It is easy to miss the historical implications of monuments in a foreign city. To understand them requires time, research and effort, and often even locals don’t know much about them (they have “just always been there”). My eye lids grow heavy almost immediately when I begin to read a tourist map blurb of a bridge built for a general or another statue commemorating some city official, or the house where Chopin used to live (ok, Chopin’s house is pretty cool). But the antique and the modern occupying the same space has always impressed me, and Madrid is prolific in its showcasing of this dichotomy. It’s everywhere you look.
La Puerta de Alcalá represents an old passageway, one used by kings, migrating sheep, presidents, singers and soldiers. There are shrapnel marks on its side, left from a 1746 cannon. And yet cars, scooters, and buses buzz, honk and circle the monument 24 hours a day. It was built as a face-lift for Madrid and to celebrate its rising importance as a European city, and it is a wonderful backdrop for an afternoon coffee at a small table on the sidewalk. If I ever hope to extend my limited attention span, I will learn more about this and some of the hundreds of other physical constructs here that are simply saturated with history and meaning.
Just behind the gate is Retiro Park, a particular source of pride for Madrileños. Upon entering, there is an immediate and surprising change in atmosphere, like suddenly stumbling into a library after running a half-marathon. It may not take you at first, but give it a few turns around the dirt paths, and as you slow your walk and your breathing, you may not want to leave so soon. It is quiet and there are people reading and nodding off on the grass. Even an ambulance, as it rushed in, turned off its siren and continued with only flashing lights. The idea of a park lying in stark contrast to a busy metropolis is somewhat new to me. My hometown, San Diego, sometimes seems like just one big park. There is little opportunity to see the drastic difference between metropolis and nature. It is refreshing to see such care taken to keep a place clean and quiet. Grounds keepers slide silently around the park in little electric-powered dump trucks. There is a large, green pond full of koi and little wooden blue boats, couples aimlessly rowing and talking. And statues of animals and babies and triumphant-looking men and women. Sensible street musicians sit on stools among birds, manicured flower beds, fountains, trees and lots of soft grass. And the periodic stands pumping out ice cream are a pleasure for both child and adult.
This was one of those days in which nothing really happened. Just a stroll through a park. While coping with a new city and new way of life, these meaningless days are a requirement. This park is only a few blocks from my new home, and if I am to keep what sanity I have left, I will keep this place handy to collect my thoughts, ideas, notes and an ice cold beer or two. A place for couples, families, or the solitary wanderer, Retiro is close at hand and I intend to return here, no matter my frame of mind, and I hope that a few memories will be born here in the future.
To see a few more photos, click here.