Who is the Duquesa de Alba, and what’s with my obsession with her?

The tweets and whastapps started coming in almost immediately, from friends, from followers, even from the Novio’s family. Te acompañamos en el sentimiento, Cati. Are you holding up alright? Will you light a candle for me in her honor?

Ok, so my favorite Spanish tabloid staple and Seville’s most famous resident passed from this world, likely flamenco dancing up to the Pearly Gates (of which she has probably had claim on for five generations), but I’m not falling over crying. Just sighing that I won’t now get to imagine passing her on the street the way I’ve done with Falete or have a beer at the table next her, as I did with  Mariano Peña a few weeks ago.

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Photo from El País

Throw a mantilla over the Guadalquivir, y’all – Cayetana has left her beloved Hispalis and this world on November 20th, and the city is just a little sadder and a bit less colorful without her.

My blog can be described as a love letter to Andalucia, to expat life in Spain, to Spanish culture. So what sort of service would I do to readers if I didn’t give my virtual eulogy to a Spain’s most decorated aristocrat and a woman who I’ve been fascinated with since my first disastrous time in the chair of a peluquería with the prensa rosa spread across my lap so as to avoid conversation with the hairdresser?

Who is María del Rosario Cayetana Fitz-Stuart James?

The Duchess, known as Cayetana, was born in the Liria Palace of Madrid to Jacobo Fitz-James Stuart, 17th Duke of Alba, and his wife María del Rosario de Silva y Gurtubay. And it gets better – her godmother was Victoria Eugenie, wife of King Alfonso XIII.

Through a complex series of marriages, lineages and inheritances, Cayetana (full name: María del Rosario Cayetana Paloma Alfonsa Victoria Eugenia Fernanda Teresa Francisca de Paula Lourdes Antonia Josefa Fausta Rita Castor Dorotea Santa Esperanza Fitz-James Stuart, Silva, Falcó y Gurtubay [no joke]) held more noble titles recognized by a still-existing country and was considered Grande de España fourteen times over. In fact, when Scotland was debating independence from the UK, The Duchess had a shot at becoming its queen.

And that isn’t even the good stuff, unless you like challenging yourself with memorizing her monikers and all of her titles.

How did she get so darn famous?

All that nobility stuff aside, what really made Cayetana famous was her willingness to break with convention. Friend of Jackie O, asked to be Picasso’s muse and considered one of the most beautiful women in Spain when she was younger, the Duquesa has been in the spotlight since her family returned from exile after the Spanish Civil War.

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Photo from Breatheheavy.com

Cayetana was raised to love art, horsemanship and performance, passing her holidays between London, Seville and her native Madrid, and she became the 18th Duchess of Alba when her father, Jimmy, died when she was 27 years old.

As the head of the House of Alba, it fell on Cayetana to attend to her family’s mass fortune, which includes thousands of acres of land, a dozen palaces and countless works of art and historical artifacts.

This, of course, was a high price to pay, and much of her life was rocked by ESCÁNDOLO as she became a rather permanent fixture in tabloid covers. And being preceded by another scandalous Cayetana de Alba, rumored to be painter Francisco de Goya’s muse in La Maja Desnuda and La Maja Vestida, not one part of her private life seemed safe – not marriages, children or fortune, much less her desire to live her life as she saw fit (or even bare all in the Baleares or danced barefoot in the streets of Seville).

Weddings of the Duquesa de Alba

In 1942, and at the urge of her family, she married fellow aristocrat Luis Martínez de Irujo and had six children – five males and a female, each of whom inherited a title and promise to the patrimony. She was widowed in 1972, and rather than living out her days, she married a defrocked Jesuit priest and illegitimate love child, Jesús Aguirre y Ortíz de Zurrate in 1978.

Once more, she outlived her second husband and spent years throwing herself into promoting Spanish culture and  filling her agenda with social and charitable acts.

