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.


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.


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. 


 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.


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. 

Screen Shot 2014-11-20 at 10.29.31 PM

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.

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About Cat Gaa

As a beef-loving Chicago girl living amongst pigs, bullfighters, and a whole lotta canis, Cat Gaa writes about expat life in Seville, Spain. When not cavorting with adorable Spanish grandpas or struggling with Spanish prepositions, she wrangles babies at an English language academy and freelances with other publications, like Rough Guides and The Spain Scoop.


  1. Great post, Cat. A lot of my Spanish friends can’t believe that I went to the capilla ardiente and are really against the incredible wealth the Alba family has. But I have the same opinion of her as you.
    Kim recently posted..Seville mourns the Duquesa de AlbaMy Profile

    • Wealth doesn’t factor in for me here – this post had very little to do with her money, but with her spirit. My friends thought of me as a novelty because they wouldn’t go, but thought it hilarious that I did!

    • Kim, there are many Spaniards who are idiots, and as soon as an important or rich person dies, then they begin to criticise the person, criticising the money, etc

      the House of Alba dates back to the 14th century, and it has played a very importante role, i do not care about the money or plots of land, i do care about how important and nice Doña Cayetana was, if the House has lots of properties is because they did support and help kings and queens for centuries, and any Spaniard right now who happens to criticise is because he or she has not got anything better to do.

      great that you went to the capilla ardiente! and tell your friends that they better worry about corrupt politicians, not about a nice woman who has never damaged or hurt anyone.

  2. Great tribute to an incredible woman who clearly did not give a crap what the rest of the world thought about her. I was so disappointed to see she had passed away on Thursday when I got into work. I only hope her husband Alfonso doesn’t have too much of a hard time grieving and that the media gives him his space. May her legacy live on forever (though I’m not sure how well her kids will uphold it, they all seem to be hot messes).
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  3. Great write, Cat. RIP!
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  4. Beautiful tribute to a beautiful soul.

  5. i knew that you were going to honour Doña Cayetana! bringing up such a beautiful blogpost about someone who is a deep-rooted part of the country does show that you feel yourself part of the country and that you are involved in it and know it the most.

    i have admired doña Cayetana, mainly because she faced her own children when she and Alfonso became novios, her children saw Alfonso as someone interested in her money, and you know what? such a thing really has shown that it was her children who were really interested in the money!

    you mayn’t know it, but she was very known and recognised in Britain as she was descendant of the English king James II…..also in one of her residences very important paintings and documents are kept, like a document of Columbus about America and the last will or testamento of king Ferdinand the Catholic, father of Catherine of Aragon who was queen of England as wife of Henry VIII.


  6. I’ve loved her for years, but it’s mostly just because I found her amusing and fascinating – she was more of a joke for me than anything. This is a really sweet tribute that gives me a load of respect for her and also makes me remember how much I adore Sevilla.

    What a cool photo of her with Jackie Kennedy at Feria!
    Kirstie recently posted..Travel-Themed Christmas Gift Ideas for Your Favorite AdventurersMy Profile

    • It’s hard not to love someone as flamboyant and special as she was! Even if it was just for her fierceness and undying love for Sevilla!

  7. I love this. What a remarkable woman!
    Wandering Educators recently posted..Arctic light: Aurora Borealis at Vesterålen, northern NorwayMy Profile

    • She really was, and I will miss seeing her show up in the news. Her family released a statement thanking Seville for its beautiful send-off and for treating her like one of its own.

  8. Great writing Cat! I have no idea who she is, but I love her!
    Penny Sadler recently posted..Pint and Barrel: Best Drafthouse in East TexasMy Profile

  9. Carlos Peschiera says:

    Queridisima Cat,

    Re, tu escrito sobre La duquesa de Alba……, respondo,

    Ole guapa, bien dicho!

    Te Saluda,

    Carlos Peschiera

  10. A fitting eulogy for one of modern Spain’s most colorful characters. Thanks for always sharing your obsession of her with us; I would never have learned about her otherwise! R.I.P. Cayetana

  11. What an interesting woman! I’d never heard of her, but now am glad I have. Wow!
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  12. I heard of the Duquesa de Alba’s passing on NPR. Reading your post gave me a better understanding into how much she meant to the people of Spain.
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  13. Cat, this is a very good round up of her! You probably adored her so much! Thumb up!
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  14. Dawn Starr says:

    I enjoyed your poignant post, and providing a lively description so as to capture her essence. I was in Las Vegas the last few days and saw a woman in the Bellagio Baccarat bar who looked remarkably similar; I fantasized she had faked her demise and is off on a fun new adventure.

  15. So nice to read this, and the comments, and realise I’m not the only ex-pat to love her! I found out about her death on the radio heading to London to do my DELE exam and couldn’t help but think of it as a bad omen.

    • I’m sure Cayetana gave you strength! She is the greatest. I just read her autobiography, as well – easy to read in Spanish and pretty interesting!

      • I hope so! I’ll have to check the autobiography out! I also just bought La Tesis de Nancy after reading one of your blogs;can’t wait to get stuck in! Having lived in Sevilla, Leon and Asturias I’m planning on moving back to Spain in the next few months and this blog is seriously tempting me down south.

      • I shall consider that a compliment!

      • Consider away!

      • She must have sent me he blessing because I got the results and APTO BABY!


  1. […] ex-bullfighter Fran Rivera (also the ex-son-in-law of the Patrona of Seville, Cayetana de Alba) pumped money into a gourmet food market in a century-old building. While mercados and plazas de […]

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