You Can Now See the Hidden Treasures of Madrid’s Secret Palace
Liria Palace, the extravagant abode of the late Duchess of Alba, is shrouded in mystery, scandal, and centuries of lore, and what you’ll hear on tour is only half the story.
In the bustling center of Madrid, two blocks from Plaza de España and the Gran Vía thoroughfare, there’s a French-style mansion called Liria Palace that contains the finest private art collection in Spain. Its silk walls drip with Goyas, Velázquezes, and Titians, and its library guards a first-edition Don Quixote and the handwritten diaries of Christopher Columbus. Yet you could visit Madrid a dozen times and never hear so much as a murmur about this mysterious local landmark, whose contents and historical significance are rivaled (locally) only by the Prado Museum and the Royal Palace.
That’s because, until recently, the property—owned by the House of Alba and hidden behind a 10-foot thicket patrolled by civil guards—was a nightmare to get into if you were a mere plebe with a passport: For the last 50 years or so, only one 15-person tour was offered per week, and you had to apply for a spot via email. (“Book two years ahead,” advises one popular guidebook in perhaps in the most ludicrous travel tip ever.)
Happily that policy changed on September 19 when the palace flung open its gold-finialed gates to all who could afford the €14 entry. Every day since, lines snake down Calle de la Princesa teeming with visitors eager to catch a glimpse of the intimate life of its inhabitants, who for the better part of a century have earned all-caps headlines in Spanish newspapers and tabloids. They’re like the Kardashians of Spain, except with blue blood, medieval castles, and a dukedom spanning 131 square miles (roughly five times the size of Manhattan).
But the mansion’s most famous occupant, hands down, was Cayetana Fitz-James Stuart, the 18th Duchess of Alba, who—over the course of her tenure from 1955 to 2014—married a possibly closeted ex-Jesuit priest with anger issues, hosted racy fashion shows with Christian Dior at the height of Franco’s dictatorship, and allegedly ordered all the luggage off a commercial flight to accommodate her 40 suitcases. Meet Spain’s enigmatic “rebel duchess,” down-and-dirty flamenco dancer and high-class voluptuary, loud-mouthed diva and all-powerful proprietress.
Liria Palace, Madrid’s largest private home, was built between 1767 and 1785 on (what was then) the rural western edge of the city. It was commissioned by the Dukes of Liria and Jérica, an Anglo-French peerage established in the 15th century that put down roots in Spain after the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-14). Louis Guilbert, a rather obscure French architect, is behind its neoclassical, Parisian-influenced hôtel particulier design. He was accused of embezzling funds in 1771 and was supplanted by one of Spain’s most famous architects of the era, Ventura Rodríguez, who would see the project to completion under the supervision of Jacobo Fitz-James Stuart, 3rd Duke of Berwick. (It wouldn’t be until 1802 that the houses of Berwick and Alba were united under the roof of Liria Palace to become one of the most powerful aristocratic families in Spain.)
When the British novelist William Beckford sojourned in Liria Palace in 1787, two years after its inauguration, he deemed it the most splendid building in Madrid. At the time there was simply nothing like it. A mini Versailles on the outside and a mini Prado on the inside, Liria Palace was (and remains) a pleasingly symmetrical rectangle whose butter-yellow façade of soaring archways, slender pilasters, and wide stone balconies conceal 200 rooms bedazzled down to the last millimeter with frescoes, tapestries, paintings, marble, gilt, and every other deluxe detail imaginable. Look down, and glossy parquet floors glint beneath your feet; look around, and you might spot a famous canvas from your college art history textbook; look up, and you’re dwarfed by massive chandeliers that, if sprung loose, could squash you like a cockroach under a boot.
The cookie-cutter tour that meanders through the palace’s creaky-floored galleries bearing works like El Greco’s Christ on the Cross, Goya’s The White Dutchess, and Jan Brueghel the Younger’s Noli Me Tangere is impressive, no doubt, but let’s not kid ourselves—it’s a bland simulacrum of the House of Alba. Ask anyone in Spain what comes to mind when you say “Duchess of Alba,” and—spoiler—it most definitely won’t be Flemish tapestries and classical portraiture.
The fact is, like Madrid itself, the palace’s past and present brim with bizarre characters, fraught politics, and juicy scandals involving sex, drugs, and corruption. And the linchpin of all the drama for most living Spaniards was Cayetana Fitz-James Stuart, the love-her-or-hate-her suitcase tyrant we met earlier.