Scandal shook when Cayetana was rumored to be romancing Alfonso Díez, a civil servant and public relations pro who is 24 years her junior. Her children staunchly opposed, as did the King of Spain, but Cayetana maintained that their longtime friendship had evolved into something more amorous, and to prove it, she divvied up her money and properties to her children and grandchildren.

And none for Alfonso Díez, as Gretchen Weiners can sympathize.

Spain's Duchess of Alba Cayetana Fitz-James Stuart y Silva dances flamenco beside her husband Alfonso Diez at the entrance of Las Duenas Palace after their wedding in Seville

picture from The Local

Just before the wedding in 2011, Intervíu magazine featured the Duchess on the cover in an old photo, sunbathing topless during a family trip years before. Like most of the scandals, Cayetana shrugged it off and did her thing. She and Díez married in Seville in October of that same year, and after the small ceremony concluded, she and her pink wedding dress took to the street to dance sevillanas. How’s that for a big old middle finger to convention and royal behavior?

A people’s royal, indeed (and I like to think she had a cervecita at the bar across the street from her palace rightwards).

And, Why do I love her so much?

The only time I ever saw the Duquesa de Alba, she was riding in her horse carriage down Calle Gitanillo de Triana. I thought she was a mirage – or that I was in a rebujito haze – and tried to pull out my camera from deep within the folds of the volantes of my flamenco dress. 

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 Photo from El País

I ran back to the caseta, exasperated, to tell the Novio. “Well of course, she’s a woman unafraid to be with the masses, to enjoy Seville the same way that we do.” For someone from a country that has always debunked the monarchy and where wealth is amassed more from hard work (or, ahem, scandal), the thought that someone so rich would walk around the center of Seville in ballet flats seemed uncanny.

And that she was. Cayetana was larger-than-life, avant garde, cercana. A true lover and believer of the ‘Live and Let Live’ school. I like to think she was a fighter, from the difficult pregnancy her mother had, to the various health problems that plagued her later in life.

When news that she was frail and had been transferred from the hospital to her favored residence, Palacio de las Dueñas in the heart of Seville, I knew it was the beginning of the end.

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It’s a well-known fact that I’ve always joked that the one big thing left on my Seville bucket list is meeting the Duquesa de Alba. On Friday morning, I became one of 80,000 people to file past her mortal remains, draped with the Spanish and Casa de Alba flags, at the Ayuntamiento. Said to be deathly afraid of being alone, the streets were full of reporters, well wishers and even curious tourists from other parts of Spain.

I stayed silent, not because I was reflecting on Cayetana’s life or because I was uninterested, but because it didn’t seem like the time or the place. I had to laugh that the viewing room of a public figure is called the capilla ardiente – a flaming chapel for a flamboyant character. Seems about right.

Because really, my love for Cayetana goes más allá – she’s more like a metaphor for how much I love Spain and its culture. The Duquesa was dedicated to Spanish art as an avid collector, to flamenco, to bullfighting, to horsemanship. 

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The Novio jokes that I’ll be the new Duquesa de Triana because Cayetana and I share many passions – Cruzcampo, Real Betis Balompié, Sevilla and the salt of life. I want to live my years left on my own terms, surrounded by people I love and leaving some sort of legacy, no matter how insignificant. I don’t need to have an autobiography or to be a topic on Sálvame, but should it happen, I sincerely hope to not give a crap. Olé tú, Cayetana, y que viva la Patrona de Dejarme Vivir.

My one request when it’s my turn to go? That my ashes be spread between Lake Michigan, Calle Gitanillo de Triana and Cervcería La Grande.

Seville Snapshots: Costaleros Practicing for Holy Week

The capataz knocks once. As if mechanically, the 40-off men beneath the wooden structure heave together, resting on their heels, hands gripping the wooden beams above their heads.

A second knock, and they launch into the air together.

On the third, the simulation float has rested on their shoulders, and they begin a coordinated dance down the street, walking in sync as they practice for their glorious penitence – Holy Week.

