farm, beginning an intense task of improving the vegetation that was not interrupted until her death in 1834. Although a ballroom already existed in the palace, the Duchess considered it inappropriate for the time and in 1815 she had the casino built, choosing a very particular location above the well that feeds the estuary. This location offered the noble and her distinguished visitors the attractive possibility of reaching the casino by boat sailing by the estuary from the nearby jetty. The Master Mayor of Madrid, the architect D. Antonio López Aguado, devised a building in two superimposed bodies perfectly differentiated. The lower one of square shape accommodate the well of 15 meters of depth from which the water that falls to the estuary flows through an ornamental element – the stone carving of a boar that lodges in a hollow located under the double staircase to the lounge. This rises just above adopting its structure an octagonal shape. Inside you can admire the reliefs realised in the over-doors representing the four seasons of the year. The interior was decorated with mirrors as was customary in this type of room, with floor of fine woods and a neoclassical fresco representing the Zodiac.

Water is present throughout the walk. The Duchess of Osuna wanted all the elements that characterised the “Anglo-Chinese” garden that was in vogue at the end of the 18th century throughout Europe. Among the most characteristic elements of these gardens were the estuaries, the lakes with irregular edges and the islands. 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. In the centre of the lake there is an island with a waterfall and a monument erected in honour of the third Duke of Osuna, Viceroy of Naples

On the shore near the estuary of the river rises a small pier known as the “Casa de Cañas“- another caprice of the Duchess, because its exterior is covered with this material. This building was used not only to store the boats but also includes a small pavilion for resting that opens onto the water and served as an occasional dining room. The architect of this construction was the Milanese set designer Ángel María Tadey who worked for the Duchess between the years 1792 and 1794. Both the interior of the jetty and the living room are decorated with wall paintings that simulate a false architecture. The pictorial technique known as “trompe l’oeil” or visual deception serves so that the spectator who is inside the buildings can contemplate a landscape drawn through holes also painted. On the jetty, false curtains simulate the interior of a tent and in the dining room fine columns support an awning. Through the holes painted in the walls the viewer contemplates a non-existent landscape and at the same time can see, through the authentic doors and windows, the reality of the lake where the Casa de Cañas stands.

Close by Casa de Cañas, hidden within El Capricho is the first example of an iron bridge in Spain.

Another 5 minutes’ walk will take you to another intrigue building of the park: El Fortín. In the Geographic and Statistical Dictionary of Spain (1845), Madoz describes the Fort, as: “… a strong triangular figure with bastions, stable bridges and a draw and water pit that surrounds it. trimmed by 12 pieces of artillery of various calibres with their corresponding coffers of ammunition, with weapons, antler, flag and other defence and decoration tools “. This building is attributed to Martín López Aguado, although the date of construction and the reason for build it are unknown. The first time the current battery was mentioned is in an inventory of the furniture of the garden dated in 1829.

And the surprises of the park are not finished yet: another 5 minutes’ walk and you reach another remarkable edifice: El Abejero (the Buzzer or Beehive). No documents have been found to accurately determine the date on which the Buzzer was built, although it is estimated that it should not have been much before 1794, the year in which certain works were made, directed by the architect Mateo Medina.

It is an unprecedented construction that combined the sumptuousness granted by its ostentatious interior decoration with the originality provided by its most remarkable feature, consisting of having a series of beehives incorporated into one of the facades. But the most remarkable thing about this  was that, while the bees entered and left their combs through metal trapdoors located outside, the activity that took place inside them could be comfortably contemplated from the inside of the building through of glass windows that for this purpose closed the hives by the opposite end. The ingenuity was complemented by the landscaping that surrounded it, based on plants preferred by the bees to elaborate the appreciated honey that was then properly collected.

The circular room through which the beekeeper is accessed, contains 8 Corinthian columns with a base and golden capitals that support a cornice and the dome that closes the whole above. Although the marbles, stucco, polychromies and carvings that were then in this room all contributed to confer the desired distinction, the authentically valuable piece would run to a Venus sculpted in Carrara marble, the work of Juan Día, who dominated this space from the top of an ornate pedestal located in the centre of the living room on an elegant walnut table. From this central roundabout of octagon plant, the construction extends to the right in two elongated pavilions, also once, ornamented, where the combs are located.

The gazebo – Templo de Baco perched on a hill might just be the most romantic spot in Madrid. In 1845 Madoz makes a description of the construction:  “in the highest part immediately to the parterrre, and among thick forests there is an oval temple on 5 steps of berroqueña stone and marble pavement. Twelve fluted columns white stone capitals of Colmenar marble, support their annular corners, and form this temple, in whose centre there is an isolated pedestal of marble from San Pablo that holds a statue of White marble Bacchus”. The construction of the temple, located in the highest level of the garden, began in 1786 and ended in 1789. The idea seems to be inspired by the temple that Villanueva built in Aranjuez and of course the Petit Trianon that Marie Antoinette had in Versailles fashionable English garden.

