From a bistro in Paris to a kayak in West Cork, Pól Ó Conghaile reveals his top romantic places, as Valentine’s Day approaches
I ORDERED a passion fruit sorbet. The waiter replied with a punchline. In retrospect, everything about the meal had been leading up to this. The room was buzzing. Regular customers were bustling in out of the October chill. The place was jam-packed, but despite not having a booking, they managed to squeeze us in.
We were in Paris, in a little Left Bank Bistro called Brasserie Balzar. The food had a visceral, unapologetic feel to it — chewy snails, crusty bread, onion soup with warm, seductive stock that tasted like it had been brewed for days. The wine was deep and heady. The waiters moved brusquely but with balletic grace, ferrying dishes back and forth.
And then we ordered dessert: chocolate something-or-other for her; passion fruit sorbet for me. The waiter’s eye twinkled, and he took his cue.
“I’ll bring the sorbet,” he said. “But the passion comes courtesy of mademoiselle.”
Cheesy, I know. But cheese — like everything — is all about context. We were in Paris. We were in our twenties. We had hardly any money (our splash on Rue des Ecoles was the only vaguely fancy meal we could afford). Oh yes — and mademoiselle is now my wife.
And yet, despite all of this — despite travel itself being inherently romantic — I find romantic places hard to recommend. That’s because there are as many ideas out there about romantic places as there are people capable of travelling to them.
One person’s perfect curve of Caribbean sand, for example, is another’s boring beach. One traveller’s stolen moment in a Paris bistro is countered by another’s experience of the city as a repository of exorbitant hotel rates, rude waiters and over-crowded galleries.
Paris does passion (if you want romance, try looking at the cityscape through one of the giant clocks on the fifth floor of the Musée d’Orsay). But it also has its ugly, couldn’t-give-a-monkey’s side. So does Venice — where the people in restaurants or gondolas often seem more interested in wooing your wallet than you.
I find smaller cities like Sienna or Seville (left) more romantic. There’s something wildly beautiful about Reykjavik too — a tiny city, like an Arctic Galway, only one where you can look up and see the Northern Lights. One moment, the Icelandic capital feels like a whaling outpost. The next, it’s a cool, clued-in and ultra-cosmopolitan cultural hub.
Romantic places don’t have to be manmade, of course. There are drop-dead gorgeous boltholes like the Ionian Islands, vistas like the Disney-esque castle at Neuschwanstein in the Bavarian Alps; natural wonders like Vietnam’s Halong Bay, or Uluru at sunset. In Ireland, Coumshingaun, Gougane Barra and Glenveagh National Park spring to mind.
But are these landscapes romantic, or simply stirring and beautiful? I guess it depends who you’re with, and what frame of mind you’re in.
Sometimes, romance strikes a traveller when they least expect it. I was walking around Carrick-on-Shannon not so long ago when I stumbled across the souvenir-sized Costello Chapel. Inside, under thick layers of glass, two decaying coffins lay beneath my feet. They took up fully two thirds of the floor space.
The chapel was built in 1877 by local merchant Edward Costello, I learned, after the premature death of his wife, Mary. It’s like a tiny Taj Mahal (itself built by a Mughal emperor as a monument to his wife), with both partners interred side by side, under a single stained-glass window: a completely unexpected monument to love.
Then there are the world’s big and famous monuments to love. Queen Victoria’s memorial to Prince Albert in Hyde Park springs to mind, or Boldt Castle in New York State — a 120 room extravagance built by George C Boldt for his wife Louise on a heart-shaped island. When Louise died, a devastated George refused to complete the building.
In Lima, Peru, there’s a famous piece of public art called The Kiss, which portrays the sculptor Victor Delfin lustily embracing his wife. Apparently it was the inspiration behind a competition in the city, where couples would compete to kiss for longest.
Juliet’s house in Verona is another pilgrimage site for young lovers. People write letters to Juliet, the heroine “who doth teach the torches to burn bright”, and a dedicated bunch of volunteers from the Club di Giulietta (Juliet Club) reply.
The house itself has no proven link to Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, however. Mischievously, one guidebook even suggests it was formerly a brothel.
Iconic as these places are, however, I prefer the smaller moments, the under-the-radar romantic associations. Think of the fading sign for Finn’s Hotel on the gable end of Dublin’s Lincoln Place. How many people have passed by without knowing one of the reasons for its survival: that this was where James Joyce first laid eyes on Nora Barnacle?
I love the stories of proposals in the stained glass room at the Hugh Lane Gallery. The fleeting drifts of snowdrops coinciding with Valentine’s Day at Altamont Garden in Co Carlow. The signal suite, made from an old railway building at the Station House in Co Meath.
I love the fact that you come across caves where Diarmuid and Gráinne were supposed to have spent the night all over Ireland: from Crag Cave in Co Kerry to the Gleniff Horseshoe in Sligo. Lord knows if there’s any truth behind them, but they do add a certain something.
But whatever about lovers’ caves, sexy sunsets and eternal cities, one of my most romantic travel moments in Ireland came in complete darkness.
And no, it wasn’t in a funky suite. It was in Castlehaven Bay, in West Cork. Paddling out at dusk with a group from Atlantic Sea Kayaking, phosphorescent plankton began to pop and fizz and sparkle beneath us. Stars speckled the sky above. Paris and passion fruit sorbets couldn’t have been further from my mind, but the feeling was the same.
If any couples had been present, I think a few canoes would have capsized.
FOUR SWEETHEART DEALS
Cobbled streets, a nearby coastline and the atmospheric Bairro Alto make the Portuguese capital an amorous alternative to Paris. Ebookers.ie has flights plus three nights at the three-star Avenida Park Hotel from €276pp departing Sunday Feb 10.
PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC
Clickkandgo.com has flights with three nights at the four-star Kampa hotel in the Czech capital from €289pp, departing Feb 12. The hotel is right in the historical city centre, close to Charles Bridge. Upgrade to five-star for €369pp.
Take in the brand new View from the Shard, Western Europe’s tallest building, with this two-night break to London. Lastminute.com has flights plus the four-star Hilton London Metropole from €235pp, based on travel from Feb 15-17.
LAS VEGAS, USA
You can always bet on a good time at Sin City – once you don’t take the Strip too seriously. Touramerica.ie has flights plus four nights at the Las Vegas Hilton from €599pp, based on two people sharing and a departure date of Feb 13.
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