The Crystal Palace: Madrid, Spain

Palacio de Cristal

It’s been a while! I don’t know if it’s the fact that I had to cancel two trips recently, or that there’s no end to the pandemic in sight so life is kind of on hold…but I’m back to reminiscing about some of my recent trips, and remembering that there are things you can learn about a place you visited long after you’ve returned home. So today I want to talk about the place that has featured on my phone lock screen since June of last year – the Crystal Palace (or Palacio de Cristal) in Retiro Park, Madrid.

I went to Madrid last year for a 3 day conference on very short notice (I was literally looking for a flight the night before the latest time I could travel at the bar while my friends worked on another round of drinks). In fact, I was on vacation in San Francisco when I got a message that I’d be off to Spain two days after I returned from leave. I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before but I love to thoroughly research a place before I visit, but due to the short notice of the trip, I didn’t get to.

Which makes coming across Crystal Palace even more wondrous. During the trip I had a free afternoon and decided to take a walk to see the classic guidebook sights as well as the few bars / restaurants that my cousin and a colleague recommended to me. I came across the gates of Retiro Park, a 350 acre park nicely located close to the Circulo de Bellas Artes (the view of Madrid from the rooftop bar is ‘chef’s kiss’) and near to the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Spain’s national museum. I decided to enjoy the lovely Spain weather and take a walk through the Park.

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Retiro Park was the private retreat of the Spanish Monarchy dating back to the 1500s. In the 1700s, it was open to the public and has been ever since. The Park has some beautiful sights, such as the stunning rose garden and the man made lake, but my absolute favourite spot is the Crystal Palace. I have always liked the name and the “mystery” surrounding the one in England. Well, its not much of a mystery – the one in England was designed by Joseph Paxton and built for the 1851 World’s Fair, and was later destroyed by fire. I thought the design was so unique, and the fact that inspiration was taken from Guyana’s National flower, the Victoria Regia Lily made me like it even more. Globalization before it was even a term!

It never occurred to me that there would be similar buildings out there, or that Ricardo Velázquez Bosco’s inspiration would be taken so closely from Joseph Paxton’s original design in Hyde Park, London. I thought the chance to visit the Crystal Palace was nonexistent,  something I would never be able to do, like seeing the lighthouse at Alexandria, or finding Atlantis. More so, it never occurred to me that this little gem would be hidden in practically plain sight. I saw the name “Palacio de Cristal” on the map, but I honestly didn’t make the connection. I was consumed with being annoyed with myself because I’m always too shy to ask someone to take a photo of me, I don’t like arm’s length selfies, and I’m morally opposed to selfie sticks. And then I get mad when I don’t get nice photos of myself (which, spoiler alert, happened).

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So as I was thinking about whether I should double back to the War Monument (my second favourite spot in the Park), I looked to my right and saw this badass structure of glass and steel and bricks overlooking a pond with ducks gliding along and children at the edge trying to play with them. As I got closer, I could see intricately painted tiles at the base of the structure and extends around the base of the building. These tiles were painted by Daniel Zuloaga, who is widely regarded as one of the premier ceramic artists in Spain.

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The Palace was initially built for use as a greenhouse and to house the 1887 Flora Exhibition of the Philippines when the Philippines was still a Spanish Colony. This beautiful structure has withstood the test of time and is currently used for temporary exhibitions from the nearby Museo Reina Sofía. When I was there, there were about 3 white sculptures. I know I kept the brochure and I can see it in my mind’s eye but I just cannot find it in the mess that is currently my house.

Inside is just as beautiful as you’d imagine. It’s big and airy and warm with the sunshine streaming through every crevice. All that kept running through my mind when I was inside was “I want to live here” (truth be told, it was also “should I ask this guy to take a photo of me? What about this one? Maybe if I seem creepy and awkward enough he’ll offer” a few times). I know in reality, having a glass house is problematic, and as I sit here writing this with my old, stretched necked t-shirt, one leg hanging off my couch and yawning widely enough to swallow my laptop, I get it. Privacy and comfort and throwing stones and whatever. Plus I have all these “magnifying glass burning ants” images dancing in my head. But also – can you imagine how beautiful the view must be when its snowing or raining?

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So the Palace remains on my lock screen for now as a nice reminder of the thrill of discovery, minimally planned trips, the value of a selfie stick…and also as a reminder of actually travelling. Sigh. Stay safe!
Bookmark: Buy Yourself the F*cking Lilies by Tara Schuster. Not about Spain at all, but it is about self care and has elements of nature and travel in it. Good enough to fit into my theme, and even if it isn’t, its a FANTASTIC READ! I cannot recommend it more.
Waypoint: 40.4136° N, 3.6820° W

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