NICE // More than half a century after the wedding of a debonair prince and his Hollywood bride captivated the world, the tiny statelet of Monaco has made a jittery start to festivities designed to mark a new era for its royal family.
Few thought the wedding of Prince Albert II, Monaco's 53-year-old ruler, and Charlene Wittstock, a South African former swimming champion 20 years his junior, would quite match the glamour of the 1956 marriage of Albert's parents, Prince Rainier and the actress Grace Kelly.
But fewer still expected the build-up to today's first stage of the occasion to be clouded by extraordinary rumours - denied by the palace - of a serious rift between the couple.
Reports in the normally serious-minded French news magazine L'Express, referring to what Agence France-Presse called a "dark secret" allegedly discovered by Miss Wittstock about the private life of her husband-to-be, swiftly spread to websites and Twitter messages.
The palace formally denied the story and claims that Miss Wittstock's supposed cold feet had prompted her to head for Nice airport and that she had to be persuaded to return to the principality.
The prince's lawyer described the reports as "mad" and began legal action to force L'Express to disclose its sources, but this now appears to have been dropped. Prince Albert has found himself in conflict with the French media on previous occasions, though he has also publicly acknowledged that he has two children from past relationships.
Stéphane Bern, a well-connected French commentator on royal and constitutional matters, was quoted by the conservative daily Le Figaro as saying it was possible a woman would come forward to claim she was pregnant by the prince though he, too, has been dismissive of the speculation.The unwelcome nature of coverage had minor constitutional implications because the royal wedding is one Monégasques hope will produce a son and heir for the House of Grimaldi, which has ruled Monaco since 1297.
In the past, failure to do so would have meant sovereignty being ceded to France under a treaty between the two countries. The legal status was amended in 2002, with French approval, to allow Monaco to retain independence in such circumstances. Assuming that the palace is right and the rumourmongers are wrong, the royal wedding is likely to attract at least 200,000 visitors.
The couple were due to become man and wife in law at a civil ceremony in the throne room of the Prince's Palace this evening. The event will be relayed to giant screens outside, though space limitations mean only Monégesque will be allowed into the Palace square to see them.
Twenty-four hours later, the main courtyard of the palace will be the setting for the religious ceremony.
The occasion will be small-scale when compared to the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton in April. Even so, the principality is eager to demonstrate that despite its small-town size, covering just 200 hectares and having a population of only 34,000, it is capable of staging an impressive spectacle.
In their own version of the English royal newlyweds' appearance to greet the crowds gathered outside Buckingham Palace, Albert and his bride will salute Monégasques from the balcony of the Monaco palace's Salon des Glaces.
After tomorrow's religious ceremony, the couple will be seen proceeding to the church of Sainte Dévote where the new princess deposits her bouquet. In her efforts to attune to life in Monte Carlo, Miss Wittstock has followed Princess Grace's example and taken lessons to improve her French. She has also converted to Roman Catholicism and is said to be intent on developing a meaningful role.
She has said her South African background remains an important factor in her life and the couple plan another reception in Durban.