As he steps back, a look at the dramatic life of Spain's Juan Carlos I

Madrid (AFP) –


He only discovered Spain when he was 10, was picked by dictator Francisco Franco to succeed him but instead steered his country to democracy. On Sunday, former king Juan Carlos I retires from public life.

"Such a long, full story, as if it were designed by an architect," Spanish novelist Eduardo Mendoza said last year.

Born 81 years ago in Italy, the grandson of exiled Spanish king Alfonso XIII will go down in history as the one who gave both the throne back to the House of Bourbon and democracy back to Spain.

But the end of his 38-year reign (1975-2014) was clouded by several scandals until he abdicated in favour of his son Felipe VI.

- A child takes the train -

On a winter day in 1948, a 10-year-old boy, escorted by a duke and viscount, arrives at Lisbon station.

This little prince "with his blond curls, fighting back tears," boards a train bound for Spain, a country he doesn't know, writes Jose Luis de Vilallonga in his biography "The King."

Dictator Francisco Franco, who rules Spain with an iron fist since 1939 when he won a civil war, has decided to bring him over.

His father Juan de Bourbon might be wary of Franco but has accepted to entrust Juan Carlos to the dictator with the hope that one day, the throne will be returned to the Bourbons after Alfonso XIII fled the new republic in 1931.

Far from his family, Juan Carlos' childhood is marked by church services and speeches vaunting the victory of Franco's forces over the republican "reds."

He also plays a lot of sport with friends who call him "Juanito" or else "your highness."

When he is 18, tragedy hits when he accidentally kills his 14-year-old brother with a shot to the forehead while visiting his parents in Portugal, according to the biography "Juan Carlos" written by British historian Paul Preston.

Franco will make sure the accident is kept under wraps.

Trained in military schools, Juan Carlos will spend 27 years of his life in the shadow of the dictator who may have considered him as the son he never had but still "devoured police reports" about him, says Preston.

- Head down with Franco -

In 1962, Juan Carlos marries then Princess Sofia of Greece whom he met on a cruise.

Seven years later, Franco names him as his successor. Two days after the death of the dictator, on November 22, 1975, he finally recovers his grandfather's throne and becomes Juan Carlos I.

"Years of appearing with Franco, dejected and mute, has prompted the widespread idea that he lacked both intelligence and courage," writes Preston.

But it wasn't so. Going against his mission to preserve the Franco regime, the king choses to carry his country to democracy.

The Communist Party is legalised, political offences are amnestied and, after free elections in 1977, he is applauded as "the king of all Spaniards."

Then he became the "national hero who saved democracy," according to Mendoza.

When a military coup takes place on February 23, 1981 in his name, the king manages to put a stop to it and reassures the country in the middle of the night with a speech vaunting the "democratic process."

- Fall from grace -

But his life tips over in 2012 when aged 74, he falls over and breaks his hip during an elephant hunting trip in Botswana.

In deep financial crisis at the time, Spain discovers he was on a luxury safari paid for by a Saudi entrepreneur and that a German woman accompanying him is his lover.

He is forced to abdicate in 2014, "when he realises that the media has started reporting many irregularities in his life" like the numerous covert relationships of "this Casanova" or doubts about where his fortune came from, says author Pilar Urbano.

As such, the end of his reign is "arduous", quite "sad" and far from exemplary, says the author of two biographies of former queen Sofia.

Now though, she says, by retiring from public life and no longer representing the Crown, he recovers his freedom, having always liked "doing what appeals to him, in secret."