Although El Capricho is located on the outskirts of the city, a shiny new subway stop leaves the visitor only 5 minutes from the gate, an easy walk through a field that, despite the path, has been left to its own devices, as it were, and past a pleasant new housing development. We pass a soccer field that, on this Saturday morning, is crowded with school children rapt in their game, parents just as attentively shouting encouragement, then cross a narrow road to skirt the brick wall that leads to the entrance. The land was bought by the Duke of Osuna as a country escape in 1784, although it was his wife who designed the gardens. Considered one of the most intelligent women of her time and an active patron to artists, bullfighters and intellectuals – an interesting combination – she intended El Capricho as an artistic retreat. After her death, her grandson inherited the land and, upon his death, the park went to his brother. A profligate, he ignored the park, which declined rapidly. As the new owner dilapidated the family fortune, eventually the park had to be auctioned off to pay off his debts.
During the Spanish Civil War, the park served as staff headquarters for the Central Army of the Republic. Tunnels were built and two padlocked bunkers are visible just outside the palace. An iron door blocks the visitor’s approach to the drab cement mass but if one persistently peers in through the small barred opening at the top, one will only find dank-smelling dark. Finally City Hall bought the park in 1974 and, since then, renovations have been carried out in fits and starts. The most important work was undertaken in 1999 and continues to this day.
Considered a hidden treasure, this park is at its best in spring and fall. We visited in the latter season, on a properly overcast morning in the middle of an unseasonably warm fall. The cloud cover was in fact due more to persistent fog than any menacing wet. The presence of ornate iron gates make it clear that we’re in the right place but, disappointingly, the entrance for the public is through an anti-climactic turnstile off to one side rather than through the grand doors. Once inside, any disillusionment at this mundane entrance disappears. A wide tree-lined avenue of hard dirt takes us into the French part of the garden, stately and formal. Walking up this towards the palace, a labyrinth lies on the right-hand side. Because it is sunken – and closed to the public, for some reason – it’s not quite possible to calculate how much of a labyrinth it really is. In other words, is it closed off because the immaculately clipped bushes are so high as to hide people from view? Did the gardeners get tired of having to rescue adventurers from its bushy depths or is it just as it looks: harmlessly pretty and polite? We continue our short pleasant stroll to the end of the park, past a small plaza graced with unprepossessing statuary, fountains set in the exact center of perfect paths, and wind past trellises until we reach the palace. Like most of the architecture here, this is a poor imitation of a stately home, all stucco, emptiness and pretension, certainly far from being a fine example of anything unique or historic. Apparently the interior is now used as offices for the park services and is closed to the public.
The true beauty of the visit lies in the parkland itself. After gentle appreciation of stone urns dripping with Virginia creeper in autumn loveliness, one can turn to the magnificent English-style garden. Leave behind the beds of pink begonias enclosed in low shrubbery and cypresses rising thin and straight from precise right-angled corners of hedge, and wander into the classic version of a European “English Garden”. Sweeping lawn, gentle hills leading down to streams and canals, enormous trees rising majestic against the gray sky: here is the Romantic ideal of pastoral loveliness. Wandering down a quiet side path, we came upon a small pond surrounded by dense trees, the absolutely still water covered with so many leaves that the bit of water surface we could see was as shiny and still as glassy ice. We followed along paths capriciously criss-crossing the landscape, past trees with knotty trunks in yellows and grays and brilliant reds and dark greens, and crossed a whimsical wooden bridge over a minuscule stream, climbing stone steps set in a slope blanketed with ivy to the other side. There were plenty of fellow visitors: families with children running up and down, tourists taking pictures of themselves in front of a low-hanging branch or curiously twisted tree trunk. We kept meeting a class of photographers busy with tripods and sophisticated-looking lenses and filter to take artistic shots of general vistas or close-ups of veiny leaves.
And of course “capricho” means folly, and these “eye-catchers” are dotted throughout the park. There’s a tiny chapel that, a sign informed us, used to include a hermit to add authenticity to the scene. A low star-shaped fort sits in the middle of swampy water. Here there was originally an automaton soldier standing guard. Set here and there in the pathways are openings decorated with mosaics made out of stones in whites, blacks, browns. The river leads to a large opening section on the edge of which stands a pagoda-shaped boathouse where guests would disembark after their short cruise. It’s possible to glimpse a part of the interior, painted with a stylized vista of a curtained window with a vista of a “distant” temple, perhaps to help the visitors imagine that they were really in the English countryside, in a much larger park. A bamboo bridge, now closed off, leads around to the Casa de la Vieja. This Petit Trianon-style imitation peasant house, with its heavy stone walls and wooden balcony was, according to the signpost outside, a spot for the Countess’s guests to eat in a properly rustic setting, where they could imagine themselves living like the masses.
The park is a perfect example of the lazy days enjoyed by the extremely rich, who could afford to fill their surroundings with useless whimsy and, let’s face it, simple beauty, all maintained with their money and plenty of cheap manual labor. So many parks were created as playgrounds for the very wealthy; we can only be grateful that they used part of their money to create what, in strictly practical terms, would now be considered a terrible waste of space. All those hectares and square meters! Tear down that silly chapel and that indulgent boathouse, leave the trees, and you’ve got the perfect setting for luxury apartments. But before waxing poetic about the golden days when a family could create their own personal haven of beauty and peace, we can instead appreciate the face that fortunately, we live in more democratic, albeit economically straitened, circumstances. Now it’s our very own taxes that keep it going, by the way providing jobs for gardeners and builders, so that now anyone can wander through a soul-soothing spot of tamed nature, very close to the city.
I hear there are concerts in the spring. We’ll have to get back for one or two of them.