You all know that I paso de pasos (and the crowds, and the brass bands and even the torrijas), but the grueling pilgrimage from one’s church to the Cathedral and back fascinates me. No one bears the brunt more than the costaleros, who must pay for this prestigious position within their brotherhoods and seek penitence through their labor, carrying over 100 pounds for an average of eight hours.

In the weeks leading up to Viernes de Dolores, no less than 60 brotherhoods will crisscross the city to practice, placing cinderblocks on top of the metal float to simulate the large statue, each depicting the final moments of Jesus Christ’s life or of the weeping Virgin Mary. For ten days, Seville is full of religious fervor as the ornate pasos descend on the city center.

For an official route plan with approximate times, check here. You can use this to either catch the processions, or totally avoid them!

What are your Holy Week plans? Have you ever seen Semana Santa in Seville?

The City of Sorrows: Understanding Seville’s Gypsy Culture (and giveaway!)

Driving past Las Tres Mil Viviendas, the notorious gypsy neighborhood on the southern end of Seville, is a daily constant for me. I’ve often wondered what life is like for the squatters who make their home there, where rumored jaleos stretch long in to the night. I’ve seen stray animals wandering around the stark grounds, nibbling on discarded garbage, from my car’s passenger side. Sevillanos consider it to be the most dangerous neighborhood in the city – so much, in fact, that policemen are said to not go there.

Gypsy culture is both revered and shunned, creating an interesting but sobering relationship between them and payos, Spaniards. Spain’s most celebrated artistis – from Camarón to Lorca to Falla – have gitano origins or influence, yet rejection, intolerance and marginalization continue to exist.

I recently read Susan Nadathur‘s debut book, City of Sorrows, about the difficult relationship between ethnic Gypsies, Spaniards and even outsiders. The fictional novel is a heartbreaking look at the misconceptions that exist in mainstream society, as well a message about overcoming tragedy in both cultures. Susan researched the book while living with a family in Las Tres Mil Viviendas, providing a powerful basis from which to understand Gypsy life.

Intrigued by what I’d read, I asked Susan a few questions about her research and experience living with a gitano family. This is the first part of our interview:

Your novel challenges the idea that Gypsies are all fortune tellers, thugs and thieves. What should mainstream society know about Spanish Gypsy culture?

Mainstream society – both in Europe and the United States – has been at odds with the Gypsies since their migration from India in the 15th century. The Gypsies have lived most of their history accused of being different, non-conformists, and problematic. They have been marginalized, stereotyped, persecuted, glorified, and under-appreciated. But, no group can be lumped into one neat package. Yes, many Gypsies are fortune tellers, con artists, and thieves. If you are a tourist in Spain, you will certainly run into Gypsy women working the streets surrounding the cathedrals, offering a sprig of rosemary in exchange for a generic palm reading.

You may find others begging in front of the cathedral door. But you will also see many other hardworking Gypsy merchants at local outdoor markets. In Seville, they are at El Charco de la Pava on Saturdays, selling everything from shoes, boots and women’s stockings to children’s clothing and luggage. These merchants are serious vendors, with permits and taxable income. They are not thieves but hardworking groups of families who are out on the streets every day, rain or shine, in the bitter cold and the oppressive heat of summer, selling the merchandise that will feed their families. If we only see the negative of a group of people, we see only half the picture.

You’ve often said that your childhood being bullied has contributed to your empathy toward Gypsies? Can you draw any comparisons to their plight with the bullying you felt as a child?

I sincerely believe that if I had not been bullied and ridiculed as a child, I would not have developed the empathy that gives me the deep awareness of the suffering of marginalized groups like the Gypsies. In any society, there is the mainstream and those who live outside of it. I grew up in New England, which has historically been harsh on people who don’t fit it—on those who are “different.” In my case, being different meant looking different than my peers. I wore thrift shop clothes in schools where plenty of kids had plenty of money to buy new ones. I was the only one in my elementary school classroom to wear glasses—and the kids let me know how ugly those glasses looked on me. I was the classic school-yard victim, bullied because I looked and acted differently.

