ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – They met here. They fell in love here. And when Prince William and Kate Middleton made a sentimental return to their college town, they were once again embraced by the locals who had fiercely defended their privacy.
Thousands lined the cobblestoned streets of St. Andrews in Scotland on Friday, in hope of catching a glimpse of the royal couple. Well-wishers of all ages and nationalities stood six deep in some spots, stretching out flowers and hands — hoping that a bit of the royal stardust would rub off.
Mhari Cowan, 19, a Scottish student from Troon who spoke to Middleton, beamed after her royal encounter.
"I just spoke to Kate Middleton!" she said. "She shook my hand and I asked her if William would like to wear a kilt to the wedding. She said she didn't think so."
The couple, who will wed April 29 at London's Westminster Abbey, traveled to St. Andrews to help their alma mater kick off a two-year celebration of its 600th anniversary. It was only their third public appearance since announcing their engagement in November.
The two met in St. Andrews as students. They were initially just friends, but an on-again, off-again romance bloomed on campus, developing into the full blown love affair that has captivated a nation.
Prince William called the visit a "special moment" for the couple as he addressed a reception in the university quadrangle as Middleton looked on from her seat on the stage. Middleton, who wore a red suit with black accents, smiled and pushed windswept hair off her face as she gazed at her fiance.
"It was almost as nerve-racking as doing my graduation up there again," he told reporters afterward.
The couple took time to mingle with the crowds, greeting and chatting with locals and students. At one point William moved ahead of Middleton, and she looked a little uncomfortable as she found herself shaking hands all alone.
"Where's William?" she asked, looking over her shoulder.
It was just a flicker of nervousness, though — once she spotted him, she resumed chatting.
Professor Louise Richardson, principal of the university, said it is not surprising the couple found love in this sleepy seaside town 70 miles (110 kilometers) north of Edinburgh on the eastern coast of Scotland. The college has 7,500 students.
"There is something magical about St. Andrews," she said. "We are said to have the highest number of students who find life partners at a university. So, it is no surprise they got together. It is unique here as we are global, but local and small enough to be intimate."
In what is believed to be the couple's first official wedding gift, Richardson said the university is bestowing a scholarship for underprivileged students worth 70,000 pounds ($113,000).
"This scholarship captures the essence of what we do here at St. Andrews," said Richardson. "It's open to anyone around the world who is smart enough to be admitted here but otherwise may struggle to cover the costs."
The couple also viewed the Papal Bull, or decree, issued by Pope Benedict XIII to found the university.
Pubs, shops and cafes in St. Andrews all embraced the royal couple as their own. The North Point Cafe on North Street lays claim to being the spot where the couple met and romance blossomed. It also sports a life-sized cardboard cutout of the couple in the window.
Owner Linda Cunningham, 39, sat at the table where Wills and Kate forged their romance — over cups of Chai Tea and chocolate brownies for him, Earl Grey tea and a healthy muesli and yogurt brunch for her. The table is in the middle of the cafe, suggesting how at ease they were with their surroundings.
"This is where they met," Cunningham said. "They would come in with friends or just together at this table. They were friendly and expected no special treatment. They were part of the scene here just like any other students."
At the Bonkers gift store in Market Street, staff said Prince William bought Valentine's Day cards there.
"Wills did buy a Valentine's card here one year, either in 2003 or 2004," said manager Ruth Wood. "We assumed, we hoped, it was for Kate. They were regulars here, often buying each other knickknacks and little gifts. It was sweet. We are delighted to be a small part of their romance."
As much as the town embraced the couple, it was clear they loved it back.
"You lucky things to be there all the time," Middleton told her well-wishers. "I really miss it actually."
Ben McConville contributed to this story.