Cayetana Fitz-James Stuart, the 18th Duchess of Alba, was born in Liria Palace in 1926. An only child, her godparents were King Alfonso XIII and Queen Victoria Eugenie. She was baptized in the Royal Palace and had so much blue blood pumping through her veins that some theorized that the Queen of England should bow at her feet upon greeting her. Even in death, she holds the Guinness World Record for the most officially recognized titles: She was five times a duchess, 18 times a marchioness, 18 times a countess, 14 times a Spanish grandee, and once a viscountess. If the Scots had voted to leave the United Kingdom in 2014, Cayetana would have been a strong contender for that country’s throne.
Cayetana was born with the silverest of spoons in her mouth, but her childhood wasn’t easy. She was five when the installment of the Second Spanish Republic stripped the House of Alba of their noble titles, forcing her family to flee to Paris; eight when her mother died of tuberculosis; and 10 when the Spanish Civil War began.
In November 1936, while Cayetana and her father were exiled in London, their beloved Madrid abode was reduced to smithereens by the Condor Legion during “Generalísimo” Francisco Franco’s siege of Madrid, which lasted until 1939. The Condor Legion was the Spanish branch of Hitler’s Luftwaffe, and it supported Franco in numerous air campaigns that culminated in the bombardment of hundreds of civilians at Guernica.
When the Condor Legion finally pulled back from Madrid, all that remained of Liria Palace were four brittle façades surrounding mountains of steaming debris. But fortunately nearly all of the House of Alba’s artistic treasures—many of which are on display in the palace today—were preemptively safeguarded by Cayetana’s father in the Prado Museum and Bank of Spain. Many of the paintings, tapestries, and other works that didn’t make it into those buildings’ vaults were salvaged from the rubble by staff and volunteers (though a large number of historic volumes from the library were reduced to ash). On the scene was Antonio Machado, one of Spain’s great poets, who wrote in a leaflet titled Fascism Is Trying to Destroy the Prado Museum, “The love with which I have seen the Communist militia guarding the palace of the Duke of Alba compares only to the furor with which the fascists are destroying it.” The House of Alba, a symbol of refined aristocratic intellectualism, were a natural target for the book-burning Francoist revolutionaries.
Back in London, Cayetana, a teenager, was enrolled in a prestigious school in Kensington. She received classes in English, Spanish, French, and German; in her free time, she rode horses, palled around with Winston Churchill (a distant relative), and purportedly had play dates with a certain Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor, who would go on to become the queen of England.
Cayetana’s father, Jacobo Fitz-James Stuart, was an apologist for both of Spain’s reactionary dictators, Primo de Rivera and Francisco Franco: He served on the former’s National Consultative Assembly and was appointed as ambassador of Spain in London by Franco in 1937—hence why the duke and his daughter lived there. But he wasn’t a fanatic by any stretch and (mostly) resisted falling into the quicksand of Franco’s cult of personality. In fact, when the heir to the Spanish throne, Infante Juan, Count of Barcelona, released the Manifesto of Lausanne in 1945 calling for the reinstallment of a “modern, democratic, and constitutional” monarchy and requesting that all royal figures with government posts resign in solidarity, Fitz-James Stuart was the first to step down—against Franco’s wishes. Torn between allegiances, he chose the Crown.
Out of a job, Fitz-James Stuart and his daughter packed their bags and moved back to Spain. But their old barrio, Argüelles, was a shell of its former self, having been at the western front of the Nationalists’ brutal siege. Nearby parks were dotted with flame-licked bunkers, and many buildings, their palace included, lay in ruins.
All this destruction and poverty didn’t dissuade Cayetana, at age 21, from marrying nobleman Luis Martínez de Irujo in what The New York Times called the “most expensive wedding in the world.” It was held at the (notably unruined) 15th-century Palacio de las Dueñas in Seville, a House of Alba stronghold that remains the city’s most famous privately owned palace today. It’s worth pausing here to let that sink in: At a time when even the victors of the Civil War were scraping by on rationed bread and lentils, the House of Alba didn’t think twice about dropping some $3.5 million (in today’s money) on a black-tie bacchanal for 2,500 guests whose menu, according to a contemporaneous article in LIFE magazine, included “40 pounds of foie gras, 1,600 pounds of seafood, 1,200 pounds of ham and beef, 675 chickens and turkeys, 600 pies and cakes, and 2,800 pounds of fruit [...] washed down with 14,750 bottles of whisky, sherry, cognac, anisette, red and white wine, and champagne.” It would go down in history as Spain’s last feudal wedding.