The Palace of which only the walls are currently conserved, with three floors, a large Dance Hall and the largest Library of the time, was built between 1792 and 1795 by the architects Mateo Guill and Manuel Machuca. It constitutes one of the best examples of Spanish romantic architecture. The inside has been remodelled and houses the offices for the park services. There is a grand ballroom, dining salons, a 6,000-volume library, as well as the alcoves and chambers of the family members.

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 Plaza de los Emperadores was decorated at an undetermined date in the last decade of the 18th century with an Exedra, an architectural and sculptural ensemble equipped with benches to rest. This monument consists in its central part of a small temple, consisting of four Ionic columns that supported a semicircle decorated with floral motifs and shells. Originally, such a structure was conceived as a source, so it came to be called “Source of the Columns”, although it seems that it never became such, currently known as the whole “Exedra”. The monument was remodelled from the year that the Duchess of Osuna dies, running the works by the architect D.Martín López Aguado, son of the architect who designed before Casino de Baile.

The landscape excellence of El Capricho is manifested in three types of classic gardens: the parterre or French garden, the English landscape painter and the Italian giardino. The only disappointment is that El laberinto  is not open to the public. Conceived for the amorous game and the hiding places, the labyrinth is made with laurel and respects the plans of the one that was planted in the life of the duchess.

On one of the beautiful alleys of the park one will discover La Ermita (house of the hermit). According to the legend two hermits had lived there: Arsenio, who lived in the hermitage until his death in 1812 and his friend Eusebio who succeeded him until his replacement by…a doll. Apparently, Arsenio was buried in a pyramid-shaped tomb that was built next to the hermitage. The architect Tadey gave the building a dilapidated and aged appearance by painting the cracked and mossy outer walls. He used the popular “trompe l’oeil” when drawing on the exterior and interior walls false cracks, windows and furniture. In 2001 the building was restored by reconstructing the wooden side porch and eliminating successive repainting. Right now, inside the hermitage can be seen again the original decoration that reproduces the interior of a ruined church, a torn picture of San Antonio, an altar table with a prayer book and a hollow where wine is kept. the mass On the sides of the altar there are false windows symmetrical to the authentic ones of the main facade, where the bells were installed.

El Capricho keeps another secret: the bunker of the Jaca Position, the only example in Europe of this kind of structures from the Spanish Civil War. The bunker was home to the headquarters of the Republican Army of the Central Region. Covering 2000m², the shelter is covered by 15m-deep soil and offered protection against bombs of up to 100kg. It was built in the park in 1937 on a site that was far away from the front line, had excellent communication infrastructures and was surrounded by trees and bushes that would provide concealment. The shelter has seven rectangular rooms (four to the right and three to the left), four exits to the park and a gallery reaching the street that runs across the basement of the Duques de Osuna Palace. Kept closed for more than 80 years, the bunker, which was built to protect up to 200 people from bombing, opened to the public in 2016 after much political controversy. Visitors can only see the bunker via a guided tour.

After the death of the dukes, the park went through numerous hands and in 1882 the estate of Capricho was auctioned and acquired by the Bauer family (agents of the Rothchild House in Spain). Although in 1934 the farm was declared an Artistic Garden, during the civil war the palace was occupied by General Miaja as Republican Army Headquarters. After the war it became the property of a real estate company and finally in 1974 El Capricho Park was purchased by the City council of Madrid and in 1985 was declared a cultural monument. Since then the park has been slowly improved to recreate the vision of María Josefa. The long abandonment finally ended.

The fairy-tale Capricho gardens are a relaxing haven, especially in a busy city like Madrid. A visit to the park is an unforgettable experience. Still today it is amazing to find such a splendid example of romantic park, so no tourist should leave Madrid without having seen this park. Arrive by taking line 5 metro, getting off at the Canillejas stop and walking a few minutes to the park’s entrance in the Alameda de Osuna district of town.

From October to March, opening hours 9:00 am to 6:30 pm (weekends only). From April to October, opening hours are from 9:00 am to 9:00 pm (weekends only). Guided visits (anyone over the age of eight is allowed) of the bunker are on Saturdays between 10:00 am and 11:30 am. Each tour lasts 30 minutes and a maximum of 20 people can do the tour at one time. You must reserve your tour by emailing or calling +34 916 397 869 Monday to Friday from 9:00 to 1:00 pm.

~ by Leonard69 on March 1, 2018.

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