MADRID -- The king of Spain offered an unprecedented apology Wednesday for going on an elephant-hunting safari in Africa while his subjects struggle with recession and high unemployment at home.
The Spanish public only found out about last week's Botswana jaunt after King Juan Carlos, 74, fell and broke his hip while getting out of bed Friday and had to be airlifted home for hip-replacement surgery the next day. By law, the king is required to inform the government of his whereabouts, but it's unclear whether he did that, or whether he specified the nature of his Africa trip.
He emerged from his hospital room Wednesday on crutches, to a scrum of photographers and reporters. He moved slowly and did not smile.
"I'm very sorry," the monarch said, blinking in the light of flashbulbs and TV cameras. "I made a mistake and it won't happen again."
It was a rare "Lo siento" from the Spanish monarch, who holds a largely symbolic position but garners wide respect from across Spain's political spectrum. He was hand-picked by Gen. Francisco Franco to lead Spain after the military dictator's 1975 death, and is credited with soothing tensions in the country's transition to democracy and with averting a military coup in 1981.
It's too early to tell whether the royal apology will ease popular anger against the king, who has faced scathing criticism from animal rights groups and from ordinary Spaniards upset about the cost of his travels. While the royal palace did not issue figures, the newspaper El País estimated the cost of his one-week hunt in Botswana to be nearly $58,000 -- more than twice the average annual salary in Spain. In general, the king's expenses are borne by the state.
"That's a lot of money!" said Roy Alexander Bouzas, 22, a college student who was eating lunch with his girlfriend not far from the king's hospital in downtown Madrid. "The king has even been one to remind us that all the people in Spain need to make efforts and sacrifices [in the economic crisis], and he doesn't do anything."
Juan Carlos had recently spoken out about Spain's recession, urging Spanish politicians to be sensitive and think about their own behavior as a demonstration of modesty. He also said he often loses sleep over Spain's youth unemployment rate, which is more than 50%. The overall jobless rate is 24%.
"So I think that was all lies," said Bouzas. "Because he's doing what he wants at every moment."
In addition to his royal duties, Juan Carlos serves as honorary president of the World Wildlife Fund in Spain. The group has fielded hundreds of complaints, and its director has requested an audience with the king, once he recovers from surgery.
This has been a tough year for Spain's royal family. The king's son-in-law, Uñaki Urdangarín, is under investigation for allegedly embezzling public money in a corruption scandal. Another probe was opened last week into the alleged use of firearms by a minor after the king's 13-year-old grandson, Felipe Juan Froilán, shot himself in the foot -- literally.
-- Lauren Frayer
Photo: King Juan Carlos of Spain leaves the hospital Wednesday after undergoing hip-replacement surgery, which he needed after a fall on a controversial hunting trip in Africa. Credit: Carlos Alvarez / Getty Images