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Bellissima Paola! The Story of Queen Paola of Belgium

Queen Paola of Belgium. Image via Pinterest

In the 1960s, aside from Princess Grace of Monaco, one royal beauty enamored the press and the public alike that she was hailed as one of the most beautiful royals of the 20th century. She is Paola, the Princess of Liege, who would reign as Queen of Belgium for 20 years. So charming was she that her face graced the front cover of many magazines while her fashion taste set trends around the world.

Donna Paola Ruffo di Calabria was born on September 11, 1937, in  Forte dei Marmi, Tuscany. Her father was the World War I Italian flying ace Fulco, Prince Ruffo di Calabria, 6th Duke of Guardia Lombarda (1884–1946). Her mother, meanwhile, was Luisa Gazelli dei Conti di Rossana e di Sebastiano (1896–1989), who claimed to be one of the descendants of the Marquis de Lafayette, celebrated as one of the heroes of the American Revolution. Her pedigree, therefore, was so impeccable that Paola can claim relations to some of Italy's oldest and most noble families: the Colonna, Orsini, Pallavicini, Alliata and Rospigliosi.

In 1958, Albert Felix, Prince of Liège and youngest child of King Leopold III, was in the Vatican to attend the coronation of Pope John XXIII. The prince then proceeded to a reception hosted by the Belgian embassy. There, he saw Paola and he immediately fell for her. Paola noted: "We were both shy, so we only talked a little." Albert was also shy but the Italian bella definitely took him by storm and she eventually proposed for marriage to her. Paola’s grace and beauty immediately made her a media favorite. Their engagement was announced at the Chateau of Laeken in 1959.

Paola on her wedding to the then-Prince of Liege. Image: Zimbio

The Royal Household wanted a grand wedding for the couple. What better way to do that than to hold it right at the Vatican where no less than the Pope would bless their marriage? No other than King Leopold III, his sister, Queen Marie-José of Italy, and Paola's brother, the Prince Ruffo, acted upon to get the Pope’s nod for the ceremony. But their plans were thwarted by the Belgian Government who would not hear of it. As heir presumptive to the throne of Belgium, Albert should be married on Belgian soil. And so plans were made, instead, for the wedding to be held in Belgium. The Pope understood the Belgian government’s concern.  Albert and Paola tied the knot in a lavish ceremony at St. Goedele Cathedral in Brussels on July 2, 1959.

Their marriage started out as a happy one and they were blessed by three children. Their first child, Philippe, was born in 1960, followed by Princess Astrid in 1962 and Prince Laurent just a year after. Paolas’ warmth and brimming smile endeared her to the people that the adoring Belgians called her “Sunshine Princess.” In fact, her beauty and popularity was such that Italian-Belgian singer Salvatore Adamo dedicated a song to her: "Dolce Paola."

Dolce Paola. Image via Pinterest

But it was not all easy for Paola at first. She became homesick and melancholic and had a hard time adjusting to her new life as a princess besotted both by the public and by the paparazzi. Her husband’s frequent absence due to his work and motor bikes did not assuage her feelings.  By the end of the 1960s, their marriage was in trouble. It was rumored that they were both involved in extramarital affairs and scandals. A divorce was impending and they temporarily lived separately. But things eventually turned out for the better and by the 1980s, the couple had reconciled thanks to their children and Albert’s older brother, King Baudouin, and his wife Queen Fabiola.

"We've had our problems, but now we both say that we were meant for each other. We are very happy now," she confessed in an interview on her 70th celebrations. Their golden jubilee as husband and wife was celebrated in 2009 not only with their family but also with the nation that never ceased to adore the hard-working couple.

Queen Paola with King Albert II in 2015. Image Zimbio

On July 31, 1993, King Baudouin died without a child. Albert succeeded to the throne and Paola became Queen of the Belgians. She had since then spent her time on promoting causes that are close to her heart, especially social projects aimed at improving the life of her subjects. She established the Queen Paola Foundation for youth and education that benefited those living in disadvantaged areas. She also actively involved herself in the promotion of art and music.

On July 21, 2013, Albert II abdicated due to health reasons. He was the fourth sovereign to abdicate in that after Pope Benedict XVI, Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, and Emir Hamad bin Khalifa of Qatar. Their eldest child, Philippe, succeeded as King. Nevertheless, Paola remains in the hearts and minds of the Belgians as that glamorous Italian bella who took their breath away.


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