Belgium mourns Queen Fabiola, widow of King Baudouin
Belgium on Saturday mourned Spanish-born Queen Fabiola, the devout former monarch who died the evening before at 86, two decades after her husband King Baudouin.
Prime Minister Charles Michel declared seven days of national mourning that would end after a state funeral on Friday at the hilltop Cathedral of Saint Michael and Saint Gudula in Brussels.
During the period, national flags will fly at half mast with condolence books made available to Belgians. The reigning King Philippe and Queen Mathilde also cancelled their schedules.
Long suffering and not seen in public since July 2013, Fabiola was best remembered for her 30-year marriage to Baudouin, the lonely king to whom she brought much needed spark.
The couple, who wed in 1960, never had children.
“To her royal highness Queen Fabiola, more than a queen, a great lady,” said a small card tucked into the Brussels palace gate where a few passers-by slowed down to mark the historic moment.
“To the funniest queen of Belgium,” was inscribed on a teddy bear, alongside flowers and a few candles.
– New life to royalty –
As a couple, Fabiola and Baudouin brought new life to Belgian royalty, providing much needed unity to a country divided between French- and Dutch-speaking communities.
“Fabiola reunited with her Baudouin,” wrote the daily La Meuse. “With the death of Fabiola, it’s the Baudouin era that ends,” said Le Soir.
Also celebrated were three decades of gravity-defying coiffures, usually a bell-shaped bouffante topped by a pastel hat.
“Not just a pious queen,” headlined the Dutch-language De Morgen, above her most famous picture, a mischievous Fabiola in mauve hat holding up a bright green apple.
The scene dates to July 21, 2009, Belgium’s national day. The queen was making a cheeky rebuke to an anonymous death threat, promised to be carried out by crossbow.
“Fabiola had a great sense of humour,” said foreign minister Didier Reynders in a tweet.
It was this sense of humour that made her sympathetic even to modern Belgians not put off by her traditional Roman Catholicism, born of an aristocratic upbringing in France and Spain.
“Her religious convictions had no political consequences,” said historian Vincent Dujardin in Le Soir.
Fabiola also stayed clear of Belgian politics, but weighed in on other issues dear to her.
She was a staunch booster of Spain and worried about its stature in the world.
And as queen, she refused to accompany Baudouin on trips to salafist Saudi Arabia or a still communist Russia.
– Spain also mourns –
Spaniards observed her passing, notably in the town of Motril on Spain’s Mediterranean coast, where the royal couple had an opulent summer residence.
The resort town declared an official day of mourning on Saturday and flags were to fly at half mast.
European royalty also marked her death, with messages from Spain’s Felipe VI and Letizia, as well as King Willem-Alexander and former queen Beatrix of The Netherlands.
French President Francois Hollande said France would remember a “lady of hearts at the side of her husband, king Baudouin.”
The announcement of her death came Friday, breaking into the evening news hour on Belgium’s main TV channels.
The broadcasts quickly switched into special programming, with long biographies that also touched on the financial scandal that marred the last years of her life.
Fabiola, already wheelchair-bound and frail, sparked uproar in 2012 with the creation of a private foundation that was perceived as a way to avoid paying tax.
She later dissolved the charitable vehicle, but her annual income from the state was humiliatingly reduced and the royal reputation tarnished.
Before her funeral, Fabiola’s body will lie in state for two days in Brussels.