Royal weddings are like London buses: You wait ages, and then two come along at the same time.
Weeks after Britons thronged the streets for the fairytale marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton, the tiny European principality of Monaco got the chance to celebrate its own magical ending to a royal romance (even if it had a bit of a rough patch before the happily-ever-after moment).
On Friday, the Mediterranean playground for the rich and famous turned out for what was perhaps unkindly nicknamed the “other wedding,” as Monaco’s Prince Albert II married Charlene Wittstock of South Africa in a civil ceremony at the royal palace, with a church wedding to follow Saturday.
It was a much-needed sprinkling of stardust for the Grimaldi family, harking back to the happy day, 55 years ago, when Albert’s late father, Prince Rainier, married Hollywood beauty Grace Kelly.
But as The Rock, as Monaco is known, prepared to embrace the woman some hope will be another Princess Grace, the celebrations were overshadowed by reports — vehemently denied — that Wittstock, a former Olympic swimmer, had suffered a severe case of cold feet and wanted to call the whole thing off.
After days of will-she-won’t-she speculation, you could have cut the atmosphere in the palace Throne Room with a solid silver butter knife.
When the couple walked into the lavish room for the civil service, Wittstock, wearing a sky-blue jacket and long Chanel dress suit, gave a weak smile. It did little to dispel the tension or lighten the 53-year-old groom’s expression, which remained as somber as his black suit and gray cravat.
Philippe Narmino, conducting the civil ceremony, spoke of the “joy” of celebrating the union. Outside, others watching on big screens sensed a hint of sadness.
“She looked tragic. He looked horrified,” one onlooker told The Times. “Even outside you could feel the tension.”
As Wittstock, 33, was asked, in French, whether she would marry Albert Grimaldi, guests perhaps could have been forgiven for holding their breath.
She said “oui.” Albert said “oui.” Outside, the crowd burst into applause.
Just days before the $70-million nuptials, the Monaco palace’s public relations machine went into overdrive to deny a report in the French magazine L’Express that Wittstock had done what is more commonly known as “a runner.”
Officials described as “ugly rumors” and “unfounded lies” claims that Wittstock had fled to nearby Nice Airport with a one-way ticket back to South Africa.
Without giving details, the magazine L’Express claimed she had discovered her husband-to-be’s private life was “not as exemplary as she had thought.” Subsequent French news reports suggested Wittstock had discovered that the prince, who has recognized two illegitimate children, had also fathered a third.
The religious ceremony Saturday will be followed by an official dinner created by multi-Michelin-starred French chef Alain Ducasse and a fireworks display. About 40 heads of state have been invited.
Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla, will represent Britain. Albert and Charlene were guests at the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton in April, but Britain’s newest royal couple are on an official visit to Canada and were unable to attend the wedding in Monaco.
Willsher is a special correspondent.