Monaco's Secrets: Prince Albert’s Wedding Cracks Open Super-Rich City-State

It’s the second smallest state in the world, stomping ground for millionaires and eccentrics, and host to Prince Albert’s royal wedding this weekend. But there’s more to Monaco, from the snubbing of the nouveaux riches to mingling at the local fruit marke

Céline Lauer

MONTE CARLO - You run into Charlene and Albert all the time here. Take last Sunday night shortly before nine, at the bus stop on Place d'Armes, not far from the Royal Castle. Suddenly, around the corner comes a motorcycle cop and a sedan accompanying a dark blue limo (license plate MC01). Sitting in the back of the limousine are a man with glasses and a blond woman. The vehicles are heading in the direction of Monte Carlo, speeding by so fast that delighted tourists don't have time to capture the moment on film.

Locals either take in the princely convoy with a friendly nod, commenting aloud "Ah voilà le prince!" or continue, unfazed, to study the bus timetable. Seeing the prince is no big deal, after all, it happens often enough. Welcome to Monaco.

Site of the Formula 1 Grand Prix. Tax haven. Summer playground for the rich and beautiful — those are probably the best ways to sum up the image of the world's second smallest state. Sandwiched between France and Italy, the Alps and the Mediterranean, this narrow strip of land offers celebrities, aristocrats and the international jet set a luxury paradise, equally beloved by the paparazzi who lie in wait for them in the yacht harbor, in front of the casino or outside Jimmy'z nightclub.

Added to that, of course, is the fact that Monaco is a principality where the Grimaldi dynasty has reigned for 700 years. Even before Rainier III's marriage to the American icon, actress Grace Kelly, it was a high society magnet. And now their son, Albert II, who has been reigning prince since Rainier‘s death six years ago, is getting married. His bride-to-be is South African: Charlene Wittstock, a former Olympic backstroke swimmer. The two days of marriage ceremonies, which take place on July 1 and 2, will offer the tiny country yet another opportunity to shine in the spotlight.

Making headlines

Not that Monaco needs the attention. It's making headlines all the time, sometimes tragic, as when Princess Grace died in a car crash in 1982, or more recently due to the colorful relationships—extramarital dalliances, separations, divorces—of Albert's sisters, Caroline and Stéphanie. Various other celebrities use the principality as a setting for their escapades, and of course Albert himself has been known to be quite the playboy.

A little drama, a lot of glitz and even more money—is that really all Monaco is about? Is it really nothing more than a place for millionaires and eccentrics to spend money? Or are there some normal folks here too?

Baroness Marianne von Brandstetter receives me on the seventh floor of the Fairmont Hotel, by the pool. She's wearing a turquoise dress, neon stilettos, a heavy gold bracelet. The German-born Baroness lives here. ‘"I rented a couple of rooms and put some of my own furniture in them,"" she says. The former beautician is now a member of the jet set, and shuttles between Monaco, New York and Palm Beach. She came into some $200 million through a few marriages, divorces and inheritances, and has been coming to the Côte d'Azur for 30 years. "In the morning, I go waterskiing, in the afternoon I play golf and tennis. I'm happy here! I have so many friends, I could be invited out every night for a year."

Baroness von Brandstetter lives the way people imagine everyone in Monaco does—although her lifestyle is not without its problems, she says. There are the nouveaux riches, of course. ‘‘The Russians particularly are so loud,"" she complains. ‘"You occasionally meet some that aren't like that, that are very nice, but most of them are simply impossible."" Tourists too are a bit of a bore: ‘"It's great that so many people come here, but sometimes it just gets a bit full.""

Space is an issue in Monaco, even without the tourists. Every available square centimeter of building land has long been filled, but even so cranes and scaffolding are everywhere. Living space is the only thing that isn't available in limitless quantities here, and is thus very sought after. Due to the shortage, building in Monaco is either high-rise or underground.

Most of the infrastructure—multi-lane roads, multi-story parking garages, the train station—have been built into rock. Reclaiming land from the Mediterranean has made it possible to expand the city: the area known as Fontvieille is now home to mainly "clean", ecologically-correct businesses in line with Prince Albert's commitment to protecting the environment and making Monaco a kind of green pioneer of world standing.

Despite all this, Monaco still has not caught up with the times. "In some ways, it's as if time stopped here," says Josef Bulva, the Czech pianist who moved to Monaco in 1996. He retired here after a serious injury to his hand, but he's now making something of a comeback. He sums up the lifestyle in two words: "Victorian warmth."

