Monaco's Prince Albert weds South African

After waiting decades for Prince Albert II to choose his bride, residents of this high-flying Riviera principality are preparing to embrace South Africa's Charlene Wittstock to succeed Grace Kelly as Princess of Monaco.

Bride given princess title

Charlene Wittstock and Prince Albert II of Monaco appear on a giant screen outside the Monaco palace during their civil wedding marriage ceremony. (Bruno Bebert/Associated Press)

Monaco's reigning prince, Albert II, wed Charlene Wittstock of South Africa on Friday in a long-awaited civil ceremony that transformed the one-time Olympic swimmer into the Princess of Monaco.

Wittstock succeeds Hollywood beauty Grace Kelly, who wed Albert's father, Prince Rainier III in 1956, had three children with him but died in a car accident in 1982.

Residents of the principality on the Riviera swarmed the plaza outside the palace where the ceremony took place, hoping to catch a glimpse of the newlyweds during the first of two days of royal wedding events.

Prince Albert waves as he appears with his bride Charlene Princess of Monaco at the Monaco palace. (Bruno Berbert/Associated Press)

Wittstock wore a silken blue jacket with ankle-length pants, an outfit that famed fashion house Chanel created for the civil ceremony, which will be followed on Saturday by an elaborate religious wedding ceremony and a star-studded wedding gala.

When asked if they take each other in marriage, both quietly responded "Oui." The marriage became official — and Wittstock became a princess — when Philippe Narmino, president of Monaco's Council of State, pronounced "I declare you united by the bonds of marriage."

The royal couple signed the marriage register with a specially created pen in gold and precious stones and adorned with their monogram made by German luxury penmaker Montblanc.

Although Albert, 53, was seen for decades as one of Europe's most eligible bachelors, he 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.

Monaco's 7,618 citizens and their partners were invited to post-ceremony cocktails on the square Friday, to be followed by a concert by French composer Jean Michel Jarre and a laser light show.

With her bright blue eyes and delicate features, the 33-year-old Wittstock has often been compared to Kelly, an American movie star known for her iconic fashion sense.

Friday's wedding was the first for both Wittstock and Albert, although the soft-spoken prince has acknowledged fathering two children out of wedlock.

Rumours of 3rd child born out of wedlock

Rumours raged over the past few days that a third illegitimate child had recently surfaced and that development allegedly 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 rumours" born out of jealousy. A top aide to the prince, speaking earlier this week on Monaco-Info TV, said the couple were "affected" by the rumours 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 that she would bring 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, 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-kilometre radius from Monaco, Ducasse said.

More than 1,000 journalists from around the world have been accredited for the festivities, which kicked off late Thursday with a free concert by the legendary Los Angeles band The Eagles.

The prince and Wittstock attended the show, he in a dark suit, she wearing a strapless black pantsuit.

Wittstock was born in Zimbabwe, but moved to neighbouring South Africa as a child and swam for that country at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

Albert met Wittstock during a 2000 swimming competition in Monaco. Wittstock then began appearing regularly at social events and moved to Monaco in 2006.

Albert has been an International Olympic Committee member since 1985 and competed in five Winter Olympics as part of Monaco's bobsled team.