If the rich are different, the very rich are so very different as to constitute an alternate life form. That's the take-home message from Seville's latest tourist attraction, the 18th Duchess of Alba's residence Las Duenas, where relics of the storied and scandalous life of Spain's richest person are littered throughout the 15th-century palace.
The duchess – 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, but known to her friends as Cayetana – died in 2014 at the age of 88 to the great loss of the world's gossip rags (Hello! magazine sent her off with a multi-page funeral spread, resplendent with the full deck of European royals packed into Seville's grand cathedral).
Clearly the duchess suffered no lack of housing options. It is said she owned so many lands and palaces she could walk from the north of Spain to the south without taking a step off her own property. But fittingly for a woman who once said her only regret was not being born in Seville, her favourite residence was opened to the public this year by the one of her six children who inherited it in the divvy-up of her estimated €3.5 billion estate. (And her 60-year-old toy boy, a former civil servant whom she married at the age of 85 in Las Duenas chapel? He received an allowance of just €3000 a month).
Las Duenas certainly deserves all the florid appellations of architectural grandeur. Secluded from the cacophony of Seville's winding, densely packed streets, it's an oasis of classic Andalusian design. Breezy Moorish courtyards blessed with a symmetry of colourful tiles connect a gratifying number of living and reception quarters, all stuffed to their nosebleed high ceilings with 18 generations' worth of House of Alba heirlooms.
It's one thing to appreciate a rare peek at a palace that was until very recently a home; another to take a very 21st-century glimpse at a life lived behind its pristine whitewashed walls. Think Grand Designs meets Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. A visit to Las Duenas, which is said to remain much as it was in Cayetana's time, is as much about the colourful life of its last inhabitant as a glimpse of the generic privileges of Spanish nobility. It is indelibly imprinted with the bravado of a woman who devoted her considerable life force to making the words "eccentric billionaire" as compelling as they ought to be.
So was she very scandalous? "Of course!" says our guide Carlos in admiration as we stroll the famous lemon-tree courtyard where Las Duenas-emblazoned urns stand sentry at every turn.
To call the duchess merely "rich" would be like calling Placido Domingo a bit of a warbler. The holder of the most royal titles of any individual in the world (a snip under 50), she was a duchess seven times over, a countess 22 times and a marquesa 24 times. Those numbers vary slightly from source to source, but the essential point is this: such were her privileges it was said that she did not have to kneel before the Pope, and she alone was allowed ride a horse into Seville's cathedral (it is not known if she ever availed herself of these opportunities, but Pope Benedict's skull cap resides in Las Duenas' chapel, a present to mark her 2011 wedding to Alfonso Diez).
Like her beloved Seville, Cayetana was flamboyant, party-mad and somewhat bonkers. Hers was a life bathed in euphemism: the Guardian newspaper wrote in her obituary that she was "reputed to associate, in classic Andalusian upper-class fashion, with bullfighters and dancers". It may be apocryphal that she was buried in Seville's San Fernando cemetery beside a long-lost bullfighter lover, but memorabilia of both passions is inescapable, from a riot of bullfighting posters to a room devoted to flamenco, including a dress in the colours of her football team Betis, and a stage where she often performed.
It's a cliche of the immensely wealthy to live surrounded by images of themselves. Las Duenas is a palace of mirrors, decorated with countless pictures, photos and sculptures of its image-conscious owner. A black and white photograph shows her resplendent in a mantilla (lace veil suspended in a high comb) at a bullfight, Jackie Kennedy beside her looking horrified at the action occurring off-frame; a wacky childlike figurine depicts her being handed a bullfighter's hat. (A keen painter herself, the most polite description of her own artworks – of which there are many – is that they keep to a "naïve" style.)
Less evidence is on show of her latter years, when her hair was a white crown of fairy floss and her face was "refreshed" to the point of satire. Regardless, most visitors seem to wind up in Las Duenas' gift shop, poring through the photos in her biography while marvelling at a face described by the Daily Mail as looking "like a Pekingese with Botox". Not that she gave a damn. "I confess I am thinking of keeping on living," she reportedly said not long before her death, "although it's only so I can enjoy the expression on people's faces when I point at them and say, 'I'm going to bury you all'."
The rich are different, until they're not.
Emirates airlines flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Madrid, see emirates.com/au
Iberian airlines makes the connection from Madrid to Seville, see iberia.com
The sumptuous Hotel Alfonso XIII has been home to every celebrity visiting Seville since 1929; rooms from €175, see hotel-alfonsoxiii-seville.com. For a good mid-range option, the Ayre Hotel has a swimming pool and rooms from €55; see ayrehoteles.com
General admission to Las Duenas costs €8; an audioguide is €2. Guided tours can be organised only through accredited bodies such as APIT Sevilla; see apitsevilla.com
Larissa Dubecki was a guest of Turespana, the Spanish Institute of Tourism
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