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Monaco's prince weds bride in lavish ceremony

Monaco's Prince Albert II and Princess Charlene promised each other love and fidelity in an extravagant religious wedding Saturday attended by international celebrities and royalty, bringing new allure to the tiny principality known for its luxurious casinos and as stomping ground for the rich and famous.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Monaco's Prince Albert II and Princess Charlene promised each other love and fidelity in an extravagant religious wedding Saturday attended by international celebrities and royalty, bringing new allure to the tiny principality known for its luxurious casinos and as stomping ground for the rich and famous.

The Catholic service followed an intimate civil ceremony Friday, which saw Charlene officially transformed from commoner into royalty. The marriage of the 53-year-old prince and the 33-year-old Charlene Wittstock, a one-time Olympic swimmer from South Africa who is now known as Princess Charlene, ended a three-decade wait for a new princess.

The last wedding of a ruling prince in Monaco was in 1956, when Hollywood star Grace Kelly married Prince Rainier III.

Saturday's ceremony was attended by guests including former James Bond actor Sir Roger Moore, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and bohemian designer Roberto Cavalli, of Italy. Thousands of Monegasque citizens cheered the proceedings while watching on large screens set up outside the palace, where both ceremonies were held.

Charlene swept along the red carpet leading into the palace on her father's arm. In her sumptuous boat neck gown by Giorgio Armani Prive, her hair pulled back in a swirling French twist and with only the lightest touch of makeup, she seemed to channel some of Grace's effortless elegance.

Throughout the ceremony, which lasted an hour and a half, both bride and groom wore demure expressions, their eyes mostly downcast. Only as they took their vows and exchanged rings did the solemn facade crack: As they slipped on the 18 carat white gold Cartier rings onto each other's fingers, Albert — in a white military uniform — shot her a wink, and Charlene cracked a broad, sincere smile.

The tears flowed freely down the new princess' face after the ceremony, as she left her bouquet of lilies of the valley and other white blossoms at the Sainte Devote church — a tradition in Monaco.

With photographers shouting for the attention of the A-list guests as they streamed into the palace, the wedding had something of the flavor of a star-studded red carpet at the film festival in neighboring Cannes.

British actor Roger Moore, a longtime Monaco resident and a former James Bond, lent a touch of secret agent glamour. The carpet might as well have been a catwalk for British model Naomi Campbell and Czech supermodel Karolina Kurkova — or for Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld, who cut a mean figure in his skintight suit.

Royal guests included the kings of Sweden and Belgium and Denmark's crown princess. Prince Karim Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of the world's Ismaili Muslims, and Empress Farah Pahlavi, wife of Iran's deposed shah, chatted with former French first lady Bernadette Chirac inside the palace.

The last guest to enter according to protocol, Sarkozy, elicited extensive applause and hoots of approval in what was likely the warmest welcome the French leader, whose popularity ratings hover at record lows, has received in a long time.

The most enthusiastic welcome was reserved for the bride and members of the Grimaldi family, one of Europe's oldest dynasties. Albert's sisters, Princesses Stephanie and Caroline, both looked fetching in their short taupe dresses, Caroline's steely blue eyes hidden behind the oversized brim of her hat. Her daughter, Charlotte Casiraghi, was breathtaking in a pink off-the-shoulder cocktail dress by Chanel.

While Charlene — whose name is now officially written with an accent to give it a more French resonance — wore a blue ensemble of her own design to Friday's civil ceremony, she opted for one of her longtime favorite designers, Armani, for Saturday's wedding gown. The "petites mains" or seamstresses of his haute couture atelier put more than 2,500 hours of work into the dress, a strong-lined, made-to-measure concoction of more than 130 meters (about 140 yards) of different silks, 40,000 Swarovski crystals and 20,000 mother of pearl beads.

The 5 meter- (6 yard-) long train — which dwarfed the demure little train at the summer's other royal wedding, that of Britain's Prince William and Kate Middleton — proved difficult to negotiate. At one point, Charlene got stuck and Albert had to tug at the long silk flourish to free her.

The ceremony, officiated by Monseigneur Bernard Barsi, Archbishop of Monaco, included moving performances by U.S. soprano Renee Fleming and Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli, as well as a tradition "click song" by South Africa's Pumeza Matshikiza — a nod to the princess' roots.

After the ceremony, about 450 select guests tucked into a multi-course gala prepared by celebrated French-born chef Alain Ducasse.

Filet of golden mullet and a vegetable medley "arranged to portray a landscape typical of the coast of the Riviera," according to a statement, was the main event at the three-course meal, where everything besides the South African wines and Champagnes were sourced from within a 10-kilometer (6-mile) radius of Monaco.

Ducasse, who like many in his tax bracket has taken citizenship in Monaco, is the first chef to earn three Michelin stars in three different cities, including three for his Louis XV restaurant in the principality.

Charlene was born in Zimbabwe, but moved to neighboring South Africa as a child, and under the tutelage of her mother, a swim coach, competed for that country at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

Albert — also a former Olympic athlete, having competed in five Winter Olympics as part of Monaco's bobsled team — has been a member of the International Olympic Committee since 1985.

Albert and Charlene met during a 2000 swimming competition in Monaco. She then began appearing regularly at social events and moved to Monaco in 2006. Residents say Charlene has since maintained a low profile and is rarely seen out and about in the principality.

The couple's civil wedding on Friday was held in the palace's sumptuous throne room where Rainier and Grace married. The actress died in a car crash nearly 30 years ago, and Monaco had been without a princess ever since.

Known as a notorious ladies man, Albert long eschewed marriage, and many in Monaco had resigned themselves to forever having a bachelor prince. The constitution was even modified to ensure the continuity of the Grimaldi line, in case Albert never produced an heir. The prince has acknowledged having fathered two children out of wedlock, but only his legitimate offspring would be able to succeed him.

Rumors have swirled in recent days that a third illegitimate child had surfaced — prompting Charlene to allegedly try to call off the wedding and return to South Africa days before the festivities.

The palace has denied the reports, dismissing them as "ugly rumors" prompted by spite and jealousy.

Charlene has told interviewers she would like to have children, and Archbishop Barsi asked those at Saturday's ceremony to pray for the fecundity of the princely union.

"We just witnessed an important moment of love," guest Michel-Yves Mourou said after leaving the palace. "I'm still under the spell of it. I'm happy for my prince and princess."