- Associated Press - Sunday, June 26, 2011

MONACO (AP) - Charlene Wittstock has not one, but two tough acts to follow.

As the future princess of Monaco and wife to longtime bachelor Prince Albert II, the Zimbabwe-born, South Africa-raised former Olympic swimmer is to succeed Grace Kelly, whose 1956 wedding to Prince Rainier III is still widely seen as the gold standard for royal nuptials.

And as if the blue-eyed Hollywood beauty-turned-beloved princess didn’t cast a long enough shadow, Albert’s long-awaited marriage to Wittstock comes on the heels of the royal wedding of the decade, Kate Middleton’s union with Britain’s Prince William.

It’s still the biggest thing to hit Monaco since Grace walked down the aisle in an elegant antique lace gown, ushering in a new era of high-wattage glamour into this tiny Riviera principality known for its high-flying casinos and lax tax laws.

The country still mourns Grace, who died in a car crash nearly 30 years ago, but Monegasques are eagerly awaiting their new princess. Though 53-year-old Albert has been romantically linked to some of Europe’s most eligible bachelorettes over the years, he long resisted marriage, and the upcoming wedding will be his first trip down the aisle.

It’s to be a grand affair.

It will be held over not one but two days in the princely palace _ a fortress-turned-Italian Renaissance residence, where members of the ruling Grimaldi dynasty have lived since the 15th century. And the guest list reads like a who’s who of Europe’s rich and powerful. Several heads of state are expected, along with royals from Spain to Sweden, top names in the sporting and music worlds and the celebrated couturier to the stars, Chanel’s Karl Lagerfeld.

A civil ceremony will be held on July 1 in the palace’s throne room, the red silk damask-draped hall where Grace wed the late Prince Rainier 55 years ago. The religious ceremony will take place the following day in the palace’s marble courtyard, before some 3,500 seated guests. Access to Monaco’s old town will be limited during the event, but the principality’s 7,600 citizens are to be allowed in to watch the ceremony on giant screens set up outside the palace.

World famous chef Alain Ducasse will be serving up a multi-course gala dinner for about 500 guests. Ducasse _ who holds an astonishing 19 Michelin stars _ hasn’t revealed what exactly is on the menu but says it will be local and sustainable, with everything besides the Champagne and South African wines sourced from a six-mile (10-kilometer) radius from Monaco.

A fireworks display over the azure waters of Monaco Bay will cap the festivities, which were so long in coming many Monegasques feared they might never come to pass.

“We’ve been waiting impatiently for my lord’s marriage for a very long time,” said Carine Dick, who runs a souvenir shop near “le rocher,” the giant rocky outcropping crowned by the palace. “We were getting kind of worried there, but in the end it’s better to wait and find the right person than get it wrong.”

The Grimaldis _ one of Europe’s oldest dynasties _ have been beset by romantic scandals. Princess Caroline, the eldest of Grace and Rainier’s three children, was divorced after an unhappy two-year marriage to French playboy Philippe Junot, and after her second husband was killed in a boating accident, remarried a German prince known for his explosive temper. Albert’s younger sister, Princess Stephanie, has had three children out of wedlock, including two with her former bodyguard, and was also briefly married to a Portuguese circus acrobat.

Wittstock and Albert cut a dashing figure together, the balding prince looking dashing but affable in dark suits and glasses while his fiancee _ 20 year his junior _ exudes a relaxed, understated chic.

Wittstock was born in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, in 1978, but the family relocated to neighboring South Africa when she was 12. Her father, Michael, works as a sales manager while her mother, Lynette, is a retired swimming coach. Under her mother’s tutelage, Wittstock rose to Olympic levels, swimming for South Africa in the summer games in Sydney in 2000.

That same year, she won the gold medal for backstroke at a meet in Monaco, where she caught the prince’s eye. Albert _ himself an Olympic bobsledder _ has told interviewers it was Wittstock’s athletic drive that attracted him to her, though her slim silhouette and shapely swimmer’s arms and shoulders mustn’t have hurt either.

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