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April 26, 2010

By Corinne Reilly
The Virginian-Pilot
© April 26, 2010

NORFOLK

The queen in the fancy dress is out. So are the princesses. And the exclusive, high-priced ball? Forget about it.

Even the old name - the International Azalea Festival - has changed. This year it's the Norfolk NATO Festival, and its organizers are refocusing the 58-year-old tradition on its original mandate: to celebrate the city's NATO command - the only one in North America - and welcome the military families it draws to Hampton Roads from around the globe.

But not everything will be different. The festival, which takes place this week, will still culminate downtown with a Saturday parade and an outdoor festival of international food, beer and entertainment. And it will still honor one of NATO's 28 member countries. This year it's France, in recognition of the command's current leader and the first non-American officer to hold the position, French Gen. Stéphane Abrial.

"A lot has changed in the 50-plus years since the festival started," said its executive director, Tristan Carter Warren. "It was just time for an update."

The International Azalea Festival, for decades an event run entirely by volunteers, began in 1951 to promote the city's botanical gardens to tourists. Two years later, when NATO established its first U.S. command here, organizers included the alliance. Festival queens from NATO nations were chosen each year - among them were the daughters of four presidents and of hockey star Wayne Gretzky - along with a court of princesses. Until last year, the week long event, funded by the city and corporate sponsors, included a high-priced evening ball.

"We understand that people feel nostalgic for the way we've traditionally done things, but given the state of the economy, it just didn't make sense anymore," Carter Warren said.

This year, instead of a queen, the event will recognize a "festival ambassador" - an active-duty service member from the honored nation. The 2010 ambassador, French Air Force Capt. Garaldine Ribereau, is scheduled to spend a week in Norfolk.

Thursday, the French ambassador to the United States, Pierre Vimont, will speak at a dinner organized by the Hampton Roads chapter of the World Affairs Council.

The Parade of Nations, which kicks off at 10 a.m. Saturday, will look a lot like previous years: costumes, marching bands, floats honoring each NATO country. The festival, at 11 a.m. at Town Point Park, will feature European food, wine and beer, plus 30 French street performers.

Corinne Reilly, (757) 446-2949, corinne.reilly@pilotonline.com

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