The bridal couple (photo copyrighted by Netty Leistra)
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When in May 2010 the engagement of Crown Prince Leka II of the Albanians and Elia Zaharia was announced I said right away to myself, that's a wedding I would like to see personally. But the years went by, Leka's father King Leka died in 2011 and there were other circumstances that made the couple decide not to get married yet. But finally in March 2016 it was announced that the wedding date was set and that the event would take place in Tirana on 8 October 2016. I prebooked a hotel soon, but didn't book my flights until halfway August. Despite of the fact that there wasn't too much information about the wedding known, I just wanted to give it a try. The wedding turned out to be fantastic and I had a wonderful stay in Albania!
Friday, 7 October 2016
Saturday, 8 October 2016
Sunday, 8 October 2016
The Royal Palace at daytime (photo: Yaroslava Matvieienko); Royal Residence.
The wedding ceremony of Crown Prince Leka II of the Albanians and Elia Zaharia took place at the Royal Palace in Tirana. The building is probably better known to most people as the Palace of the Brigades (Pallati i Brigadave) or Presidential Palace and is situated in the Grand Park behind the University of Tirana. It seems the building is usually not open for the public. In the 1930s King Zog I commissioned the palace, which was to serve as his main official residence. It was designed by three Italian architects. Unfortunately before the construction of the building was finished, Zog and his family had to fled the country and never returned. The Italians completed the building in 1941. When King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy visited Albania in May 1941 he stayed at the palace. It afterwards served as the official residence of the Viceroy, until the Italians left the country in 1943. Afterwards the Albanian Parliament had its seat in the palace, which in 1945 was renamed into the Palace of the Brigades. The name is still in use, although in 1992 it was officially renamed into the Presidential Palace. Although Leka II has tried to have the palace returned to the family, he has not yet succeeded. The palace remains in the possession of the Albanian government and is the official residence of the President of Albania. When in November 2012 the remains of King Zog I finally returned to Albania to be reburied in the Royal Mausoleum, he was laying in state in the Royal Palace. For the wedding of Leka and Elia the palace once again turned into a Royal Palace. This is where in the evening also the wedding dinner and ball were being held.
The wedding reception however took place at the Royal Residence in the heart of Tirana, where Leka and Elia live. In 1929 it was designed by an Austrian architect for King Zog I. The building was returned to the Albanian Royal Family in 2006. The building has a complex architectural design and its mosaics and original floorings still exist, despite of having been neglecting during the Communist era.
The Royal Palace by night (photo: Eric); Prime Minister's Office.
A Belgian friend, who like me had come for the wedding, and I were incredible lucky to meet the groom Crown Prince Leka II of the Albanians already at his residence on Friday. See for a short report Travelling in Albania. Hope nobody minds I don't post the picture, but it is a lovely souvenir. The weather on Friday morning and evening wasn't very promising. Rain, thunder and lightning, and as Tirana is near the mountains it can be very spooky. Not the best weather to be outside, so we were lucky in the afternoon it was quite OK, so we managed to see a bit. The information about the evening party for the wedding guests officially only became known on Saturday. But with the terrible weather we rather sat in a nice and warm restaurant anyway.
Be present at 9am at the Plaza Hotel for the bus to the Royal Palace! Otherwise you don't get in. That means an early start if you want to shower and dress properly and have something of a breakfast. Not that you have to dress that good when you're a journalist or photographer, but as a woman I think it means at least you have to wear a dress. Luckily the weather outside seemed to be much, much better than on Friday. As my coat wasn't dry yet, I had to wear my blazer, and I wore a t-shirt under my dress, and a scarf to be sure that I would be warm enough. Heels in my bag, flat shoes on, but unfortunately my ankle didn't like all the standing outside at all, so I never changed into the heels in the end. Laptop and camera with extra card and battery in the bag and then on my way to the hotel, which was close to mine, to meet with the other media. As usually happens the bus left a bit later than planned, but we arrived at the Royal Palace more than in time. And then the waiting started. Surprisingly some Albanian media people managed to get in even if they were rather late. We however managed to keep our good positions next to the stairs, even when the organisation tried to move us a few times, because there wasn't too much space left for the cars of guests to pass just in front of the stairs. There was lots of Albanian media, as well as some foreigners from the Netherlands, France, Belgium and the USA.
Elia's mother; Prince Muhammad Ali of Egypt and Grand Duchess Maria of Russia; Prince Georg Friedrich of Prussia; the Duchess of Castro.
Princess Lalla Meryem of Morocco; Empress Farah of Iran; Prince and Princess Michael of Kent; Queen Sofia of Spain and Princess Irene of Greece.
