“We saw the oddest woman on the train,” my cousin said, when he and his wife arrived in Seville some years ago. “She was tiny with frizzy white hair. Everyone pointed and whispered when she walked by.”
“Did she look like this?” I said, picking up a nearby magazine and showing him the cover.
“Good God, that’s her! Who is she?”
“The Duquesa de Alba. She’s Spain’s richest noble and the most titled aristocrat in the world. Technically if she meets the King of Spain or Queen of England they should bow to her. She has the hereditary right to ride a horse into Seville’s cathedral. And they say she owns so much land that you could walk the length of Spain without ever leaving her property.”
Of all her vast holdings, the Duchess of Alba’s favorite was said to be Las Dueñas, a palace occupying an entire city block in downtown Seville. Once the most closely guarded of private residences, this year it opened its doors as the Palacio de las Dueñas museum. And even in this city of spectacular monuments, it’s a breathtaking standout. I fell in love with it the moment my husband and I stepped through the gates.
“I could be happy here,” I told Rich.
“Don’t get used to it,” he said.
The palace is named for the ancient convent that once stood there: Santa Maria de las Dueñas (meaning "Owners" or “Overlords”), an aristocratic order of nuns serving the royal family. Built in the fourteenth century, the palace came to the Albas through marriage in 1612. Each generation has added to its magnificent furnishings, art collection, and pleasure gardens. In accordance with Andalucían tradition, the huge wooden outer portals have always been left open during the day so passersby could look through the inner, iron gate and admire the garden. For years Rich and I often paused in passing and peered in through the bars, wondering what the rest of it looked like.
Occasionally we’d see photos of the house in the national press; the Duquesa loved being in the spotlight.
“If they forget you, you’re nobody,” she told a gossip magazine.
Doña María del Rosario Cayetana Fitz-James Stuart y de Silva, 18th Duchess of Alba de Tormes, Grandee of Spain, devoted her life to making herself unforgettable. Born in 1926, she flaunted the strict Spanish conventions of the day, hobnobbing with bullfighters, flamenco dancers, and such celebrities as Sophia Loren, Jackie Kennedy, and Wallis Simpson. A famous beauty, she was photographed by Richard Avedon and Cecil Beaton. Picasso wanted to paint her, clothed and nude, but she turned him down.
In 1947 she married a duke’s son in a ceremony the New York Times called “the most expensive wedding in the world.” His death in 1971 left her a widow with six children, and seven years later she scandalized society by marrying a defrocked Jesuit priest of illegitimate birth. She had multiple plastic surgeries, some of which went badly wrong, resulting in a flat, crooked nose and a distinctly odd appearance. The Duquesa was a familiar and popular sight around Seville; everyone delighted in discussing her unconventional ways. I kept wondering when she'd exercise her right to ride a horse into the cathedral, but astonishingly, she never did.
She was widowed again in 2001, and ten years later, in the teeth of family and royal opposition, she married for the third time at the age of 85. He was 24 years her junior, a commoner, a civil servant, owner of a public relations business, and — according to some — her “toy boy.” (Can that term properly be applied to men in their mid-sixties? You be the judge.) The wedding took place in the chapel of Las Dueñas, and afterwards she walked to the front gate, she kicked off her shoes, and danced barefoot for the cheering crowd. A museum guard delightedly showed me the precise spot.
The Duquesa died of pneumonia in 2014, at the age of 88. Her like will not be seen again.
She may be gone, but I don’t think she has to worry about being forgotten any time soon. Her legacy lives on in the hearts of many and in the museum that reflects her family heritage and her lavish personality. From now on, Las Dueñas will be the very first place I take visitors, so I can have the fun of regaling them with my favorite stories about the Duquesa of Alba and her wild ride through life.
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I'm an American writer living in Seville, Spain and traveling the world with my husband, Rich. We've recently completed a five-month Mediterranean Comfort Food Tour, exploring the world's favorite cuisine to discover more about European culture — and our own.
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