The Estanque Del Retiro

"Bring me, Dorilla, the bowl,
Fill'd up with luscious wine,
For only from seeing the snow
My limbs are shaking with cold."

- "De La Nieve", Juan Meléndez Valdés

There is absolutely no question that Javier Fernández has put Spanish figure skating on the map. After becoming his country's first European and World Champion, he added first Olympic Medallist in figure skating to the list two months ago in Pyeongchang. Though these accomplishments are certainly historic, they aren't the only milestones in Spanish skating history worth celebrating.

The Buen Retiro Park in Madrid has long played host to the Estanque Del Retiro, a 280 X 140 meter artificial lake that still exists close to the park's northern entrance. Throughout the middle of the nineteenth century, the winters in the Madrid were so unseasonable that the Buen Retiro froze and played host to what was perceived as an incredible novelty to the Spanish novelty: ice skating.

In 1836, an article by an anonymous 'resident officer' appeared in "Waldie's Select Circulating Library" called "Madrid In 1835: Sketches Of The Metropolis Of Spain And Its Inhabitants And Of Society And Manners In The Peninsula". This unnamed British military man wrote that at the Estanque Del Retiro, "A frost strong enough to bear a man's weight is quite an event, producing the greatest sensation. The whole population turns out, and the sides of the estanque are lined with spectators, admiring the evolutions and enjoying the occasional falls of the skaters, who are few in number, and almost exclusively men of the north."

Some seventeen years later "Gleason's Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion" posted a second account of skating in the Madrid park: "It is an error to suppose that countries situated in southern latitudes are always exempt from the rigours of winter. Thus the inhabitants of Madrid almost annually enjoy the pleasure of skating at Buen Retiro, a place situated at the extremity of the most elevated point of the city of Madrid. The basin is generally, in the depth of winter, covered with ice, for it is exposed to the cold winds from the summits of the chain of the Somno Sierra, which are covered with snow from the end of October... Situated a short distance from the Prado, which is connected by avenue of trees, the Retro is still considered the Sitio Real, or Royal Habitation, and it enjoys, under this title, numerous privileges... The comparatively small portion devoted to a public promenade, and planted with as fine trees as can be seen in Madrid, terminates in the basin Estanque."

British accounts of skating at the Estanque Del Retiro persisted throughout the mid-Victorian era. On December 23, 1865, the journal "Once A Week: An Illustrated Miscellany Of Literature, Art, Science And Popular Information" noted, "As soon as the snow-storm ceased, and the hardy barrenderos, or scavengers, had, with the aid of spades, and carts... begun to clear its effects away, every inch of skating ground was crowded with patinadors, female as well as male. The available area, however,
is sadly limited. It was almost laughable to see crowds of anxious experts (and inexperts) waiting for their turn round the Estanque, in the Retiro Gardens, calling up the image of the borders of the Pool of Bethesda, while its dimensions would invoke the nickname of a basin from any genuine northern votary of the skates." Early in the Edwardian era, L. Higgins' book "Spanish Life And Country" noted, "I have seen the Estanque Grande in the Retiro covered with ice several inches thick... All Madrid turned out to see the wonder and watch the foreigners skate." Both the 1836 account and Higgins' 1902 book note that the majority of the skaters who took to the ice at the Estanque Del Retiro during this era were not Spaniards, but visitors to the area, who had been presumably been exposed to skating elsewhere. This makes a lot of sense, as it is highly unlikely that many of Madrid's residents would have even have access to ice skates at that time.

At any rate, it's fascinating to think about the fact that the seeds of skating were sown in Spain so early. Winter temperatures in Madrid these days average out around six degrees Celsius, so it's highly unlikely you would have the chance to go skating on the Estanque Del Retiro anytime soon. However, tales like this one only go to show you that what may seem improbable is certainly not impossible.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating. Over ten years, the blog has featured over a thousand free articles covering all aspects of the sport's history, as well as four compelling in-depth features. To read the latest articles, follow the blog on FacebookTwitterPinterest and YouTube. If you enjoy Skate Guard, please show your support for this archive by ordering a copy of the figure skating reference books "The Almanac of Canadian Figure Skating", "Technical Merit: A History of Figure Skating Jumps" and "A Bibliography of Figure Skating":