Because of where I come from, because of having endured acute feelings of intolerance and isolation, I can identify with the Gypsies—who are not necessarily bullied, but are certainly marginalized and misunderstood. Nobody wants to get too close to people they don’t understand. It’s easier, and safer, to make fun of, slander, or simply stay away from people who make us uncomfortable. My peers were uncomfortable with me because I looked different from them, acted differently from them (I was a loner who enjoyed reading and favored solitude in the village cemetery over jeering in the school courtyard). Many of my friends are Spaniards, who have all expressed very strong opinions about “not wanting to get too close to the Gypsies.” While I understand that some of their fears are justified, I wish they could just try to understand that beneath the surface of these enigmatic people lays the same common, human experience.

What gave you the idea to write City of Sorrows?

The seeds for City of Sorrows were sown long before it grew into the complex novel it is today. When you take a shy young girl and make her feel like a lesser human being—for whatever reason—a story is formed. When that shy girl takes refuge in books, a reader is made. And when that reader turns to journaling, a writer is born.

If as a child I had not been bullied, picked on, and humiliated, I would not have developed the keen sense of empathy I have for people who are marginalized. Without that compassion, I would not have been profoundly affected by a racist remark targeted at my Indian friend (now husband of 27 years) when we lived in Seville. “Gypsies and Moors are not served here,” a surly waiter said to my friend while refusing to serve us a cup of coffee. My friend was neither a Gypsy nor a Moor, but because he came from India, was dark skinned and looked like a Gypsy—that was enough to label him “outcast.” That one statement, spat out decades ago in a bar in Seville, became the catalyst for this story of love and loss in the vibrant world of Gypsy Spain—a world I would never have penetrated if I had not felt the sting of isolation, humiliation, and rejection that gave me the unique, unspoken connection to this group of persecuted people.

Interested in winning your own copy? Susan is an avid follower of Sunshine and Siestas and has offered one copy, either digital or paperback, to another reader of this blog. We’re interested in knowing how you feel about Gypsy culture, regardless of whether or not you’ve lived in Spain.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

The winner will be randomly chosen from the entries on November 22nd, in honor of the Spanish celebration of El Día de los Gitanos Andaluces. Susan is offering City of Sorrows at a promotional price of $9.59 for the print book and $4.19 for the Kindle book, throughout the month of November. You can purchase on Amazon (City of Sorrows on Kindle or City of Sorrows Paperback) or via Susan’s author website. You’ll learn that it goes beyond flamenco and jaleo – Gypsy culture is passion, devotion, tradition.

Seville Snapshots: The Horses of the Feria de Abril of Sevilla

“Cat, estamos en Feria, ¿vale?”

Luna, the Novio’s god-daughter, is not quite three and already a declared feriante. We were sitting in a horse carriage, her teeny hand stroking the ruffles of my traje de gitana. In Spanish, “I’ve been to three Ferias. ¿Y tú?” Six, I replied, getting a puzzled look. Before I could explain, she drew in a deep breath and pointed at the team of horses pulling us along the fairgrounds. ¡Mira, Cat! ¡Un caballo!

photo by Hayley Salvo

There are so many things that are muu d’aqui about the Seville April Fair – the drinks, the dance, the dress (not to mention the etiquette). While it’s not for everyone, Seville’s social event of the year celebrates Andalusian beauty of all sorts, including its Jerezano stallions. Horses, riders and their carriages are allowed to circulate the fairgrounds until about 8pm, paying nearly 80€ an hour for the official license plate. Seeing the pale grey stallions, women dressed as amazonas perched on top with their legs dangling off the side and a crisp sherry in hand, adds an air of the past.

The caballos get gussied up for the event – their tales and manes are braided, balls of yarn and bells hang from their  bridles. I actually prefer seeing Feria during the day and admiring the creatures, as my family has always owned a horse and I’ve known how to ride since I was a kid.

Are you a horse lover? I’ll be going to the Feria del Caballo in a few weeks with my guiri friends – a whole week dedicated to horses and sherry!

