As with every other significant calendar event in the past 12 months, it feels like Valentine’s Day is very much due to pass us by this year. Great news for the singles among us. But if your relationship has survived lockdown, you definitely deserve to celebrate.
Despite the celebration's more recent capitalist critique, the backstory to Valentine’s Day is actually very sweet. We’re all familiar, so in brief the legend goes: Emperor Claudius of 3rd Century Rome decided unmarried men were better soldiers than those with wives and families. He outlaws marriage for men below a certain age, Saint Valentine defies the order and continues performing wedding ceremonies for couples in love. As such disregard of authority was usually dealt with in the Roman Empire, Saint Valentine is put to death on February 14th.
In recent years, we’ve seen consumers and brands alike become more woke to the actual wants and needs of those keen to express their love. Increasingly, the demand is for experiences and alone time with your person (or people). The notion has become especially poignant after a year of being separated by restrictions, or - at the complete opposite end of the spectrum - couples shacked up together for endless periods of time, alternating the daily walk schedule so you get at least 30 minutes of peace. Honestly, if your relationship has survived COVID, you deserve to treat yourselves this Valentine’s.
Whether you had hoped to get away for Valentine’s, and whether you’re single or in a relationship, recreating your favourite European cities at home could be one way to celebrate this weekend. Here’s our how-to guide.
Of course we had to start with the most romantic city in the world. It’s Valentine’s, we can be clichéd. The thing with Paris is, it can’t just be a one night thing. So if this is the city you’re setting your heart on, prepare for a weekend-long affair.
Here’s how you do a weekend in Paris
Start slowly on the Saturday morning, it’s a black coffee and white bed linen kind of day. Throw open a window or door, mug between palms, no shoes ideally, and take a moment to absorb the light. Ultraviolet still counts if it’s cloudy. If you’re feeling especially method in your act, you could always utter a wistful ‘mais oui!’
Take to - ideally a chaiselong, but a sofa or standard chair will do. Flick through Vogue or any coffee table reading material you have to hand. Tune your radio to France Inter if you feel so inclined, but this should be on a low volume. Maybe light a scented candle.
Once you’ve reached your caffeine limit for the day (this should be no earlier than 11am), it’s time to breakfast. Your look for the marché should be crumpled but cool, ‘I woke up like this’ in the most sophisticated way. Jeans, a white tee, a canvas tote.
Of course, it is February and we’re in the middle of a snowstorm across the continent, so if you need to accessorise with a high-tog duck feather ski jacket please do so.
Enter your local marché with an air of disorientation. You don’t necessarily know what you’re here for, but you will know when you see it. The bakery is a good place to start: baguette, pastries, confiture. Fresh fruit and vegetables is always a must; deliberate over their quality, their place of origin.
Dinner is going to be ratatouille and rare cooked steak, a scientifically proven aphrodisiac, so make sure you engage the meat counter operator in a lengthy conversation about the best cut. How long should it rest for? How long to cook? Which wine? Explain this is a dinner for you and your loved one. Say it in French if you know how. If you’re doing Valentine’s solo: c’est la vie, love yourself first and have it twice.
Return to chez-toi at your leisure. If your partner awaits you at home and has an issue with the bill, best just to laugh it off and kiss them on both cheeks.
Breakfast should be served after midday. Bread, croissants, jams and freshly-squeezed orange juice if you have the strength. Otherwise Tropicana is available basically everywhere.
The afternoon should be leisurely to the point that you might fall asleep. Pick up a second-hand Sartre and read, curled under a lightweight blanket (again if a duvet is more practical given the weather, we aren’t here to judge). If you own a cat it would be a good addition at this point.
Pass an hour or so, and then proclaim that it’s time for some culture. In a normal Parisian world, this might mean hopping on the Metro and perusing the Louvre, or the Musée d’Orsay. Now, it means taking to your laptop and viewing the virtual alternatives.
There are lots of online experiences now available in Paris - if you know where to look.
Marvel at the sumptuous Palais Garnier, explore Montmatre and the Eiffel Tower among other landmarks. If you really want to feel like you’re meandering the streets themselves, get some bread baking in the oven and fry off some garlic. Spotify almost certainly has a playlist dedicated to the accordion. As you explore, treat yourself to an aperitif. If Emily in Paris taught us anything it’s that Sancerre is a breakfast wine.
As evening rolls in - which is still around 5/6pm thanks to this everlasting winter on the continent - you must prepare for your dinner. Ladies: a black slip, black heels, mascara (smudged) and red lipstick. Gents: jeans and a crisp white shirt.