As the newlyweds paraded out of Seville Cathedral, en route to the palacio, thousands of locals cheered them on. Perhaps there were just as many Españoles sitting at home, simmering with anger, begrudging them for their privilege and extravagance.
The duchess’s first task upon returning from her six-month honeymoon—on which she traveled to Hollywood and hobnobbed with stars like Cary Grant, Marlene Dietrich, Bing Crosby, Gary Cooper, and Henry Fonda—was restoring Liria Palace to its former glory. For that, she and her father enlisted renowned architect Manuel De Cabanyes, who in turn drew from blueprints by Edwin Lutyens, the Englishman credited with designing and building New Delhi. But Cayetana’s father died in 1953, just as the new foundation was being laid, and the pressure was suddenly on her as heiress to see the project to completion, her father’s dying wish.
Ultimately she did him proud. When the refurbishment was finished in 1956, it was nearly indiscernible from the original both inside and out. Even the furniture reflected the original rococo style of the interiors. “The reconstruction of Liria is my most prized work and the one I feel proudest of. I suppose that that will earn me a little place in history, as opposed to the foolish remarks currently made about me in certain types of press,” Cayetana wrote in her memoir Yo, Cayetana.
Martínez de Irujo and Cayetana had six children—Carlos, Jacobo, Fernando, Cayetano, and Eugenia, in that order—which ensured the continuity of the Alba dynasty. Though there was still tension between the Francos and the House of Alba due to the duke’s alignment with the Crown, it was still a fine time to be an aristocrat in Spain. Franco’s government had restored the noble class its titles and landholdings and, effectively, their sociocultural clout.
But even in her first years at the helm of the House of Alba, it was clear that Cayetana wasn’t your average bland, dowdy royal (like, say, Queen Elizabeth). Her wedding dress, a sensation at the time, was designed by Flora Villareal and inspired by Christian Dior’s “New Look,” a groundbreaking aesthetic distinguished by cinched waists, form-fitting blouses, and billowing skirts. A year after her wedding, Cecil Beaton photographed her for the U.S. edition of Vogue.
Eschewing tradition, Cayetana let all manner of social strata pass through Liria’s gates, from Roma flamenco dancers to bullfighters to politicians to kings and queens. In 1959—to the horror of the aristocratic establishment—Cayetana turned Liria palace into a fashion runway for a 23-year-old Yves Saint Laurent, whose 14 French models catwalked seductively between the Titians and Goyas. All of Madrid’s top socialites were in attendance. Then, in 1966, the duchess played host to Jackie Kennedy and Grace Kelly in Seville. Through all this, she was sending a message: Even in the ultra-conservative, ultra-religious Spain of Franco, she was untouchable, a free woman.
According to her friends, she was at her most liberated dancing flamenco, that spirited, patently plebeian musical tradition that Spain inherited from the Roma. All that belly rolling, skirt flapping, and banshee-like wailing would’ve made most prim-and-proper aristocrats choke on their aspic, but not Cayetana, whose spiritual home was Seville. She built a tablao (flamenco performance studio) in Liria Palace and learned her braceos y floreos (hand and arm movements) by studying with some of the cante jondo’s greatest masters, including Tía Juana del Pipa.
When Martínez de Irujo died in 1972, it didn’t take long for Cayetana to find her next suitor, an ex-Jesuit priest 11 years her junior named Jesús Aguirre, whom the duchess would come to call the true love of her life. They met at a party at Malpica Palace in Toledo and, the story goes, crossed paths in the middle of the night on their way to the bathroom. Sparks flew, and they wound up dancing right there in their pajamas.