Plants and flowers were only placed outside close to the time the guests arrived, which I thought was a bit late, but well, they were there in time in the end. The sun wasn't in a very good place either, but just in time turned away enough not too have too light pictures. Guests started arriving nicely in time, including lots of noble and royal guests. Some like us by bus and others by car. The later it was, the more interesting the guests were. The bad thing about guests coming by bus is that there are too many passing at once, so it is so hard to take good pictures. If you photograph one person, others will sneak away in the background being glad that they go unnoticed. But to be honest there are always guests you miss, even when you think you should be able to recognise them, at the moment itself you somehow don't. Some take their time posing, others will only give you a few seconds of their time. But we soon discovered most of the guests were rather relaxed at this wedding and were willingly posing. Although some were rather surprised they were recognised. Among the very first to arrive were the parents of the bride and her brother with his girlfriend. Very easy to guess as Elia looks quite a lot like her mother. The mayor of Tirana, who was to marry the bride and groom was a rather young man, and when I asked whether he was the mayor, he started thanking the foreign media for coming, and of course hoped for nice reports about his country and city. Quite nice of him. Most surprising to me was that we never saw the bridal couple arriving. It turned out they were already inside. Such a pity!
Ring bearer; Fürstin Gloria and Princess Elisabeth von Thurn und Taxis; Gigliola; Princess Sonia Poniatowski and Halina von Kempski Rakoszyn.
When everybody had arrived it was time to take a rest. Not much going on outside. We only saw later in online videos what had happened inside the Royal Palace. The actual wedding ceremony (a civil one) had only lasted about 15 minutes. A short blessing by representants of five religions was included. For that special part of the wedding service George Frendo (the Catholic Archbishop of Tirana-Durrës ), Baba Edmond Brahimaj (world leader of the Bektashi), Ylli Gurra (Mufti of Tirana), Metropolitan Joan (Orthodox metropolitan of Korça) and Ylli Doçi (President of VUSH, the Albanian Evangelical Alliance) were invited.
In his speech Erion Veliaj, the Mayor of Tirana, said:
"Your love today will receive blessings from the heads of five religious entities in Albania, as a glaring example of this genuine and peaceful coexistence between religions and also of the long-lasting and genuine coexistence between religions and public authorities in our country. Like the Kingdom of Albania erstwhile, the Republic of Albania does not differentiate, exclude, discriminate or offers preferential treatment to any of the religious authorities. This couple embodies the heritage of all five religious communities: Muslim from the paternal tradition, Anglican from your late mother, Catholic from your belove and memorable grandmother, Queen Geraldine, the lastly orthodox from your spouse. Your family is, like many other in this country, a symbol of Albanian unity in a miniature."
After the speech the couple exchanged the vows and wedding rings. Then the couple and witnesses signed the papers before finally Leka and Elia were allowed to kiss. Afterwards there were pictures taken, there was some music and a reception. Somewhat later than planned the newly-wed couple finally came outside. I am not sure for how long, but quite a while as we had more than time to take pictures while they were standing on top of the staircase. The bride wore an amazing dress by Blerina Kllokoqi Rugova, an Albanian designer. Still not quite sure whether I like the somewhat shiny material it was made of, but the lace on top was gorgeous. I already thought the bride looked somewhat taller than usual, and it was not until I had a good look at my pictures when I discovered her really high-heeled platform shoes on some of my pictures! In the end also the bridesmaids (in traditional costumes) and male attendants came outside and took positions on both sides of the stairs.
Soon after the couple had gone back inside the guests started leaving the palace. I was surprised the Albanian media took the opportunity to interview guests in front of TV-cameras. But of course there were no fences for the media, so we could about walk everywhere, as long as we wouldn't go inside the palace. The young ring bearer in costume left the party. Fürstin Gloria von Thurn und Taxis was interviewed and gave some very funny answers. But actually it turned out the media had only stopped her from having a good look at the great car at the bottom of the stairs - an expensive white Rolls Royce if I remember well. After the interview she passed me and I could hear her say: chic, chic, chic. I managed to stop her and her daughter Princess Elisabeth for a few pictures. Then I ended up in a conversation with Gigliola, the lovely girlfriend of Elia's brother Amos. And I spoke to some other guests before hurrying back to the bus. I could just jump in before it left for the reception at the Royal Residence in town. Of course I knew how to get there by foot, but was not really looking forward to a long walk. A few journalists missed the bus and arrived with some guests only after about everybody had arrived for the reception.
Crown Princess Margarita and Prince Radu of Romania; the parents of the bride; Archduke Joseph Karl and Archduchess Margarete of Austria with their daughter Johanna Sophie; Princess Sibilla and Prince Guillaume of Luxembourg.
Outside the Royal Residence it was a bit of a chaos sometimes. The organisation preferred us to stand on one side on top of the stairs, with a good look on the big banner with the names of the sponsors for the wedding on it. But of course there was hardly enough space. In the end we were at least not allowed to stand right in front of it, but it was fine to stand a bit further down the stairs. I really regretted that we weren't allowed to enter the grounds of the palace, as there was lots of music and dancing going on already and I would have loved to see a bit of that. While waiting for the couple and their guests to arrive, me and a few other foreign reporters were being interviewed by Albanian TV-Channels (one coming from an Albanian TV-channel in the USA). But finally the guests arrived, and almost at the end also the couple itself. The bride didn't find it too easy to climb the stairs in her high heels and long dress, but with a bit of help from her new husband managed to. On later pictures one could notice that for the reception the bride wore another dress than during the wedding, but she wore the first wedding dress again in the evening, when we unfortunately also didn't catch a glimpse of the bride anymore. After the reception I had warm lunch with two colleagues/friends just opposite the road. And I had a few hours left to do some work, so I returned to the Plaza Hotel (that has great Internet and service) to work there for a bit. Either everybody else was working elsewhere, as it was nice and quiet in the working space. Managed to do about everything before I had to head downstairs to catch another bus, back to work.