The Do’s and Dont’s of the Feria de Abril of Seville

Recently, Shawn of Azahar Sevilla and the mastermind behind Seville Tapas tweeted that I have a reputation of being feriante, a lover of Seville’s famous festival, the Feria de Abril. We may have only met briefly, but mujer gets me. What’s not to love about a week dedicated to revelry, horses, wine and curve-hugging dresses?

Two weeks after sevillanos have dried their tears after another washed out Holy Week, a makeshift city of temporary tents is erected at the southwest end of the city. Known as the Real de la Feria, this pueblecito comes alive during six days of the year, from 9pm on the Monday two weeks after Resurrection Sunday to the following Sunday’s fireworks show.

The dizzying, vibrant week can be characterized by a whirl of polka dotted dresses, the jingle of horse bells and the sound of sevillanas, a type of flamenco music, and it’s one of Spain’s most well known festivals. But as a city deep-rooted in tradition, even the April Fair has its set of unofficial rules. I consider myself a fairly well-weathered feriante after five years of teaching class after late nights, of using my enchufe to my advantage and of lasting through six days of partying.

DO bring your wallet

One of the biggest pitfalls to Feria is that it falls two weeks after Holy Week (my perfect excuse for traveling during 10 days). Feria is a wallet drain.

First is the costly flamenco dress and everything that goes with it – the flower, shawl, earrings and shoes. I got my most recent dress during the July sale season for a mere 125€ and the accessories, called complementos, cost me another 60€. Styles change de feria en feria, so some wealthy women get a new dress each year!

My caseta membership costs Kike and I 150€ a year (we alternate who pays, this year me toca, while he’ll pay the cheaper gym membership), and then there’s the food, the drinks and the need to buy a new pair of shoes when I dance the others right into the trash. Tapas are not served in casetas, but rather raciones that can be 6 – 12€, while a jarra of rebujito can cost up to 10€! What’s more, hotels and taxis operate on a holiday price, so rates will be sky-high like during Holy Week. City buses have a 2€ day pass, and they’ll extend working hours – look for the “Especial Feria” bus.

To keep costs down, I usually eat lunch at home and walk to the fairgrounds and always ignore my dwindling bank account for the sake of un buen rato. Feria only comes once a year!

DON’T only see Feria by night

The fairgrounds open daily around 1p.m. and most casetas stay open until the wee hours, meaning the Feria de Abril is an exercise in stamina, and not just for your wallet. My first few years in Seville, I worked outside the city and therefore had to run home, change into my traje de gitana, eat and get to Calle Gitanillo de Triana. I’d alternate dancing sevillanas with sips of rebujito and riding the carnival attractions in Calle del Infierno, arriving home in the early morning hours and collapsing in my bed hoping to get a few hours of sleep.

I may have inadvertently taught my high schoolers the word “hangover” in English my second year in Olivares.

There are two different sides to the fair – during the day, horse carriages and riders crowd the streets, even parking their horse next to their caseta and drinking sherry by the glass atop the stallion. Music spills out of the tents at all hours, and kids roam the streets with plastic toys and cotton candy the size of their torsos. The ambience is festive and cultural.

As night falls, the carnival rides at the Calle del Infierno begin to light up, and the round paper lanterns, called farolillos, come on. While you’d be pressed to find a caseta that isn’t playing a rumba or sevillana, everyone switches from rebujito and beer to mixed drinks, and casetas are often open all night long. I’ve had mornings where I’ve ended the long day of partying with chocolate con churros!

I’m also partial to weekday visits. During Friday and Saturday, other villages in the area get a day off to enjoy the fair, which means that it’s difficult to walk and navigate around the streets, all named for bullfighters.

DO dress up

Feria is the pinnacle of pijo culture – women will don the traditional traje de gitana, a tight, ruffled dress that cost upwards of 500€. If you’re not keen on dressing like a wealthy gypsy, be sure to look nice. I went to the alumbrado, the lighting of the main gate and the official start to the festivities, wearing ratty jeans and sneakers, not fully aware of how the event worked. I’ve since wizened up and now make it a priority to have a few nice dresses on hand in case there’s a chance of rain or I can’t bear wearing my traje.

