Ross Stevenson’s comprehensive review of a hotel he’s never visited
By Ross Stevenson
Hear Ross discuss travel + food with Kate Stevenson on A Moveable Feast, every Saturday, 11am.
One day I am sitting at my computer flirting with travel plans to a city in Spain I have never been to before, a city called Seville. In Spain. Naturally I turn to the assistance of the Google machine in front of me at the desk, deciding that the first thing I will do is to check out accommodation, or what the Americans would call “Accommodations”.
This is where I first become aware of the existence of a hotel called the ‘Hotel Alfonso XIII’. This naturally diverts me (given a congenital short attention span) onto the question of who on earth was Alfonso XIII. Well, it turns out he was once the King of Spain and as so often happens, a story goes with it.
Alfonso was born in 1886 after his father Alfonso XII died. Yes, thinking about it, that actually can be done.
This meant he was the King of Spain and all its territories from the moment he first burped.
Mind you his mother, Maria Christina (who has the most expensive hotel in San Sebastian named after her – I see a pattern) sensibly took the view that he was not really in a position to run a country whilst being breast-fed and she soon let all and sundry know that since she was the one that was currently paying someone to wipe his botty, she would look after things for the time-being. The “time-being” is of course an inexact phrase and in this case turned out to be approximately 16 years.
It was only when Alfonso’s voice broke at flamenco practise one day that he officially became King Alfonso XIII.
Alfonso had assumed, on reasonably good historic evidence you would think, that on becoming King he would simply go on to live a long, comfortable and uncomplicated life of ease. Think Prince Philip. Given that this was his expectation, he was more than a little disappointed that the first bit of news he received as King was bad news. It turns out his kingdom was not as large as it once was, for between his birth and getting the keys to the car, his ever-loving mother had managed to lose Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines.
She wasn’t a desperate on the punt or anything, it was just that while her Generals dearly loved to commit war, they were not very good at it. So, up steps the boy with the bumfluff as the King of a lot less than his mother was once Queen of.
Three years of on-the-job training sees him turn 19 with a desire to see a bit of the world that wasn’t owned by Spain, which is why he finds himself in a country called England. And what do you do when you’re a monarch of a country and you’re in another country, you naturally pop in to see the monarch of the country you find yourself in, provided they have a monarch. As luck would have it, England did have one. They still do. So he pops over to Buckingham Palace, says “G’day” to the King to which the King responds “Goodday to you too and have you met this here lass, who is my niece? Her name is Victoria”.
Alfonso says “No, I haven’t” but the truth of the matter is that whilst he hadn’t met her, he had most definitely noticed her over there in the corner, waiting with her Ladies-in-Waiting waiting with her.
Well, one thing very quickly leads to another and the next thing you know the two youngsters have decided that they must commit marriage as early as humanly possible.
It is pretty much a rule of thumb that kings don’t do anything they don’t want to do. This is true unless the person that is telling them not to do something is their mother. As Alfonso meanders back to Madrid by carriage and boat, he knows that he will have to deal with the marriage issue with Mum on return. He also knows that he will have his work cut out for him.
Under normal circumstances a mother might not be thrilled that someone so young had decided to get married without first consulting her. But these circumstances were far from normal because Alfonso’s intended wife had a little extra lead in the saddlebags.
She was a Protestant. Alfonso wasn’t a Protestant. Not many Alfonsos are. He was of course, like his entire country, a Roman Catholic.
Bookmakers had the odds of Maria Christina being pleased with this turn of events at 1,000/1 and bookmakers are rarely wrong. It is worth noting that if the Protestant thing wasn’t enough of a problem, Alfonso’s mother had also heard on the royal grapevine that Victoria’s familial line had a small issue with a medical condition called genetic haemophilia. The key word here is “genetic”, raising concerns that when Alfonso and Victoria got down to the heir-producing business, there might be problems.
He rehearses ways of bringing this news to his mother in a way that would go very well for him. He was wasting his time. Maria Christina is not pleased. She says “No” to the marriage.
