Royal wives no longer blue bloods

Saturday Europe holds its biggest royal wedding in 25 years

She hasn't a drop of aristocratic blood. She has spent most of her adult life working her way into the unforgiving world of broadcast journalism. Years ago, when she was quite young, she wed her high school teacher, and then quickly divorced.

On Saturday, in Europe's biggest wedding celebration since Prince Charles exchanged vows with Diana Spencer in London more than 25 years ago, she will marry again - but this time her groom is Prince Felipe de Borbón.

When Letizia Ortiz marries the heir to the Spanish throne this weekend, she will join the ranks of a new generation of royal wives - modern women with university degrees, professional careers, and complicated romantic pasts. They are women who once would have been mere "commoners." And their entrance onto the royal stage confirms both the social advances women have made in recent decades and the democratization of European monarchy.

"Letizia Ortiz is a journalist; Maxima Zorreguieta, who married Prince William of Holland, is an economist," says Paloma García-Pelayo, director of Madrid's Korpa News Agency, and coauthor of "You Will Be My Queen," a book that traces Felipe and Letizia's romance. "They have degrees and careers. They're women of the 21st century - not traditional maidens who stay inside their palaces all day."

Indeed, last week Denmark was captivated by the union of Prince Frederick and Mary Donaldson, an Aussie real estate broker. Matilde d'Udekem worked for years as a speech therapist before marrying Prince Philip of Belgium in 1999. Mette-Marit Tjessem was a single mother and former waitress when she wed the Prince of Norway in 2001.

But if regal marital rules have changed, royals' subjects hardly seem to care. The jubilant public mood that has settled over Spain as the country prepares for its royal wedding suggests that in Europe, at least, romance has not gone the way of global peace. Each night during the past two weeks, state television has broadcast specials on the wedding, including lengthy biographies of the bride and groom.

A wedding souvenir shop that sells everything from T-shirts bearing the couple's image to replicas of Letizia's engagement ring, opened a few months ago on the city's central artery Calle Mayor. It has been packed with eager customers every day, says saleswoman Siaham Hassan.

At age 36, Prince Felipe is the last of Europe's heirs to the throne to wed, and, like most of his contemporaries, he has chosen to marry for love rather than for political expediency or to preserve bloodlines. He will be the first royal heir in Spain's long history of monarchy to choose a commoner for a bride yet retain his title. His love story, like those of his peers, suggests that one of Europe's most exclusive institutions is becoming more democratic. Carmen Iglesias, director of the center for Political and Constitutional Studies in Madrid, says that anointing a commoner as the future queen points to positive societal shifts.

"The educational opportunities and social mobility that exist today," she says, "have made the levels of social and cultural education, once the privilege of a small minority, available to society as a whole. The excellence of character [required to be a queen] can be found in many places."

Such changes may even increase popularity of monarchies in Europe. Matilde of Belgium is widely viewed as having made her husband, Prince Philip, more likable. Certainly people in Madrid seem enthusiastic about Felipe and Letizia's impending nuptials. None of the countless shoppers at the souvenir store recently seemed to care that in the past, Letizia would not have been a suitable choice for a future king.

Asked about Doña Letizia's divorce, for example, Livia, a housewife in her sixties, replied, "If it doesn't bother the prince, it doesn't bother me. They're just two people in love, and I hope they will be very happy."

The Spanish royal family, headed by King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia, has long enjoyed a popularity relatively greater than that of other monarchies, like Britain's. Juan Carlos earned much of the public's support for his difficult and courageous role during the risky transition from dictatorship to democracy in the late 1970s.

The royal family has also made conscious efforts to portray themselves as "normal" Spaniards. "The king and queen are very close to the reality of Spain," says Ms. Iglesias. "They chose not to live in the Royal Palace; their children all attended a public university."

But, of course, the monarchy is not without its critics. In occasional letters to the editor in the country's newspapers, citizens have grumbled about the costs of the lavish event, to which 1,400 guests - including all the royal families in Europe - have been invited.

According to EFE, Spain's official news agency, Gaspar Llamazares, leader of the United Left Party, on Tuesday criticized what he called the "transformation of an institutional act into a display of courtly adhesion to the monarchy." (Mr. Llamazares, like the leaders of the Catalan Republican Left and the Basque National Party, has declined his invitation to the wedding.)

But critics seem to be outnumbered by royal fans. "The majority of Spaniards want stability and permanency," says Iglesias, "and our parliamentary monarchy, which has functioned spectacularly well in the last 25 years, has provided it."

In the meantime, Madrid is busy with prewedding preparations. Large-scale replicas of some of Spain's most famous works of art have been hung from scaffolds across Madrid's historic center, and since Tuesday, massive light displays have illuminated many of the city's best-known monuments.

As in Denmark last week, in Spain security has been heightened after the March 11 terrorist attacks in Madrid. Police have been regularly inspecting the wedding route to ensure safety during the newlyweds' ride on Saturday from the Palace to the Basilica of Atocha where, traditionally, Spain's royal brides place their bouquets. Over 20,000 members of the nation's security forces will be on duty Saturday morning and, beginning Friday, 12 of Madrid's major traffic arteries will be closed.

David Vicente says he had no plans to leave the Calle Mayor's souvenir store until securing three Felipe and Letizia ashtrays ("for my wife, my mother-in-law, and me," he says). He says he was delighted with the fanfare. "Juan Carlos has done a lot for Spain," the computer analyst says. "And now, many Spaniards feel like their own son is getting married."

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