Princess Lea of Belgium and her son; Lady Victoria Hervey and her brother, the marquess of Bristol; Archduke Georg and Archduchess Eilika of Austria; Crown Princess Margarita and Prince Radu of Romania.
Princess Marie and Prince Gundakar of Liechtenstein and their daughter Maria-Immaculata; Prince and Princess Michael of Kent; Prince Philip and Princess Isabelle of Liechtenstein; The Duke and Duchess of Castro.
Back at the Royal Palace for the wedding ball. Of course the worst thing about getting married in October is that it is dark pretty early. On the other hand the building was lighted and looked gorgeous. I am not the best night photographer, but with a bit of help of a nice Albanian photographer my photos are at least presentable online. Just a few tiaras, but most guests had dressed up for sure and looked great. As said we unfortunately only saw back the groom, as the bride was again already inside. Finally for the media the wedding had finished. When we arrived back in the city centre we were too tired to have some good food. I had tea and ate a lovely slice of chocolate cake to celebrate the bridal couple. And then headed back to my hotel to do some more work.
Prince Leka at the Royal Residence; guests arriving.
Prince Leka at the Royal Residence; guests arriving.
With my colleague from the Ukrain, whom I only knew from the Internet until now, I decided to go sightseeing in Tirana. I first showed her the royal residence and of course on the side we bumped into the groom and a few wedding guests. Sorry, we didn't intend to be there when you were outside. When we walked into the direction of the university we also passed the Prime Minister's Office, where wedding guests were received for a farewell reception. It was fun being there only with the official photographers and a few surprised onlookers who had no idea what was going on. Several guests recognised us from the previous day and we managed to speak to a few of them and take some nice pictures. The Duke of Braganca arrived, shook a few hands outside and hurried away again by car. Forgotten to bring something? It took quite a while before he returned. As we could now see clearly Princess Lalla Meryem of Morocco had quite an entourage with her. Not only security and a lady-in-waiting, but also about three official photographers, and unfortunately for us she wasn't to pose either. The red carpet wasn't too happy with the wind and regularly moved from its place. A few times we just placed it back ourselves. We finally left after we had taken pictures of Crown Prince Alexander and Crown Princess Katherine of Serbia, who when seeing us already posed before we could even ask. And that just when we had decided we wouldn't take pictures anymore and just wave them goodbye!
After a lovely trip out of town (thanks to a Dutchman living in Tirana) I had to leave by airplane again. The airplane to Vienna, Austria, actually turned out to have several royals on board too, apart from me, a Dutch photographer and wedding media organizer Roger Lundgren (who had to go back to Sweden). Apparently several people had decided to stay in Tirana an extra night. So we had a few Liechtensteins and another noble guest on board, we met already in the hall. I think I saw another royal too (Austria) who took another airplane out of the country. When we were about to board the plane, a car came from the VIP-area carrying some Italian royal guests. Unfortunately everybody was seated somewhere else, so no talking anymore during the flight. In Vienna the Dutch photographer and I had to hurry to catch our plane to Amsterdam, so we quickly waved goodbye and that was our last glimpse of the royals that had attended the Albanian royal wedding. Back to normal life.
The guestlist for this wedding turned out to be absolutely amazing and so much better than we had thought. Of course we had expected some representants from former reigning royal houses in the East of Europe, but in the end there was much more than that. Of the guests we had expected only the Bulgarian royal house was unfortunately missing. Also members of the family of the late Queen Geraldine as well as of the late Queen Susan were present, and some known Albanian politicians and celebrities. Among the royal houses represented were even some reigning ones. Below I've listed the noble and royal guests, relatives and others with a royal connection.
Names from the official guestlist, personal observations and from Point de Vue.
Nice wedding reports I did see here were in magazines like Point de Vue, Royals (Belgium), Royals (Russia), Bunte, 7 Tage and European Royal History Journal. A report written by me appeared in the Royalty Digest Quarterly 4/2016. The day after the wedding we spotted some newspapers with wedding reports. Quality wasn't too good, but we bought them anyway. Before the wedding several lovely reports about the bride and groom appeared in magazines. In Albania I managed to buy Elegance and Madame. No idea what they say, but already the pictures were more than worth the money, and of course it helped that in Albania such magazines are quite a bit cheaper than in my own country.
Special thanks to Ada, Albert, Eric, Hans, Martin, Neil, Sally, Seth and Yaroslava for their company, information and/or photos. Lots of thanks to Crown Prince Leka and Princess Elia for getting married and allowing the media to cover, and to Roger Lundgren and his team for the great organisation. And of course to all the royals for being so patient with us royalty watchers and media!