By Pierre Thebault
MONACO (Reuters) - Flags, fanfare and thousands of well-wishers awaited the wedding of Prince Albert II to his South African fiancée Saturday in a union hoped to restore the luster of the luxury playground on the Riviera.
The nuptials are the first of a ruling prince in Monaco since the prince's father, Prince Rainier III, married the Hollywood star Grace Kelly in 1956, and come two months after Britain's royal wedding of Prince William to Kate Middleton.
Monaco's long hoped-for princely wedding thrusts into the spotlight the tiny principality built on the fairytale image of luxury, high-stakes gambling and fast cars, and its ancient House of Grimaldi whose family members have ruled since 1297.
Albert, the 53-year-old sovereign ruler of Monaco and long-time bachelor, is set to marry the 33-year-old Charlene Wittstock in a religious ceremony scheduled for 5 p.m. (11 a.m. EDT). The couple married in a more private civil ceremony in the palace throne room Friday.
Plush red-and-gold chairs in the palace courtyard awaited some 3,500 guests, including heads of state. Barricades were set up to accommodate the thousands more officials say are expected to flood the city state surrounded on three sides by France.
"It gives me great pleasure that the Prince of Monaco has chosen a South African like me," said Danielle Dourdent, a visitor who traveled from eastern France to cheer the couple.
Home to the Monte Carlo Grand Prix race car, Monaco is still considered a playground of the very rich: residents pay no income or property tax, and yachts are a dime a dozen at the port.
But tragedy and scandal, including past admissions from Albert that he fathered two illegitimate children, have chipped away at its mystique over the years.
The son of Prince Rainier III and Kelly -- who as Princess Grace ushered in an era of glamour to the tiny city-state before dying in a car crash in 1982 -- Albert met Wittstock while presiding over a swimming match in 2000.
Wittstock, whose appearance draws comparisons with that of Kelly, is a former national champion swimmer from middle-class roots who retired from competition in 2007.
Within days of the wedding, rumors of discontent threatened to mar the festivities. The palace strongly denied a report in French weekly L'Express that Wittstock tried to skip town on a one-way flight to South Africa and that it took "infinite persuasion" by the prince and his entourage to change her mind.
The culmination of months of painstaking preparations, the event has generated building excitement on the part of the 8,000 Monegasques who hold citizenship from the world's smallest independent state after the Vatican City.
Free concerts by The Eagles and French pop star Jean Michel Jarre preceded Saturday's wedding. Fireworks are to follow the official dinner from celebrity chef Alain Ducasse and ball.
(Additional reporting by Marina Depetris; Writing by Alexandria Sage; Editing by Michael Roddy)