If you’re a chico, wear a suit and tie. Caseta etiquette is very important, and you’ll be expected to follow suit (literally!). If you’re planning on riding a horse, a traje corto, a short jacket and riding pants with a wide-brimmed hat called a cordobés. I’ve ridden in horse carriages, but never on the back of a jerezano stallion, kind of my dream!

DON’T forget the caseta etiquette

Casetas are the temporary tents that act as houses, kitchens, concert halls and lounges during the Feria. Since the private spaces come at a commodity (there’s even a waiting list for when a family or organization decides not to continue paying), a certain type of behavior is expected – you can’t be overly drunk, improperly dressed or smoking within the walls.

One year, a friend of a friend was visiting, and I took them to the Novio’s friend’s caseta. This girl, K, was not sipping the lethal rebujito, but instead treating it like a shot. She bumbled around like an idiot and starting making out with the Novio’s youngest brother, causing quite an escándolo and getting us banned from the caseta.

There’s also an unspoken rule that you can’t bring your twelve friends with you. The Novio’s best friend’s wife, Susana, often encourages me to invite some pals, but I try and keep it limited to two, maybe three. Even my own caseta has a one-buddy-per-socio rule!

DO set limits on consumption

If Feria is a marathon for your wallet and feet, it’s no stroll through the Real for your liver, either. The drink of choice is rebujito, a refreshing mix of half a litre of dry sherry and 7-Up, and it is potent. The sugary drink is usually served in enormous jars and drunk out of plastic shot glasses or sherry glasses between friends. Drinking water and curbing the intake often helps, as well as getting some fresh air every so often. During my first year, the only kind of connection I had was in Los Sanotes, and Kelly and I made sure to be there every day. Susana’s uncle finally reminded me that there was more to Feria than one caseta out of over 1000, and a break in the dancing and drinking will allow you to take in the ambience.

Be sure to eat during the day, too. I usually don’t want to stop dancing for a montadito or fried fish, but spacing out your drinks and punctuating them with some heavy food like carrillada or tortilla will help you last longer.

DON’T be pesada with your contacts, and try and make them early.

Feria is a time when enchufe, the age-old connections game that lives and thrives in Seville – nearly all of the casetas are private and protected by a doorman. I usually have to say the name of the person who I’m meeting or offer to drag that person back to the door after I’ve found them to prove that I’ve been invited. Phone lines collapse and batteries run dead, or someone is too drunk to get to their phone. Make your plans with friends ahead of time to avoid the letdown of arriving to the fairgrounds and having to wander around while you wait for an invitation.

I’ve have several invitations to casetas where I’m brought food and drink outside, though I’ve never actually psychically been inside of them. But that’s alright with me…as long as there’s rebujito and a plate of ham waiting, that is!

While I’m busy with pouring over relaciones institucionales or dancing my brains out on Calle Gitanillo de Triana, here are a few of the articles I’ve written in the past about la semana más bonita:

How to dress up a flamenco dress

A vivir! Que son dos días!

The Feria during the economic crisis

My first Feria experience 

Any other tips and tricks for enjoying the fair?

Seville Snapshots: Who’s That Nazareno?

Smell that? It’s incense. Feel that? That’s some sevillano whose trying to push his way past you.

Yes, amiguitos, Holy Week is upon us, the stretch of time between Viernes de Dolores until Easter Sunday where sevillanos dress in their finest, women don enormous combs and black lace veils and pointy capirote hats dot the old part of town. The faithful spend all day on their feet, parading from church to Cathedral and back with enormous floats depicting the passion, death and resurrection of Christ.

I’m not much of a capillita, but ten days of religious floats means ten days of travel for me.

That said, I’m off to Dubrovnik, Croatia and the Bay of Kotor, Montenegro, country #30 on my 30×30 quest. Where will you be during Semana Santa? Do you like Holy Week, or would you rather get your fix in a Holy Week bar?

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