First Paseo: Retiro Park and a Flamenco Class

Paseos por Madrid is another class offered as part of American University’s Iberian Experience that the Madrid Business Program students can participate in occasionally. Paseo is a Spanish word that means a walk or stroll, though its connotation is very similar to the English word promenade, as it’s more a leisurely stroll through a public area. The class tries to expose all of us to different areas of Madrid in ways that it would be difficult for us to do on our own, so even though the class is optional for us, we will try to attend as many as possible so we can get to know the city we call home that much more.

For the first paseo, we traveled to the Atocha Metro Station, which is located right outside of the Madrid Atocha railway station, basically Madrid’s equivalent of Grand Central or Union Station. The professor, Keke, likes to make the final destination a surprise, so we weren’t really sure where we were going until we got there. Though we had a pretty good guess that it was the Retiro Park, and it turned out we were right.

Parque del Buen Retiro is a large public recreation area right on the outside of the city center, basically Madrid’s version of Central Park. Though according to Wikipedia Madrid has the highest number of trees and green areas per resident and all madrileños have access to a green area within a 15 minute walk, el Retiro is still a very popular place for people to go to exercise or just spend some free time. Because the park isn’t too far from my homestay, I’d actually already been there a few times with Ben and some of my other friends like Hyunjin and Christy.  (The last time we went we actually saw a cute little book fair right outside of the park as well!) However, it was still good to actually learn some information about the park with Keke. Also, it’s always nice to chill in a park, and the park is so big that you can always find a new monument, exhibition, or walkway.

It turns out that, like most city parks in Europe, el Retiro started off as the private recreation area for the Spanish Monarchy. Keke told us that it was actually given to the king by the second most powerful person in the country, because that person thought if the king had more leisure time away from the city, he would be more powerful and have more time to rule when the king was gone. There apparently used to be a large palace there, but now many of the buildings are good and the ones that remain are used as temporary art exhibition halls, usually for the Museo Reina Sofía of modern art.

Fuente del Ángel Caído

Fuente del Ángel Caído

Our first real stop, and the clue for the paseo destination, was the Fuente del Ángel Caído, or Fountain of the Fallen Angel (Lucifer). Part of the reason for the popularity of the statue lies in the claim that it is one of the only known public statues dedicated to Satan, something that is very out of place in a country as Catholic as Spain. One of the more interesting facts is that, despite only being about 7 meters high, it happens to stand 666 meters above sea level, something Keke believes must have been a coincidence since they did not really have advanced enough technology to measure that when the statue was first created and placed in the park. Definitely a little creepy!

After the Fallen Angel Monument, our next main stop was the Palacio de Cristal, which is a building made completely of glass and metal. Though there was nothing in it at the time, this is another building that is often used as a temporary exhibition hall. We had actually visited this when we were in el Retiro the day before, but it was still just as pretty today. Yesterday we also had the opportunity to check out one of the art exhibitions in the building next door that we did not visit while on the paseo. The exhibition was entitled Idea: Painting-Force: The hinge of the 1970s and 1980s and showed a large amount of modern art pieces produced in Spain between 1978 and 1984, during the transition period to more social and cultural freedom with democracy after the end of Francisco Franco‘s 36-year oppressive dictatorship. Though I’m not typically a huge fan of modern art, it was very interesting to see how people responded in such a transformative time for Spain. It was obviously also cool that we were seeing a free exhibition in the middle of a city park in the first place, irregardless of the style of the art.

Besides visiting those cool things, the highlight of our trip to el Retiro was definitely visiting the Estanque del Retiro, which refers to the big pond in the park. We had already seen it the last few times we’d visited the park and loved it. Just laying in the sun on the big monument right next to the water while a bunch of other people chat near you and stray cats sneak around looking for food is definitely a great way to spend a slow day. We would have been happy with doing that again, but it got better: we rented a bunch of rowboats and were able to take them out in the pond! Despite a few near collisions and it taking a little work to get the hang of the rowboat, I have to say that chilling in the boats in the middle of the pond is definitely better than sitting on the edge.

When we finished up with Keke in the park, the coordinator of our study abroad program in Madrid, Elena, came and took us all to her surprise: a beginner flamenco class! We learned some of the basic steps of the traditional Spanish dance from Andalusia. It was a little difficult to get some of the steps down, especially with the coordination needed between the intense arm movements and rhythmic feet stomps that can sometimes go incredibly fast, but definitely very fun and worth it. Though we were sweating by the end of the class, it was a great experience! Hopefully we’ll be able to see a flamenco show when we visited Andalucía at the end of next month and see how the pros actually do it.

After seeing how fun this paseo was, I’m definitely excited to see what other places will be visiting in the weeks to come. Today was just another example of how lucky we are to be studying in Madrid with such a well-developed program staffed by people who care so much about helping us make the most of our time here so that we can immerse ourselves in the culture, see as much as possible, and learn about the country and city we’re in.


About Casey Brown

Student at American University in Washington, DC, studying abroad in Madrid, Spain. News addict. Traveler. Linguaphile. Volunteer. Techie. Movie lover. Networker. Learner. Casey.
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