Cuernavaca, the vibrant Mexican "city of eternal spring" associated with two Belgian princesses. The unfortunate Empress Carlota of Mexico, daughter of King Leopold I and Queen Louise-Marie of the Belgians, adored Cuernavaca and spent vacations there, at the spectacular Borda Gardens, with her husband, Emperor Maximilian I. It was also from Cuernavaca that she set out for Europe to appeal, in vain, for support for her husband's doomed cause. Over a century later, Carlota's great-niece, Queen Maria José of Italy, daughter of King Albert I and Queen Elisabeth of the Belgians, moved to Cuernavaca. In 1991, the aged, tired, depressed Queen arrived from Switzerland, initially for a brief vacation, at the invitation of her youngest daughter, Princess Maria Beatrice, and her son-in-law, Argentinian diplomat Luis Reyna Corvalàn, then living in Cuernavaca. Like her great-aunt Carlota, however, Maria José fell in love with the city, and she decided to settle there for a time.
Reinvigorated by the climate and the energy of the place, touched by the warmth of the people, she regained her humor, curiosity, fighting spirit and love of life. (She said that her beloved old dog, Alaska, was also restored by his new environment). She spent four culturally active, sociable years, in a modest, welcoming, single-storey villa, at 1005 Palmira Avenue, becoming increasingly close to Maria Beatrice and her husband, before before returning to Switzerland to live with her son, Victor Emmanuel, and his wife, Marina Doria. According to Luciano Regolo, Maria José's home in Cuernavaca clearly reflected her spirit: her reserved, but constant sentiments, her cult of history and art, her preference for lively colors and her cheerful irony. She was assisted by a small, but loyal and affectionate entourage: a talkative lady-in-waiting, Madame Claudine Estrayer, a French-speaking secretary, Monsieur Dominique Voghel, who kept the Queen in contact with the courts and cultural institutions of Europe, a Spanish teacher, and medical, security and household staff, including the Queen's majordomo, Juan, and her housekeeper, Zenaida Isabel. Many distinguished visitors, ranging from Mexican ministers to European ambassadors, as well as her own nephew and niece, King Albert II and Queen Paola of the Belgians, came to pay their respects to Maria José in Cuernavaca.
Maria José had vivid childhood memories of her great-aunt Carlota, whom she had visited as a little girl with her parents. Albert and Elisabeth had taken their daughter to pay their respects to the tragic, deranged, exiled empress, living in seclusion in the Flemish castle of Bouchout. According to her later account, recorded by her biographer, Luciano Regolo, Maria José doubted Carlota's insanity. During Maria José's childhood visit, the old lady, after appearing lost and vacant, suddenly changed completely when Albert and Elisabeth, who were talking among themselves, were trying to remember the name of a newly appointed minister of state. Interrupting the conversation, Carlota supplied all the particulars of the person in question. The little princess was stunned; whereupon, Carlota turned and confided to her: "I will tell you a secret: when you want to escape from your past, pretend to be mad. Nobody will ask you any more indiscreet questions". In her last years, following her move to Mexico, Maria José's interest in Carlota's life would deepen.
The Queen also became increasingly intrigued by Mexican history, archaeology and culture in general. She was fascinated by the pre-colonial period, and tended to sympathize with the native populations rather than the Spanish conquistadors. (In this respect, she resembled her brother, King Leopold III of the Belgians, who was also sharply critical of many colonial methods, once again giving the lie to those who portray the entire Belgian royal family as ruthless imperialists). Maria José also developed a great admiration for the Mexican revolutionary, Emiliano Zapata, devouring biographies of her hero, laying flowers at his tomb, and proudly displaying a large portrait of him on her wall. Some suggested to her that it was inappropriate for a queen to honor a revolutionary. The always broad-minded Maria José, however, viewed the matter differently. Zapata, she believed, deserved every respect, since he had been willing to die for his ideals of "land and liberty", ideals which raised him above partisan differences. Maria José also had a more humorous encounter with Mexican history on a visit to Oaxaca. The local authorities were enthusiastically praising President Benito Juarez, who had been responsible for the execution of Emperor Maximilian I. Amused by the irony of her situation, the Queen carefully avoided reminding her hosts that the figure in question had killed her great-uncle...