Belgians brave rain for royal bride

BELGIUM yesterday tried to forget its ethnic divisions and its succession of public scandals, as it celebrated its first royal wedding for 15 years with a day of lavish celebration.

Prince Philippe tied the knot with his glamorous, aristocratic bride Mathilde d'Udekem d'Acoz in a ceremony so multi-lingual that, at times, one expected members of the illustrious congregation to reach for translators' headsets.

At the climax of the morning's events in the Cathedral of Saints Michel- et-Gudule, Philippe and his bride exchanged rings pledging, in both French and Dutch, their "love and fidelity" before kissing each other on both cheeks. Earlier, at a civilian marriage ceremony, all three of Belgium's official languages were spoken as officialdom pronounced the couple man and wife in French, Dutch and German.

"It's impossible to ignore, impossible to escape," said the newsreader on Belgium's French-speaking main television channel as the television transmission began yesterday morning. Quite so. The main stations were offering no less than 15 hours of live coverage, starting two-and-a-half hours before the civil ceremony began in the seventeenth century Grand Place. Even shoppers on the capital's main shopping street who tried to ignore the festivities were treated to complementary heart-shaped pralines, and a fly-past by the Belgian air force which trailed the colours of the national flag through the sky.

For Philippe, who was passed over in favour of his uncle when the throne last changed hands in 1993, Mathilde is the perfect bride, with links to both the French and Flemish communities. Stunning and popular, she is also destined to be the first ever Belgian-born queen. Nevertheless, the engagement was disrupted by media revelations that King Albert has a 31-year-old illegitimate daughter. These were seen by some French-speakers as a plot by Flemish nationalists, who view the monarchy as a binding force in Belgium and an obstacle to independence for Flanders. A pre-nuptial tour of the country triggered some student protests, with 16 arrests on one occasion.

Yesterday most of the press was accentuating the positive. The national daily broadsheet, La Libre Belgique, devoted its opening seven pages to the event. The marriage, it gushed, was one which "marked out, like a beacon, the history of a country" and allowed "the re-affirmation of the union - around the monarchy - of most compatriots of both the north and the south".

As expected, Mathilde was the star of the show, smiling radiantly in her elegant eggshell gown of crepe and silk. She went to the cathedral in a glass-topped Mercedes limo which seemed only just large enough to accommodate her 15ft train of Brussels lace, which Queen Paola wore 40 years ago when she married King Albert II.

Prince Charles, Prince Naruhito of Japan and Romano Prodi, President of the European Commission, were among the guests in an extravaganza with some eyebrow-raising statistics, such as the 25,000 cut flowers filling the cathedral. Afterwards the dignitaries dined on pasta stuffed with white truffle on a bed of spinach and lobster, followed by tournedos of calf with mushrooms. Last night 3,500 guests were attending a reception at the Chateau de Laeken, where 6,000 sandwiches were provided.

Although the crowds came out, the down-to-earth character of the Belgian populace prevailed over wilder predictions of jubilation. Despite free public transport, perhaps a quarter of the predicted 200,000 spectators lined the streets, many realising that the pavements of Brussels are not the best place to spend a chilly, rainy December day - even for the last royal marriage of the millennium.

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