MONTE CARLO (Reuters) - With a wink and a smile, Monaco’s ruler Prince Albert married South African swimmer Charlene Wittstock on Saturday in a ceremony attended by a who’s who of European royalty and the international elite.
The 53-year-old married Wittstock, 33, in the courtyard of his palace at the foot of a vast white-marble double staircase lined with white flowers. Some 3,500 guests sat outside to watch the service on giant TV screens.
Albert’s sisters, Princesses Caroline and Stephanie, both dressed in pink, smiled as they watched the couple marry in front of a crowd that included French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld and opera singer Renee Fleming.
The long white train of Wittstock’s Giorgio Armani duchess satin gown, encrusted with thousands of tiny crystals, spilled over the red carpet. The groom wore the white dress uniform of Monaco’s Carabinieri royal guard.
“It was very elegant, very moving,” supermodel Naomi Campbell, in a one-shouldered pale green dress, told TFI television.
After they exchanged vows, Albert winked at his bride, who smiled shyly. Sitting on red velvet chairs, they held hands as a South African singer sang the Click Song, made famous by the late Miriam Makeba.
The wedding is the first of a ruling prince in Monaco since Albert’s father, Prince Rainier III, married Hollywood star Grace Kelly in 1956. Rainier transformed Monaco from a faded gambling center into a billionaires’ haven, using his marriage to Kelly to infuse the tiny principality with film-star glamour.
Her death in a car crash in 1982 revived talk of the legendary 13th-century curse of his dynasty -- the Grimaldis -- that has haunted his family during its seven centuries of rule. According to legend, a Flemish woman raped by a Grimaldi cursed the family for eternity never to find happiness in marriage.
Caroline and Stephanie have had a series of high-profile and disastrous marriages. Albert himself has been linked with a succession of models and actresses, and has admitted to fathering two illegitimate children.
Just days ago, rumors of discontent threatened to mar the festivities. The palace strongly denied a report in the French weekly L‘Express that Wittstock tried to skip town on a one-way flight to South Africa, and that it took “infinite persuasion” by the prince and his entourage to change her mind.
The couple married in a civil ceremony in the palace throne room on Friday.
Wittstock, whose champagne blonde hair and sculpted figure draw comparisons with Kelly, is a former national champion swimmer who stopped competing only four years ago. Albert met Wittstock at a swimming competition in 2000.
“I think she’s beautiful and she shows a lot of class and nobility and I think he made a wonderful choice,” said Steven Pomeranz, who had lined up to cheer the couple.
After the ceremony, well-wishers showered the newly-weds with rose petals as they left the palace. Church bells pealed and horns sounded from the yachts docked in Monaco’s port.
Crowds lined their route, waving flags in Monaco’s red-and-white colors as the couple drove to a nearby chapel, where a tearful Wittstock left her bouquet.
The couple headed off to a wedding dinner prepared by chef Alain Ducasse, to be followed by a ball at the Monte Carlo opera and fireworks.
Writing by Alexandria Sage; Editing by Louise Ireland