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Monaco's bride seeking to make her own mark

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 di
/ Source: The Associated Press

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.

Wittstock retired from swimming in 2007, after moving to Monaco to be closer to the prince. Locals say she's maintained a low profile.

Prince Albert Alexandre Louis Pierre, Marquis of Baux, is the second child — and only son — of Princess Grace and Prince Rainier, who ascended to the throne at the tender age of 26. Albert, on the other hand, was 47 when he became reigning prince in 2005, after his father's death.

Though he dated a string of famous beauties said to include U.S. actress Brooke Shields and supermodels Claudia Schiffer and Naomi Campbell, Albert's reluctance to tie the knot was known to have strained relations with his father and also sparked persistent rumors he was gay.

Albert repeatedly denied it, but the rumors were squelched only after the prince acknowledged fathering two children out of wedlock.

Jazmin Grace Grimaldi was born of a 1991 tryst with Tamara Rotolo, a California woman who had been vacationing in the Mediterranean, while Alexandre Coste was born in 2003 to a former flight attendant originally from the west African nation of Togo.

Still, as long as he remained single, the prince's acknowledgment of the two children did nothing to calm succession worries, as Monaco's constitution specifies that only "direct and legitimate" descendants can assume the throne. As the problem posed by Albert's bachelor status dragged on, the constitution was revised to allow Caroline to succeed him.

Albert and Wittstock have stressed their desire to have a family.

"I love children and have always wanted to have children of my own," said Wittstock in an interview with France's BFM television. "We'll see in the next couple of months or years."

With her steely blue eyes and shoulder-length platinum locks, Wittstock has more than a passing resemblance to Grace. Still, she struggled at first to match the late princess' legendary elegance, and some of her first public appearances with Albert were marred by fashion faux pas.

With the help of Giorgio Armani, Wittstock has blossomed over the years into the very picture of understated chic, in beige sheath dresses and sharp-lined gray pantsuits.

When her engagement was announced last June, there was little doubt the Italian couturier would design Wittstock's wedding dress. That also meant there has been none of the frenetic guessing games that surrounded the identity of the designer of Kate Middleton's wedding gown, kept under lock-down until the moment the now-Duchess of Cambridge stepped into Westminster Abbey.

Indeed, authorities here appear determined to avoid many of the excesses of the April 29 British royal wedding, which with an estimated 2 billion viewers may have been the most-watched event in history.

There'll be none of the commemorative kitsch that abounded at the British wedding, where everything from tea bags to toilet seat covers were emblazoned with the royal couple's broadly smiling faces. Souvenir shops in the principality will be selling only a handful of palace-approved memorabilia, including porcelain with the couple's names but no images, vendors have said.

Monaco is also getting a makeover ahead of the wedding, with workers racing to touch up the peach-colored facades of the 2-square-kilometer country's many high-rises, Art Deco casinos and five-star hotels.