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General FrancoMadrid was an extraordinary place to live in 1974. Spain was a dictatorship under General Francisco Franco who ruled the country with an iron fist for nearly forty years.

I was twenty years old then and had been transferred from the London office of a well known firm of Chartered Surveyors based in the West End in Bruton Street. The plan was to establish a branch in Spain and take advantage of the low value of commercial real estate for us to sell to UK investment funds.

We rented an enormous penthouse as our office in the suburb known as Doctor Fleming, and I lived there too so I didn’t have to pay rent.

This was during the time when every residential block of flats had a live-in caretaker cum doorman. But at night each building had a ‘Sereno’; a watchman who patrolled outside. The curious thing was that in those days no-one had a key to the main entrance. You had to call the watchman by clapping your hands as loudly as possible, and then he would appear out of the dark and let you in.

My work days were always busy with meetings and things to do in the office. But at night and weekends I was often lonely.

One day out of the blue I had a call from the Australian Embassy. They said they needed to find a new residence for their Ambassador and his family and could we help?

sereno madridA few days later I went to meet him at the embassy. His name was Dudley McCarthy; mid-sixties then I think. He was a tall and friendly man with a deep Aussie accent. We got on like a house on fire when I told him I was also born in Sydney.

For some strange reason he took a shine to me. I guess he knew I was alone in Madrid and needed friends. So from then on he would call me and say “Come out this weekend with me and the family, don’t stay at home alone.”

He had an embassy chauffeur driven car of course – a massive black limousine. One Saturday he phoned me and said “I’m sending the car and we are going to lunch ok.” No arguments there.

Where we went was a place I could have never dreamed of. It was called the ‘Real Club de Golf’ of Madrid (Royal in Spanish, not ‘real’). Now that sounds quite normal until you understand that it was also the enclave of General Franco and his mates; a fortified luxurious private club of hundreds of acres just outside the city.

Franco wasn’t at the luncheon but it seemed everyone else in Spain who was anyone was. There were Generals with chests covered in medals, Cardinals, Princes, Dukes and a host of jeweled women and other distinguished looking guests. Frankly, I felt a bit out of place.

It was one long table and I counted the number of guests – exactly forty. And behind every third chair there was a uniformed servant. I was impressed.

I tried my best to converse with such exalted company. The old lady on my left hand-side was at least eighty years old and was having a hard time eating her soup which splattered me every time she dipped her silver spoon.

The man on my right hand-side was a different kettle of fish. He was huge. His head was at least two feet above mine sitting down in our chairs.

So I got chatting to him and he said his name was Leka. He wore one of those huge gold Rolex watches on his ham-sized wrist but it looked like a little toy on him.

He told me he was an adventurer. He was diving on a Spanish treasure galleon that had sunk in the Gulf of Cadiz around 1730. He said that his friend Juan Carlos [Prince of Spain] had found an old map of the exact location of the wreck in the private Royal library at the Palace in Madrid.

The waiters in their gold buttoned blue tunics came and went with plates of food. And all the time I could hear them address the guests as “Your Excellence, Your Grace, Your Lordship, etc. And when they got to me it was a simple “Caballero” which was just fine for me.

But Leka was a “Your Majesty” and I didn’t really notice at the time as we were so involved in our chat about ‘salvaging’ the Spanish gold.

I hadn’t had a chance to talk to my friend the Ambassador during the lunch, but on the way back to Madrid that afternoon in the car I asked who is he?

He replied “He is the exiled King of Albania. Franco gave him an estate near to here to live in years ago and pays all his expenses.”

Years later I met Leka again. It was at the yacht club in Palma, Mallorca and he remembered me and our chat at that lunch.

I was impressed again by his ‘joie de vivre’ and his amazing height – he was seven feet tall.

Leka passed away in November 2011 in Tirana. It was the place from where his mother fled to exile in Switzerland in 1939 disguised as a farm girl; and took him as a new-born baby.

Under his blankets she took the Royal jewels; or so the legend goes . . .