When they married in 1979, it was quite the scandal: She was an exalted noblewoman and hallowed cultural figure; he was an illegitimate, baseborn literary editor and academic with an arriviste streak and leftist proclivities. He was also rumored to be a closeted homosexual, an idea Cayetana dismissed with one of her most infamous and colorful quotes: “Jesús and I fuck every night.” The duchess defended their love long beyond Aguirre’s death in 2001 and often reminisced about how he would send her hand-written love poems from across the palace, their housekeepers acting as couriers. (Sensationalism aside, it’s largely thanks to the scholarly inclinations of Aguirre that the House of Alba’s estate, containing some 50,000 artworks, is so meticulously cataloged today.)
Cayetana’s children, however, hated his guts. “When [our mother] married Aguirre, it was dreadful for us,” her daughter, Eugenia, confessed in a TV interview after Aguirre’s death. “He was very cultured but not human at all. He was very bad.” When Eugenia was 11, Aguirre allegedly summoned her to his study and told her that the only reason she and her siblings still had a home in the palace was because of him, insinuating that the duchess would just as soon abandon her children. “Everyone views him as a saint, but for me he was a nightmare, even if my mother always defended him,” Eugenia added.
Cayetano, the second-youngest, shared similar horror stories on the popular TV show Lazos de Sangre in 2018. “Jesús intended to act like an authoritarian father with me, and that’s why we clashed so much,” he said. Though their relationship would improve when Cayetano was an adult, the duchess’s youngest son maintains that Aguirre caused such emotional distress that, paired with his mother’s frequent absences, he was driven to cocaine and sex addiction.
Cayetano wasn’t alone in his anguish. All of the duchess’s children agree that their mother had two distinct personas: There was the public figure of duchess, enchanting, free-spirited, extroverted, and warm; and there was the private one of mother, aloof, distant, and sporadically dictatorial. Perhaps Cayetana’s largely motherless (and sibling-less) childhood was the root cause of the domestic dysfunction.
Like a play, Cayetana’s life climaxed in its third act with the arrival of another (relatively) young wooer, Antonio Díez. It was 2008 and the duchess was 82 years old, frail and wheelchair-bound after undergoing surgery for hydrocephalus; Díez was nearly 30 years younger, tall, gentlemanly, and spry. The age difference rang alarm bells in the tabloids and rattled the House of Alba to its core: Who was this no-name suitor, and what were his intentions?
Initially none of Cayetana’s children approved of the relationship, convinced that Díez was delusional at best and a gold-digger at worst. But the duchess stood her ground. “They’re just jealous,” she said of her children in an interview with Hola! magazine, adding that they were hypocrites. “They don’t want me to marry, but they change partners more often than I do!”
Happily Cayetana’s children—and the bulk of Spanish society—were proven wrong by Díez. Over time, the whole family warmed up to the man, who proved to be a sweet, honest, and dependable companion to the duchess in her final years. Their favorite pastime was watching back-to-back films together in the palace.
Concerns were further allayed when Díez waived his rights to the House of Alba’s assets and when the duchess bequeathed her entire estate—all the art, castles, and sprawling dominions—to her children while she was still alive.
Cayetana celebrated her third wedding in 2011 in Seville and surprised everyone (or perhaps no one) when she kicked off her heels and danced a creaky sevillana in front of the church, her tiny flat feet stomping to the strum of flamenco guitar. Three years after this last dance, she died of pneumonia. Her ashes were deposited in a humble Roma church in Seville, one that she had essentially saved from ruin through large donations and fundraising efforts.
But the story of the House of Alba doesn’t end with the passing of its most eccentric figurehead. Cayetana’s oldest son, Carlos, has since happily assumed the role of jefe of the dukedom, and Liria Palace remains his (and his brother Fernando’s) permanent residence. The Alba clan continues to be extremely powerful: It presides over more private property than any other landholder in Spain.
The duchess’s legacy, like the woman, is deeply controversial—was she a trail-blazing rebel or a pampered aristocrat? A selfless philanthropist or a privileged billionaire who didn’t do enough? The answer, of course, is sí. Then there’s the most important question of all: What role should institutions like the House of Alba have in the 21st century, if they deserve a role at all? That will be for the next generation of Spaniards to decide.
On the walls of Liria Palace’s soaring foyer, there’s a dedication etched in marble, a quote by Cicero: “For the immortal gods, who allowed me to inherit these things, not just for me but for my descendants.” Although the immortal gods may not shine as brightly on us as they have on the House of Alba, at least—at long last—we commoners can marvel at one of the world’s most remarkable inheritances, the Liria Palace and all its treasures.