68-year-old Bulva tells me about his grocer, who will make him his special coffee blend even when the store is closed, and about the delivery man who leaves crates of the most expensive champagne in front of his garage door. "Nothing ever gets stolen in Monaco," Bulva says glancing over at one of the state's network of video cameras. "Surveillance here is better than in a Norwegian prison."

Approachable and unpretentious

Albert and Charlene's civil wedding ceremony will take place in the Throne Room of the palace on Friday. The church ceremony is the next day, and here the couple is breaking with tradition: the ceremony will not be held in the cathedral but in the inner court of the palace. The doors leading out to the square will be open, and 3,500 invited guests will fill the square. The official explanation for this arrangement is that the church is not big enough to fit everybody. The princely couple has a reputation for being unpretentious; I heard nothing but good about them, how approachable and open they are. But the arrangement may also be a way of demonstrating a certain break in the encrusted traditions of this constitutional monarchy.

They also hope the marriage will lay to rest the scandals that have swirled around Albert in the past. For decades, the 53-year-old was considered a diehard bachelor whose various companions and illegitimate children provided reliable fodder for the tabloid press. At first, his relationship with Charlene, whom he met in 2001, was also reported as being less than solid, and speculation tended to be more about when they'd break up than when they'd marry.

Now, finally, the prince is going to lead 33-year-old Charlene down the aisle, and the Monegasques could not be more profuse in their compliments and well-wishing. There is certainly a lot of joy about their new Princess and the promise of offspring, but perhaps also a touch of relief that their prince is finally settling down.

Locals wax monosyllabic when asked about the prince's wedding plans, although a couple of details have filtered out, such as the fact that flooring is going to be put down on the square in front of the palace so that the heels of women's shoes don't get stuck between the cobblestones.

Avoiding pitfalls like stuck stilettos is something Frank Damgaard knows all about. In his small office on Quai Antoine 1er, the Danish wedding planner has been organizing dream weddings in Monaco for six years. His agency, Monte Carlo Weddings, is sought out by well-heeled customers the world over. When we meet, the 59-year-old Damgaard, wearing a white suit and gold chain in Mediterranean playboy style, has just come back from a wedding at the Casino. He sees himself as an ambassador for the principality. "The location is idyllic, right on the sea, and we have 300 sunny days a year. There is no better place than Monaco to get married."

Damgaard says he plans 25 weddings a year. The cost per head varies from 500 to 6,000 euros "and sometimes more," he says. Some ceremonies are extremely intimate, just bride and groom, while others—like an Indian wedding this past March—are gigantic galas. Six hundred guests flew in for that, and the celebrating went on for four days. For the event, Damgaard brought in two elephants, booked the whole opera house, and succeeded in getting Monaco's most famous square — Casino Square —blocked to traffic during peak hours. "The locals didn't like that one too much,"" he admits.

Away from the glitz and glamour

Monaco's frontiers are open; there are no toll booths or customs officials. But you know the minute you've crossed the border. People are more laid back. As native Monegasques are in any case in the minority, they tend to be very receptive and cooperative. English has become the established language after French. If a Monegasque sees that you are trying to find your way, he or she will volunteer their help, and bus drivers will let you get off between official stops.

Worldly sophistication is one side of Monaco; the other side is provincial idyll. Away from the glitz and glamour, every morning on Place d'Armes there is a picture-postcard-perfect street market: the Marché de la Condamine. Traders from the surrounding area come here, set up their stalls, and sell local fruit and vegetables: squash, lemons, artichokes, plums, beans. Their customers live in the pretty buildings around the square, and there's a playground right there so if you get chatting with the flower seller your kids have something to do.

Annick Durantet and her husband have been selling at the market for 24 years. Every day, they make the trip here to sell their produce. They set up at 5 a.m., and start packing up at a quarter past noon for the drive back to France, summer and winter "when you have to dress a little warmer."

The Monaco that one experiences standing at Annick Durantet‘s vegetable stand has absolutely nothing to do with the usual image of glitz. "We're on first name terms with a lot of our clients," says Durantet. "We ask after each others' families."

But at least for this weekend, the focus will return exclusively to the one family that still defines and unites this unique little sliver of pomp and paradise.

Read the original article in German

photo - esther1616

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