What makes a place romantic? Is it the view? The sunset? The flowers, the birds and bees, the canals, the medieval architecture? Or is it something deeper?
For my two cents, there's nothing more romantic than a great story -- whether it be history, legend, or pure fiction!
In that spirit, and in the spirit of Valentine's Day, here are 7 places around the world that have super romantic backstories. If you're looking for an unconventional getaway with that special person in your life -- somewhere other than Paris or Venice -- these destinations could be just what the doctor ordered. The love doctor, that is.
1. The Taj Mahal
You probably know the story, but it bears repeating. For there never was such a monument built to love lost as the Taj Mahal, nor shall there be again.
This impressive marble mausoleum in Agra, India was commissioned by the Mughal ruler Shah Jahan in 1632 and took nearly 20 years to complete fully. Although the Shah himself is buried here, it was originally conceived as an elaborate tomb for his much beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal, who had died in childbirth. Although the Taj Mahal is actually a massive complex of buildings, the most prominent, the one we all picture in our minds, is actually her tomb, flanked by four towering minarets.
Love can't be measured in gold, but if it could be we would have to conclude that Jahan loved Mumtaz more than any man has ever loved any woman. The cost of building the Taj Mahal in modern terms was about $850 million USD, a kingly sum indeed.
The Taj Mahal remains a wonder of the human world, an eternal testament to the excruciating ecstasy of the love that outlives its recipient.
2. Sweetheart Abbey, Scotland
'Sweetheart' is, to us, a cutesy or even faintly nauseating term of affection. But the 13th century woman who built this abbey took the words quite literally.
Sweetheart Abbey (or the Abbey of Dulce Cor as it was named by monks) was completed in 1275, commissioned by the noblewoman Dervorgilla for the sake of her late husband. Although in Dervorgilla's time marriage between aristocrats was primarily about politics, her love for her departed partner was such that she had his heart embalmed and kept it encased in silver until her own death, whereupon they buried her with it on the abbey grounds.
Today, Sweetheart Abbey is a ruin, though a deeply impressive one that still stands out in the verdant surrounding landscape.
The Huangshan Mountains are among China's most beautiful. Their trees, curious rock formations, hot springs, and legendary sunsets would be enough to make them a romantic destination, but it's a practice common among visiting couples that really earns a spot on this list.
As you trek up Mount Huangshan, you may notice many locks on the chains and railings that are there to protect visitors from falling over cliff edges. These were left by lovers who passed through the mountains. The tradition is to close the lock and then throw away the key -- therefore sealing your love for all time.
This practice supposedly derives from an old local legend. Once up a time, a poor boy fell in love with a gorgeous young woman, but her father forbade them to wed because of his low standing, and instead betrothed her to a wealthier man. On the day of the wedding, the poor boy and the woman eloped to Mt. Huangshan, where they threw themselves hand-in-hand over a cliff to their deaths, that they might remain together for eternity.
4. Llanddwyn, Wales
Another mythical forbidden love match lies at the heart of Dydd Santes Dwynwen (St. Dwynwen's Day), the Welsh equivalent of Valentine's Day.
According to legend, Dwynwen fell in love with a boy of whom her father disapproved. After praying to God to help her forget her feelings, an angel appeared and gave her a draught that erased her beloved's memory -- but also imprisoned him in a block of ice. (Hey, we don't make this stuff up.) Later on, God gave her three wishes à l'Aladdin, and she defrosted him. She also wished that true love would be respected in future and that she herself would never marry. Afterward, Dwynwen devoted her life to the service of God and built a small church on the isle of Llanddwyn.
This part of the story, at least, is true, since the remains of the church can still be seen today.
St. Dwynwen's Day is observed on January 25. Though not as popular as Valentine's Day, you should be able to find celebrations if you happen to be in Wales at this time.
5. Juliet's House
It has to be said that the Italian city of Verona (where William Shakespeare "laid his scene" in Romeo and Juliet) does everything in its power to milk the fact that it's the backdrop of one of the world's most famous love stories. In 1905, this tendency escalated to farcical levels when the municipality bought a house from a family called Capello and promptly declared that it was actually the home of the Capulets -- in other words, Juliet's house.
Of course, Juliet never lived anywhere except Shakespeare's imagination because she was a fictional character. But that hasn't prevented Juliet's "house" and balcony from becoming a place of pilgrimage for lovers seeking her advice. In the past, it was traditional to write letters to Juliet and stick them to the wall with gum, but the city of Verona has cracked down on the fad; doing so these days could land you with a hefty €500 fine. A fate more fearful than the passage of a death-marked love!
6. Saint Valentine's Relics
The relics of Saint Valentine can be found in Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Dublin, Ireland. Which is kind of strange, because he actually lived and died in Rome in the 3rd century A.D., or so we are led to believe.
Actually, despite the fact that his name is so closely associated with love, we know nothing reliable about Saint Valentine's life, let alone his romantic proclivities. Literally nothing. It's not even clear whether he was actually one specific person, or one of several men who shared the same name -- or whether Valentinus was a sort of blanket name for a number of Christian martyrs whose saintly deeds were forgotten by history.
Whoever he was, good old St. Val's association with romance seems to have been an invention of the medieval English writer Geoffrey Chaucer, perhaps in an attempt to Christianize the Roman festival of Lupercalia, which was also observed in mid-February.
7. Alley of the Kiss
To look at this narrow laneway in the Mexican city of Guanajuato, you would think it nothing special at all. But as I noted above, sometimes character is derived from more than mere appearance. There's a reason couples stop to kiss in this alleyway almost compulsively -- if you have time for one more sad, messed-up love story.
According to local mythology, the house on one side of this alley was once the abode of a wealthy family. The daughter became besotted with a poor boy from across town, who rented a room across the alleyway from her bedroom window. This allowed them to spend time together secretly, even to lean out of their windows and kiss one another. They carried on this way until the girl's father discovered the affair and stabbed his daughter to death in a fit of pique.
Today, couples often stop here to share a kiss in memory of these star-crossed lovers, and presumably in the hope that their loves will not be cut so tragically short.
Is there any truth to these stories? Some of them may be true, at least in part. Others seem... more doubtful. But every great love story is a vessel for a larger truth about our insatiable desire to care and be cared for by others, the simultaneous capacity for strength and vulnerability that characterizes humanity.
If there's any real meaning to Valentine's Day or its many variants, that's what I'd say it is.