BRUSSELS: Belgium on Saturday paid tribute to Spanish-born Queen Fabiola, the devout former monarch who died the evening before at 86, two decades after her husband King Baudouin.
Long suffering and not seen in public since July 2013, Fabiola was best remembered for her 30-year marriage to Baudouin, the lonely young king to whom she gave a much needed spark.
“To the funniest queen of Belgium,” said a small card tucked into the Brussels palace gate where a few families were assembled to mark the historic moment.
“To her royal highness Queen Fabiola, more than a queen, a great lady,” another one said, near a teddy bear stitched in the Belgian national colours.
As a couple, Fabiola and Baudouin brought a new life to Belgian royalty, providing unity to a country divided between French and Dutch speaking communities.
“Fabiola reunited with her Beaudouin,” wrote daily La Meuse. “With the death of Fabiola, it’s the Beaudouin era that passes,” said Le Soir.
Also celebrated, were three decades of gravity-defying coiffures, usually a lacquered bouffante topped by a wide pastel hat.
“Not just a pious queen,” headlined the Dutch-speaking 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, national day in Belgium. The queen was making a cheeky rebuke to an anonymous death threat, promised to be delivered 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 aristocratic upbringing.
“Her religious convictions had no political consequences,” said historian Vincent Dujardin in Le Soir.
Fabiola also stayed clear of the bitter feuding 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 also refused to accompany her husband on trips to salafist Saudi Arabia or the still communist Moscow.
Her native home observed her passing, notably in the town of Motril on Spain’s Mediterranean coast, where the royal couple had a summer residence which they frequently visited.
The town declared an official day of mourning on Saturday and flags were to fly at half mast.
European royalty also quickly marked her death, with messages from Spain’s Felipe VI and Letizia, as well as King Willem-Alexander, the queen Maxima and the 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 Beaudouin.”
The announcement of her death came Friday evening, breaking into the evening newshour on Belgium’s main TV channels.
The broadcasts quickly switched into special programming, with long biographies and political guests that also touched on the financial scandal that marked 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 widely perceived as a way to avoid paying the country’s inheritance tax.
She later dissolved the charitable vehicle, but her annual income from the state was humiliatingly reduced and the royal reputation tarnished.