Valentine's Day is nearly here, and has a special place in the heart of Italy. John Bensalhia matchmakes the history and traditions of Valentine's Day in Italy with some of its most attractive destinations.
With Valentine's Day looming, hearts are set to flutter across the globe. This year's February will see not only the customary romantic meals, holidays and gifts, but also the age-old tradition of the girls proposing to the boys because 2012 is a Leap Year.
So love is in the air once again, and as with the rest of the world, Italians will be preparing for February 14th. Italy is regarded as one of THE quintessential romantic countries – whether it's for the charming sights, beaches or food. And quite right too - given the origins of St Valentine's Day.
There has been some speculation as to the identity of St Valentine himself. Over the years, two possible St Valentines have been identified, both of whom were Christian martyrs. The first, Valentine of Rome, was a Roman priest who was martyred around the date of 269 AD. The second, Valentine of Terni, was Bishop of Interamna, who was martyred during the persecution under the rule of Emperor Aurelian.
What's interesting is that initially, neither Valentine was particularly linked with traditional romantic love. There is no allusion to this notion in Legendea Aurea (a collection of hagiographies by Jacobus de Voraigne) for example. So it has been suggested that since then, Valentine was depicted as a priest who refused Roman Emperor Claudius II's law that allegedly commanded that young men must stay single (in order to build his army without any notable distractions for the soldiers). Valentine, contrary to this, performed clandestine marriages between young men and women – when these secret marriages were discovered, Valentine was arrested.
Valentine's Day itself has had a similar history. The day was said to have been established in 496 AD by Pope Gelasius I, but again, historical records suggest that the day was not connected with the celebration of romantic love. The first record of Valentine's Day came in Geoffrey Chaucer's 1382 Parlement Of Foules (“For this was Saint Valentine's Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate”). Following this, Valentine's Day became linked with romance during the Middle Ages (when courtly love traditions were the order of the day).
Valentine's Day today, in one sense, does forget the traditions of good, old-fashioned courtly love with a greater emphasis on commercialism. Get the biggest cards, splash out on expensive love tokens and buy the most expensive jewellery that money can buy. Italy, however, goes right back to the roots of romantic love, offering not only the most idyllic sights, walks and tastes, but also traditions. The St Valentine's Festival, for example, takes place. Terni celebrates St Valentine's Day with a large feast around the Basilica di San Valentino (where St Valentine's remains are interred). There are other fun elements that take place during this celebration, such as a special award (Year Of Loving) and a competition to make the finest jewellery.
Another notable Italian tradition is that of Bacio Perugina, a small chocolate that not only contains a hazelnut, but a small piece of paper featuring a message of love. Ever since the 1930s, Bacio (Kiss) Perugina combined this dark chocolate and hazelnut praline with a love note or scroll that would relay a message of affection to the loved one. The idea was created by Federico Seneca as part of the company's efforts to establish Baci as a romantic present. The idea took off, spreading worldwide by 1939. As the concept expanded, so too, did the offering, which in addition to messages of love, now also included quotations from classical authors, artists and philosophers.
For those looking for the ultimate romantic Italian experience, then there is no end of choice with plenty of great views and sights to cherish. Here are some of the best examples.
RIDE THE GONDOLA IN VENICE
You see this sort of thing all the time in romantic films and TV programmes as a loved-up couple huddles up in a gondola. Admittedly, this Venetian experience doesn't come with a particularly cheap price tag (prices can vary, although they are in the region of around €80 for three quarters of an hour). Also make sure that you decide on a time at which it won't be too busy (the popularity of couples taking the gondola can lead to congestion), although if you're travelling at night, then wrap up warm. Elsewhere in Venice, you can see some truly spectacular sunsets, whether it's from the Academia Bridge or from the lagoon shore at the Giardini Pubblici. The sunsets are breathtaking to behold, particularly when seen from the park at Sant'Elena as the sky turns a beautiful pink.
VISIT THE BLUE GROTTO IN CAPRI
The Blue Grotto is one of the big attractions of the picturesque island of Capri. It is a cave that takes its name from the way in which the sunlight refracts on the water inside. The blue light inside makes for a memorable trip, which can be accessed by boat – although only a few boats can enter at a time, owing to the small size of the grotto. The interior of the Blue Grotto maekes for a uniquely romantic sight.
Another notable aspect of the island is that of Faraglioni (rock formations). You can visit the Faraglioni beach which boasts a number of unusual rock formations in the sea around the island (including a ditinctive natural arch).
SURROUND YOURSELF IN HISTORY AT LAKE COMO
For those who want to immerse themselves in both romance and history, then Lake Como is a good destination. It's been dubbed the most beautiful lake in Italy, and furthermore, the surrounding villages and towns offer a wealth of history. From the medieval style designs and villas of Como Town to the boat stop of Varenna, this is an area packed full of Italian history and culture. The Roman-style red and yellow terracotta houses and geometric designs are the perfect backdrop to any romantic break, and for those who want to travel further by water, fast boat rides will take you to Dongo or Gravedona.
WHEREFORE ART THOU VERONA?
For a literary Valentine's experience, a visit to Verona should be at the top of your list. Verona is the setting for one of William Shakespeare's most infamous plays Romeo And Juliet (one of his earlier comedies was also called The Two Gentlemen Of Verona). It has also been made popular again with the recent romantic comedy film called Letters To Juliet.
One of the most visited areas is the balcony which is reported to be Juliet's balcony in Romeo And Juliet. What is reported to be Juliet's house is located in a courtyard off Via Capello (Romeo's family house can be found on Via Arche Scaligere). Visitors can see both the balcony and a bronze statue of Juliet for free. Juliet's house itself is a masterpiece of Gothic architecture, and again, is a fine example of great Italian history.