World’s most romantic cities: But are they sexy?

Anita Ekberg wading through the Trevi Fountain in La Dolce Vita.There are a few candidates for “Saint Valentine” and no really compelling argument for why we celebrate him on February 14, but this morning we are waking up to another Valentine’s Day and some of us have expectations of red roses, chocolate boxes, frilly knickers or any other of the suggested tokens of passion the Valentine’s Day industry promotes.

I’m sorry for sounding cynical but I’m in favour of more spontaneous expressions of love and affection. I don’t see what’s romantic about going out to dinner on a night when every other couple does, or eating chocolates out of a heart-shaped box when a rectangular one will do. I’d be way more impressed if I were given a book of Pablo Neruda poetry, but the supermarkets don’t seem to sell those.

Anyway, the time-worn, universal clichés of love and romance set me thinking about those inevitable Valentine’s Day lists of cities named the world’s “most romantic” and whether they live up to their reputations. What makes a city romantic? Do we agree on some of them?

The top ten often goes like this: Venice, Paris, Prague, Florence, Rome, Vienna, Seville, Barcelona, Buenos Aires, Marrakesh. Other cities considered world-class romantic include Amsterdam, Lisbon, Kyoto, Bruges, Monte Carlo, Savannah, Sydney, Verona. I don’t think any list like this is complete without Istanbul and Budapest.

It’s all a matter of what you think is romantic – the chocolate box idea of it, or the wild, windswept Wuthering Heights view.

The Oxford English Dictionary has many definitions of the word “romance”, including this:  “a quality or feeling of mystery, excitement and remoteness from everyday life.” In other words, the atmospherics of a city like Venice make it romantic whether you’re with the love of your life in gondola gridlock under the Bridge of Sighs, or wandering its canals alone.

I find Venice, Paris and Prague melancholy. There’s a sadness and weariness under the beauty that makes them romantic, especially in the misty, moody greyness of their winters. You see, I’m a Wuthering Heights kind of gal.

Whenever I stroll through Paris’s Palais-Royale I feel the ghosts of the past walking with me. Yes, it’s completely fanciful of me, but the city’s turbulent history and its present always seem intertwined. It’s been the city of love since medieval courtly times, when “romance” as an ideal flourished.  But its reputation has literally weighed it down – modern-day “love locks”, affixed to its bridges by lovers, are threatening to collapse some of the structures into the Seine.

Then there are the cities like Barcelona that are romantic in a sexy rather than moody way, because of a liberal, youthful spirit. Sydney might be considered one of these, especially on warm summer nights at the Opera Bar by the harbour.

Buenos Aires is undoubtedly sexy. It’s snake-hipped tango dancers and the music of Carlos Gardel and the poetry of Jorge Luis Borges – and quite a few raffish bars with some very raffish patrons.

Rome is magnificent but it’s also sexy. For me, it’s Anita Ekberg (RIP) wading through the Trevi Fountain; Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck on a Vespa. (The Trevi Fountain may be a disappointing boarded-up trickle these days but it’s still a place to hang if you have a thing for American backpackers in shorts eating gelati.)

Marrakesh is erotic – the fragrance of incense, the labyrinthine souk in the medina populated by mysterious men robed in hoods, the inherent sensuality of its culture.  So is Seville, with its iron balconies, orange trees and passion of the bullfight. (Not so romantic for the bulls, however.)

I suppose Monte Carlo can attribute its romantic reputation to Princess Grace Kelly, although it seems romance was really far from the truth. And I’ve never found Vienna, lovely as it is, sexy or romantic. I can’t help associating it with Andre Rieu conducting Strauss waltzes, even though he’s Dutch, not Viennese – but I concede some may find this a definite turn-on.

I suppose there’s a parallel Not Sexy city list, which might include cities like Johannesburg, Toronto, and Seoul. I’ve never heard anyone call them romantic. But I imagine, if the stars aligned, you could have a lovely romance in Toronto.

I’m not as much a cynic as I make out – I admit to once strolling down the Champs Élysées singing Maurice Chevalier songs. But, like most things, what is romantic is a matter of taste.

Wishing you red roses and chocolates anyway.

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