Alfonso cracks it. He has to tell Victoria “It’s off”.
Victoria cracks it. She tells her uncle, which results in King Edward VII of England cracking it. And kings don’t like being unhappy about things they can’t change. Generally-speaking, most problems in a king’s life are curable by simply killing someone.
So there is a great deal of high-level unhappiness going around. Especially at the Palacio Real de Madrid. No talkies between Alfonso and Maria Christina and many awkward silences over the evening paella.
Mother and son are essentially in a regal staring contest. So who blinks first? Bookmakers on the money again. Mum is annoyed but the son is heartbroken, so with Alfonso’s moping around and taking into account a mother’s natural love for her son, Maria Christina eventually folds like a pack of cards. She e-Pigeons Edward VII saying “Righto, the marriage can go ahead but there is one condition”. Have a wild guess as to the one condition? Victoria will have to become a Catholic. Now that WAS a wild guess. Shoe is on the other foot of course, Victoria will have to give up meat on Fridays. Naturally, she says “Yes”. She is half a vegetarian anyway and she knows you don’t get to marry a king and live in a palacio without making a few sacrifices and when it comes to religion.
And, frankly, she hasn’t been paying much attention in church since she was about 12 and began dreaming of marrying a king.
So, honour is satisfied and the Catholic wedding takes place on Alfonso’s home ground in Madrid, naturally. There is a slight hiccough at the wedding when a Catalan anarchist tries to kill the bride and groom by throwing a bomb at them. The bomb misses the betrothed and kills some bystanders.
No great mischief. In a monarchy, that’s pretty much what bystanders are for.
One year later it’s 1907 and Victoria presents the Spanish people with a son. A boy first up. Nice result. In 1907 in royal circles boys were getting slightly higher prices at market. They called him Alfonso (natch).
At the boy’s circumcision (no exemptions apparently), however, witnesses can’t help noticing that when the circumcision finishes the bleeding doesn’t.
Sadly in this instance it confirms Maria Christina’s worst fears. The child has haemophilia. She doesn’t take the news well and throws around quite a few “I told you sos” and not under her breath. And she isn’t the only one who takes this news badly. Alfonso pretty snappily blames Victoria for the child’s condition and in the blink of an eye he is not quite so lovey-dovey anymore. So Victoria is far from home and pretty light on for support at this stage.
There might be those who attempted to call Alfonso and his mother a nice pair of bastards, but it might well be worth remembering that one of Alfonso and Victoria’s subsequent children gave birth to a boy who at the time of writing is very much alive and happens to be the father of King Felipe VI, the current King of Spain, who may have powers that extend to other jurisdictions and may not enjoy hearing his great-grandfather and great-great-grandmother being called “bastards”.
For the rest of his life Alfonso was either a King or a King in Exile because, like his mother before him, he proved adept at losing significant parts of his kingdom before he lost the lot when Franco and the Republicans prevailed in 1931.
Pretty undistinguished monarch you might think and you would be right. He did however do four interesting things in his life:
1. Tiring of his British wife, he soon began taking outside mounts and ended up siring six illegitimate children, none of whom had haemophilia.
2. He got the flu in 1918. As did a great many Europeans of the era, including many members of European royal houses. What distinguished Spain in this regard was that whilst a great many European countries were involved in the war then currently being fought, Spain was not one of those countries. So there were no troops to demoralise by the reporting of the fact that their King was stricken with the flu. So the fact that Alfonso had the flu made the newspapers which is the only reason that that particular and very famous outbreak is known as the ‘Spanish flu’.
3. He dearly loved sport. Sports such as soccer. So he blessed some soccer clubs with his royal patronage which is why Christiano Ronaldo currently plays for a club called ‘Real Madrid’ and not just plain old ‘Madrid’. Real meaning ‘royal’.
4. He commissioned the construction of the Hotel Alfonso XIII in Seville, a hotel I haven’t yet stayed at.