“What? You were in Cartagena and you didn’t visit the Palace of the Inquisition!?”
Because I don’t want to be tortured with questions like that after I’ve returned from a trip, I do some homework before we go. You probably do, too. Of course, we might assign different priorities to the attractions of any given city. Maybe you’re an enthusiastic shopper, while on my top-10 list, shopping would be 17th.
My preference is to head for museums or sites of historical significance (and yes, we did visit the Palace of the Inquisition). Recently, though, I realized that some of the most enjoyable times I’ve had while traveling were at places that hadn’t been on my pre-trip wish list. They were at public parks.
Almost every city has them now, but parks are a relatively recent development. Oh, there were many acres of elaborate gardens and paths and fountains and trees, but they were owned by kings and nobles and were intended for their own private gratification. On weekends, the servants weren’t out on the lawn at Versailles tossing around a frisbee.
It wasn’t until the 19th century that cities began to provide open spaces for their citizens to enjoy fresh air and recreation. New York’s famed Central Park is more centrally located now than it was in 1857 when it was transformed from rock piles and swamps into a good vantage point from which to see the city that has grown up around it.
London and Paris have parks that might qualify as tourist destinations: Hyde Park and the Tuileries Garden come to mind. A visit to Boston Common is essential when you visit that city.
When planning a trip to Madrid, though, I hadn’t realized that a highlight would be hours spent in Parque del Buen Retiro. One Sunday we came up out of the subway near the park and heard live music; we wandered into an outdoor concert being given by Madrid’s symphony orchestra.
After that ended, we walked around a lake in the middle of the park and watched locals trying to maneuver rowboats they had rented. Elsewhere, a pack of in-line roller skaters were showing off for each other. Many Madrileños were relaxing and playing in Retiro Park, and unexpectedly, we got to be a part of it.
Before our visit to Beijing, I’m not sure I had even heard of the Summer Palace, which doesn’t sound like a park, does it? Long ago it had been an imperial garden, and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Its main feature is a good-sized lake where you can ride on a Dragon Boat. They are ornately-decorated vessels, but have no interior amenities other than rows of banquet-room chairs. I can’t honestly say the ride was thrilling, but it did get us out of the crush of tourists we encountered elsewhere in the city.
Stanley Park in Vancouver is a beautiful place to spend a day (see photo), and I have fond memories of Parque Eduardo VII in Lisbon.
Maybe the appeal of parks is that they can be appreciated at a more leisurely pace than travel schedules often demand. They also provide opportunities to blend in with the locals and share with them a sense of community.
I realize that this has been a very short list of great parks and I’m aware that there are many others. So — what’s the first one that comes to mind for you?