Monaco's Prince Albert weds South African Charlene Wittstock

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Media captionCrowds cheered as the royal couple appeared on the balcony

Prince Albert II of Monaco and South African Olympic swimmer Charlene Wittstock have got married in a civil ceremony in the tiny principality.

The wedding took place at the royal palace by the Mediterranean, where a more elaborate religious ceremony is to be held on Saturday.

Up to 3,500 guests are to attend lavish celebrations in Monaco afterwards.

Ms Wittstock, 33, who swam in the 2000 Sydney Olympics, is now Her Serene Highness, Princess Charlene.

Earlier in the week the palace denied reports in the French press that Ms Wittstock was having second thoughts about the wedding.

Prince Albert II, 53, has been the ruler of Monaco since the death of his father, Prince Rainier III, in 2005.

The guest list includes heads of state and royalty, from French President Nicolas Sarkozy to the heir to the Spanish throne, as well as fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld and supermodel Naomi Campbell.

Charlene Wittstock's wedding dress was designed by Giorgio Armani.

Rumours denied

Thousands of Monegasques crowded the plaza outside the palace for the civil wedding.

Inside, Philippe Narmino, the president of Monaco's Council of State, declared the couple "united by bonds of marriage".

The event was clouded by press reports suggesting that Ms Wittstock had come close to returning to South Africa, after learning secrets about Prince Albert's private life.

Image caption The civil ceremony took place in this lavish room at the palace

The royal family dismissed the claims, as well as suggestions she had only turned back after royal aides persuaded her to stay.

"These rumours have no other goal than to severely damage the reputation of the monarch and thereby that of Miss Wittstock and severely undermine this happy event," said the palace.

Ryk Neethling, a fellow South African Olympic swimmer said: "I just spoke to her assistant and whatever the story is, it's not true.

"I called her and asked if everything is okay, and they said everything is fine."

Glamorous past

Charlene Wittstock was born in Zimbabwe's second city of Bulawayo, moving to South Africa with her family at the age of 12.

She represented South Africa at the Commonwealth Games before competing in Sydney as part of the women's medley relay team that finished fifth in the final.

Prince Albert was also an athlete, competing in bobsleigh in five Olympics.

The Prince and Ms Wittstock made their relationship public by appearing together at the Turin Winter Olympics of 2006, after meeting in 2000 at a swimming event in Monaco.

She ended her swimming career in 2007 and has travelled widely for charity events with her fiance.

The tiny principality, which covers about 2 sq km (less than one square mile), is the world's smallest independent state after the Vatican City.

It has seen glamorous weddings in the past.

In 1956 the Hollywood beauty Grace Kelly married Prince Rainier.

The wedding ushered in an unprecedented era of glamour that ended with her death in a car crash in 1982.