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Belgium Cheers Royal Wedding

Belgium's Crown Prince Philippe and his glamorous young bride Mathilde d'Udekem d'Acoz were married on Saturday in a society wedding attended by many leading members of Europe's royalty.

The couple celebrated their wedding with a wedding lunch at the Royal Palace in Brussels attended by 750 guests, including Britain's Prince Charles, Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, Monaco's Prince Albert and Spain's Queen Sofia.

It was Belgium's biggest wedding in decades, bringing Mathilde in line to be the first Belgian-born queen in the nation's history.

They left Saint Michael's to the sounds of Johann-Sebastian Bach, and were met by a cascade of cheers from the crowd and even rays of sunshine after the skies unexpectedly had cleared following a fierce storm late Friday. In all, 101 cannon shots were fired as the royal party made it back to the palace for the wedding lunch.

The newlyweds exit St. Michael's Cathedral.

The guests sipped champagne and dined on caviar, venison and lobster at the 19th century palace following the couple's civil and religious wedding services that stretched over four and a half hours.

Meanwhile, hundreds of well-wishers remained encamped outside the palace hours after the wedding. They hoped for a final glimpse of the royal couple when they departed for the day's final event, a reception at the Chateau de Laeken, the 18th century castle north of Brussels where the couple will live.

The couple was due to leave Laeken on Saturday evening for their honeymoon, whose destination has been kept a closely guarded secret.

The 39-year-old future king and Mathilde, who is 13 years his junior, were married in a Catholic mass conducted in French and Dutch at the recently restored Cathedral St Michel, following a civil ceremony at Brussels town hall.

Most men attending the ceremony wore uniforms, and most women wore gray. Mathilde was dressed in an eggshell-colored gown of crepe and silk, with a five-yard train of Brussels lace that Queen Paola wore 40 years ago when she married Albert II.

Police said bitterly cold weather might explain why only about 50,000 well-wishers lined the route of the wedding procession, instead of the 200,000 who had been expected to descend on Brussels.

The engagement of Philippe, who will succeed his father Albert II to the throne, sparked immediate comparisons between the 26-year-old bride and Britain's Princess Diana, whose youth and beauty was in contrast to the often dour public image of her much older husband, Prince Charles.

"The whole of Belgium fell for your charms," said Brussels mayor Francois-Xavier de Donnea, the Brussels mayor who officiated at the cvil ceremony. After the couple kissed on the balcony of city hall, thousands of people starting chanting "Mathilde! Mathilde!"

In the past, Belgian queens have come from Sweden, France, Italy and Spain but never has a local woman been queen.

The media have presented the marriage of the awkward Belgian prince to Flemish-born speech therapist Mathilde as a possible force for national unity in this divided country -- a suggestion dismissed by most historians and political analysts.

Mathilde -- beautiful and multilingual -- offers a near-perfect union of Belgium's ethnic groups with her Flemish roots and francophone upbringing.

"There's only one flag here today -- the Belgian one," French-speaking onlooker Philippe Coppin said.

"Everyone has put their differences aside today, if only for today. The monarchy is about the only tangible, concrete thing that holds this country together," he said.

Despite the media's love affair with the wedding, many said it would do little to heal the rift between Belgium's majority Flemish-speaking population in the north and the French speakers of the poorer south.

"She's very pretty...but the wedding is not all that important for Belgium," a Brussels resident said. "As far as the language divide goes, it's the politicians that really matter."

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