PHILADELPHIA – Prince Charles and his wife Camilla shook hands with well-wishers outside Independence Hall Saturday to kick off their first trip to the city where Americans declared their independence from British rule.
The Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall greeted long lines of gushing fans, mingling with them, accepting flowers and charming many in the crowd. The royal couple are on a two-day visit to the United States that focuses on youth development, urban renewal and environmental stewardship.
"She actually offered her hand to me," said Debbie Lefevre, 49, who gave the duchess flowers. "I was shocked."
Prince Charles and Camilla met with the mayor, governor and other officials, then toured west Philadelphia, an area of some of the city's poorer and more violent neighborhoods.
As a park service ranger talked about the Liberty Bell, Camilla reached out and touched it, running her finger along the bell's storied crack.
Camilla wore a periwinkle dress and a brown tweed overcoat and a broach, along with pearls and pearl drop earrings. Prince Charles sported a navy suit with a red, blue and gold striped tie, and a dark overcoat.
After Independence Hall, the couple attended a reception with community leaders at the National Constitution Center.
"I'm enormously proud to be walking in my great-great-grandfather's footsteps," Prince Charles said, referring to the 1860 visit to Philadelphia by the future King Edward VII.
His ancestor, at age 18, was seated in the same box at the Academy of Music that Charles and Camilla sat in during the academy's 150th anniversary concert Saturday night. The duchess wore a wine-red velvet gown to the white-tie event, which featured classical music, opera selections, pop songs by Rod Stewart and a medley of show tunes by actor John Lithgow.
The prince also noted his parents' 1976 bicentennial visit to Philadelphia, and said he will remember the city for its "famously warm hospitality and famously cold weather."
Gov. Ed Rendell congratulated Prince Charles on his fundraising, praising him for overseeing 17 foundations that raised 200 million British pounds per year. The prince thanked him but said the praise was overly generous, saying the figure was actually for U.S. dollars, not pounds.
"I'm not sure what the exchange rate was this morning," Prince Charles said.
Among those who line up to glimpse the visiting royals outside Independence Hall was Sharon Thaler, 52, of Philadelphia, said she had waited hours. When she met the prince, she said, he was quite surprised at how long she had been waiting in the cold.
"In that case, I hope you have a stiff drink waiting at the end of the day," she said he told her.
Later in the day, the couple also stopped at International House, a nonprofit organization housing nearly 400 students, scholars and interns from more than 65 nations. The duchess had tea with a few young women.
"She seemed genuinely interested in what we had to say," said Victoria Frings, 21, who attends the University of Pennsylvania.
On Sunday, the prince and duchess plan to attend services at Arch Street Presbyterian Church, spiritual home of the Welsh community in Philadelphia.
They are then scheduled to take a private train about 90 miles to New York City, where they plan to visit a social services agency in Harlem and Prince Charles is to receive an award from Harvard Medical School's Center for Health and the Global Environment.
The prince and duchess last came to the United States in November 2005, when they visited the site of the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and saw the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.