MONACO (AP) - After waiting decades for Prince Albert II to choose his bride, residents of the high-flying Riviera principality lined up Friday to watch South Africa’s Charlene Wittstock succeed Grace Kelly as Princess of Monaco.
The striking blond Wittstock, a 33-year-old former Olympic swimmer, will be transformed from commoner into princess in a civil ceremony in the throne room where Hollywood beauty Kelly married Albert’s father, Prince Rainier III, 55 years ago.
The royal wedding continues Saturday, with an even more elaborate religious ceremony and opulent gala with a guest list including heads of state, European royalty and the creme de la creme of the fashion and sporting worlds.
Hours ahead of Friday’s ceremony, scores of Monegasques were already gathering at Palace Square, where huge screens have been set up to view the ceremony.
The royal couple is expected to sign the marriage register with a specially created pen in gold and precious stones and adorned with their monogram by German luxury penmaker Montblanc.
The principality’s 7,618 citizens and their partners have been invited to post-ceremony cocktails on the square, to be followed by a concert by French composer Jean Michel Jarre and a laser show.
With her bright blue eyes and delicate features, Wittstock has won comparisons with Kelly, who died in a car accident nearly three decades ago. She is expected to wear an ensemble by the coveted Paris label Chanel.
Although Albert was long seen as among Europe’s most eligible bachelors, the bespectacled 53-year-old prince had long resisted marriage. Many in Monaco _ known the world over for its lax tax laws and glamorous casinos _ feared he might never tie the knot.
Friday’s wedding was the first for both Wittstock and Albert, although the soft-spoken prince has acknowledged fathering two children out of wedlock.
Rumors raged over the past few days that a third illegitimate child had recently surfaced and prompted Wittstock to try to call off the wedding at the last minute and return to South Africa.
The palace dismissed the stories as “ugly rumors” born out of jealousy. Speaking earlier this week on Monaco-Info TV, a top aide to the prince said the couple were “affected” by the rumors but were concentrating on last-minute preparations.
Still, the tensions were evident when Wittstock talked in a TV interview before the wedding about wanting to have her own children.
“I love children and have always wanted to have children of my own,” she said on BFM television, sitting next to Albert with a close-lipped, tense smile. “We’ll see in the next couple of months or years.”
Wittstock also joked about bringing South African barbecue traditions to Monaco.
The guest list for Saturday’s festivities included the kings of Spain, Sweden, Lesotho and Belgium, the presidents of France, Iceland, Ireland, Lebanon, Malta, Germany and Hungary, France’s richest man, celebrated opera singers, top models and race car divers.
The Catholic ceremony will also take place in the palace, and is to be followed by a gala dinner by three-time triple-starred Michelin chef Alain Ducasse. Besides the Champagne and the South African wines, everything served at the sumptuous buffet is being sourced in a 10-kilometer (6-mile) radius from Monaco, Ducasse told The Associated Press in an interview.
The festivities kicked off late Thursday with a free concert by the legendary Los Angeles band The Eagles.
Albert and Wittstock attended the show, he in a dark suit, she wearing a strapless black pantsuit _ a rock-and-roll sartorial choice for someone poised to become princess in under 24 hours.
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