The tiny European territory that lost its beloved Princess Grace in a car crash in 1982 is finally getting a new princess. Prince Albert II of Monaco, 53 and a longtime bachelor, will wed South African Charlene Wittstock over a weekend of royal ceremonies and celebrations.
Monaco hasn't seen an event like this since Albert's mother, Hollywood icon Grace Kelly, married his father, Prince Rainier, 55 years ago.
The principality of Monaco is less than 1 square mile of rocky coastline wedged between France and Italy on the Mediterranean Sea. But the country looms much larger in the collective imagination. Monaco has long attracted the wealthy with its sunshine, lavish casinos and absence of income tax. Today, Bentleys and Ferraris drive its winding roads, and yachts line the port. But Monagasques have never really gotten over Princess Grace's tragic death in a 1982 car accident, said historian Jean Des Cars. And they've been waiting a long time for a new princess.
"The people from Monaco, they're waiting for that for years and years," Des Cars said. "Albert could not be mistaken. He had to take his time because he knew everybody would compare his wife to his mother. He once told me, 'I'll marry a woman like my mother.' Which is always a little dangerous."
Albert's bride, a former Olympic swimmer who is 20 years his junior, is being compared to Grace Kelly. With her swept-back blond hair and tall elegance, the resemblance is striking. Wittstock met the prince while swimming in a tournament in Monaco. During the past few years, she took up residence here and worked on her French. Monagasques say she has kept a very low profile, and now they look forward to getting to know her.
"Now we wait — we wait to see Charlene in action," said Guy Patrick, who sells souvenirs near the royal palace, a medieval fortress where members of the ruling Grimaldi family have lived since the 15th century. "You see, Charlene is like a new gift. We have to open the box, and see what's inside the box."
Albert took so long to find a bride that for years, many believed he was gay. While his recognition of two out-of-wedlock children put an end to those rumors, Monagasques still longed for a proper princess for their prince.
Today, roads are clogged with police escorts and a helicopter hovers over the port as world leaders and European royalty descend on the principality. Buildings are draped in Monaco's red and white colors, and shops are festooned with flags of Monaco and South Africa. Friday's civil ceremony will be followed by a church wedding Saturday. And there will be outdoor parties and concerts all weekend for Monaco's 30,000 inhabitants.
Monagasque businessman Roger Felix sat in the lobby of his hotel across from the port, watching people on their yachts. The marriage is definitely a good thing for Monaco, he said.
"It brings stability. You know, for years we saw the prince at nightclubs in St. Tropez. He was a partier. So it's great that he's finally settling down," Felix said.
Albert is bringing love back to the palace, he said, and that also brings back memories of Monaco's good old days.