The Parque de el Capricho is Madrid’s only garden from the Romantic period. Its name means something like “The Garden of Whimsy” or “Garden of Caprice”. I prefer the former, for the garden is indeed whimsical, without displaying any of the negative connotations that association with the word caprice might bring.
It has a real-life maze (think The Shining minus the snow and drooling axe-murderer; I was very tempted to scarper around it roaring “Danny”!), numerous bodies of water, follies galore (i.e. fake ruins, not long-legged, high-kickin’, semi-nude French babes), statues to the likes of Bacchus, pagodas, temples — and trees, lots of trees.
As a function of the quantity of trees, we have vast quantities of squirrels scurrying about. These, along with the maze, won over my kids. Another function of the large numbers of trees and in conjunction with the time of year that was in it — autumn — we were treated to a wonderful display of turning leaves. The splendour of the various tones of russet, vermilion and tawny was gorgeous, a sight to behold and, well, romantic. The garden also had public toilets, which for a public space in Spain is nothing short of remarkable. (The Latin bladder must be the most elastic organ in the natural world!) Enough whimsy.
The construction of Garden of Whimsy was the brainchild of one of Spain’s most distinguished noblewomen of the late eighteenth/early nineteenth century, the Duchess of Osuna. After buying a fourteen hectare site north of the city of Madrid, she placed the design of a garden along the French, English and Italian fashions of the day in the hands of one Pablo Boutelou and later, Jean-Baptiste Mulot. The first sod was turned in 1787, but the garden was not completed until fifty-two years later, by which time the poor duchess was dead.
The garden is not a botanic garden. Don’t go there expecting to be blown away by the sheer number or variety of specimens and with your taxonomy flash cards in hand relishing the challenge of teasing apart subspecies of berberis or sorbus or whatever. The garden is low on diversity and high on repetition. As an example of this, there are thousands of plantings of the duchess’s favourite flowering tree, the lilac. There are also hundreds of London planes, black pines and Holm oaks.
But never mind. It is the placing of these trees whether it be in the context of long, elegant avenues, gentle sweeping slopes, or dark, enchanted woodland pathways that matters. The Garden of Whimsy is beautiful. It gives off a lush, verdant vitality. There is a magic and delight to its twists and turns, the notion that man worked with his muse to create this romantic paeon to the natural world.
Even among the crowds of a brisk Sunday morning we felt we were in a retreat, a reserve. The city stopped at the garden’s railings and in here among the statues and murals and temples dedicated to the old elemental gods, nature, in all her whimsy, ruled.