EL CHORRO, SPAIN – After a leisurely stroll yesterday on “the world’s scariest hike,” I am ready for the main purpose which brings me to Spain: to deliver a lecture today for the Instituto Juan de Mariana’s XV Summer University in nearby Malaga.
There’s nothing like a heart-pounding adrenaline rush to set you up for a good speech.
Yesterday I walked Caminito del Rey, which means “King’s Little Path,” also known as “one of the world’s most dangerous trails” and “the walkway of death” because of people who fell from it before safety improvements were installed beginning in 2011. The narrow path hugs the high, sheer walls of mountains overlooking the Gaitanes Gorge.
Am I nuts, you ask? No, just fun-loving.
This hike was a thrill, but it was hardly my first thrill-trip. I have skydived multiple times from as high as 15,000 feet. I once did some low-altitude, solo hang gliding. I love high-altitude zip-lining, as well as canyon-swinging on a bungee cord. In 1991 I flew into war-torn Mozambique at tree-top level to avoid being shot down by the then-communist government. I spent two weeks secretly with the anti-communist underground in Poland in 1986. So, a mere “walkway of death” was no big deal.
King Alfonso XIII: A Brief History
The original Caminito del Rey path was constructed in 1905 so that workers could get to and from a couple of hydroelectric stations. Exactly 100 years ago, in 1921, it was officially opened to the public by Spain’s King Alfonso XIII, who walked the nearly five miles of it himself. Knowing in advance of this short trip to Spain that I would be here in the centennial year of Alfonso’s walk, I wanted to know more about the guy. I remembered that Winston Churchill devoted a chapter of high praise for the Spanish king in his 1937 book, Great Contemporaries.
Alfonso was King of Spain from the moment of his birth in 1886 because his father (Alfonso XII) had died six months before. Spanish postage stamps of the day carried his image as a baby—a rarity in the history of philately.
He embarrassed the royal court once as a mischievous child of about six, as recounted in Sir Charles Petrie’s biography, King Alfonso XIII and His Age:
On another occasion when he had been really naughty his mother locked him in a room at Aranjuez, and when he stormed and kicked at the door, no one opened it. The King then went to a window overlooking the courtyard, opened it, and to the horror of all within earshot shouted at the top of his voice, “Viva la Republica!”
His mother served as the governing regent until, at age 16 in 1902, he fully assumed the throne with all the powers of a constitutional monarchy.
Thanks in large part to Alfonso, Spain remained neutral during the horror of World War I, despite pressure from both sides. Woodrow Wilson used the occasion of Germany’s declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare to insert the US into the conflict, but not Alfonso. He reiterated Spain’s neutrality.
As a result of Spain staying out of the war, its economy boomed. As biographer Petrie notes, “the King reigned over a far more prosperous Spain when the war ended than he had done when it began.” Spain’s national debt almost disappeared, and its gold reserves quadrupled.
During that ghastly conflict, Alfonso did much more than simply sit on his throne. He created a humanitarian agency known as the European War Office to provide relief to private citizens as well as wounded soldiers, regardless of whose side they were on. By stationing Spanish troops on hospital ships from both sides, he ensured that they carried no munitions. He took a lead role in establishing a unique signal code for hospital ships as well. For all this, he remains to this day the only monarch ever nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize (he was edged out by the Red Cross).
Amazingly, Alfonso narrowly survived five assassination attempts (once by spurring his horse to assault a man with a pistol) and numerous aborted plots.
If you are a fan of tapas (a snack, appetizer, or “small plate” in Spanish cuisine), you may find this interesting: Alfonso XIII figures into one of the more popular origin stories. Accordingly, the King once paid a visit to a tavern in Cadiz and ordered a glass of wine. To keep the wind from blowing sand into the glass, the waiter covered the glass with a slice of ham before he served it. After drinking the wine and devouring the ham, Alfonso ordered “another wine with the cover.” The term “tapa” in Spanish means “lid” or “cover.”
Exile and Death
The last ten years of Alfonso’s reign were marked by a steady breakdown of Spain’s parliamentary system. In 1921, a stunning defeat of Spanish forces in Morocco at the hands of native Berbers led to widespread protests and polarization. From 1923 to 1930, the parliament was rendered powerless by Primo de Rivera, a dictator in all but name but one who allowed Alfonso to remain on the throne. The King mustered the courage to dismiss de Rivera in 1930 but a year later, Alfonso left the country in the hope of preventing civil war. He never formally abdicated but he never returned either. He died of a heart attack in exile in Rome in 1941 at the age of 54.
Because his wife was English, Alfonso had come to know many British public and private figures. Winston Churchill found him to be humble and unpretentious, a patriot underappreciated in his own country, “a modern, democratic man of the world, moving easily and naturally in every kind of society.” Churchill describes him such that I can easily imagine Alfonso enjoying every minute of that daring walk at Caminito del Rey 100 years ago:
Nothing could rob the king of his natural gaiety and high spirits. The long years of ceremony, the cares of state, the perils which beset him, have left untouched that fountain of almost boyish merriment and jollity. When I met him on one of his recent visits to London he had come straight from almost the gravest political crisis of his reign. He spoke of this with simple modesty and a kind of imperturbable selflessness.
As monarchs go, King Alfonso XIII was better than average. Maybe even much better. He had a common touch that I find endearing in people who are clearly uncommon.
So yesterday, as I walked on the path he trod a century ago, I wished that I could have met him. I would have asked him, “How about that walkway of death? Pretty cool, huh?”
For additional information, see:
The Walk of Death by Spain-Holiday.com