Whoever gets ready first is in charge of preparing a plate of cold meats, cheese and olives, and decanting the red (ideally Bordeaux) to accompany dinner. In the meantime, Kir is a blend of white wine and sirop which serves as a popular pre.
By now, you should be playing soft jazz with a fire hazard-worthy number of unscented candles slowly burning. If you have a balcony or garden - take the aperitifs outside while temperatures remain above zero. Talk with your lover about everything you’ve seen and felt today. Disagree over art and history and raise your voice if needed. Mention you’re reading Sartre to gain an intellectual advantage.
With very little going on, finding interesting discourse can be a struggle right now, even with your nearest and dearest. Classic French films might help to pass the evening, Amélie, Les Intouchables, The Artist. If you’re looking for films to transport you to Paris, Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris will hit you right in the feels, Moulin Rouge and Audrey Hepburn’s Funny Face.
Paris is a weekend affair because the next morning is just as important as the night before. If you’re wearing eye makeup, leave it on. Your Sunday morning trip to the marché should speak for itself.
Spend the day in a sulky haze. Maybe go for a walk around the park but insist this is alone. Then come back and lament the fact that Valentine’s is nearly over and it’s work again tomorrow. True Parisians aren’t known for their binge lifestyle, but if now’s the time to eat as much leftover baguette as you can physically consume, be our guest.
Romance in Rome is a single night. It can actually be condensed into a single meal thanks to the rich, heady food, good wine and furious Italian passion. Just one conversation might leave you in love: and those are the vibes we’re channelling this Valentine’s.
Here’s how to do a night in Rome
With this Valentine’s Day falling on a Sunday, your Rome-themed night should probably be on the Saturday too. You could invest in a siesta in the afternoon so you’re ready.
The first port of call has to be fashion. Italy is the European catwalk capital, and since we’ve all been living in tracksuits for 12 months, it’s time to glam up.
Ladies: go for the tailored, fitted, colourful, glitzy vibe. Cork wedges. Gents: it has to be a suit, which may seem like an uncomfortable prospect, but those joggers definitely were not designed for 24/7 use and yes, that is a hole. If you happen to own an Italian watch, even better. But please ensure you are not fully dressed for dinner until, at the earliest, 9.30pm.
Once dressed, it’s time to decide on what you’re eating. Do this over a couple of Aperol Spritz with ice. Food is a way to show love in many cultures, and while pizza and pasta from scratch are relatively accessible, would you catch an Italian risking their couture for home-cooked cuisine? Unlikely.
When there’s so much authentic Italian food readily available on order, it seems like your time could be better spent. Admittedly, this is a country where - in normal circumstances - public transport is more often than not late or non-existent. So though time is rarely of the essence, please think of the flour and clothes combo.
Top tip: if you find yourself at a crossroads here, with one half of the party keen to cook, let them. An evening in Rome wouldn’t be complete without a stand-off over sub-par pasta. And most places serve ‘til late, so after a heated argument to really tap into that Italian passion, make up with your favourite local pizzeria.
While you wait for your food to be delivered, it is essential that you do not remove your hands from one another. Lovers in Italy are rarely physically separated. You could pass the time by listening to some Pavarotti, or learning a tarantella.
This evening takes some pre-planning. For the non-drinkers, Italy does soft drinks like nowhere else. The San Pellegrino fruit range includes anciata rosa (blood orange) and limonata (do we need to translate this?) which are both a delightful alternative.
If it’s an Italian wine you’re after, Sangiovese is a good traditional option for red, Pinot Grigio for white. Either goes with pizza and pasta. If you’re feeling peckish before the carb-coma, olives, fresh tomato and mozzarella are a staple.
Eat first, explore later. Once you’ve had your fill of food, it’s the perfect time to consume a bit of culture. In Rome, there’s something beautiful to see on every street corner. Virtual tours mean you still can, though we can’t guarantee the nighttime backdrop which lends the real life explorer a quiet, lit-up opportunity to stroll the cobbled streets and ancient history that makes up this beautiful city.
Make the night last until the small hours. If this requires coffee, it absolutely must not contain milk or cream. Only black coffee here after 2pm, as historically by then any animal produce would have gone off in the afternoon heat. Film-wise, Roman Holiday, Eat, Pray, Love and Nights of Cabiria are some romantic go-tos.
If Paris is a weekend and Rome is a night, Bruges is an indulgent afternoon of beer, chocolate-coated waffles and moules frites.
How to do an afternoon in Bruges
Calling all the foodies in love: Bruges is your spirit location. For those seeing in Valentine’s Day alone, this is your best bet on the comfort scale. It’s not even traditionally thought of as a ‘romantic’ city, but if food and drink are the real MVPs in your life, look no further.
First thing’s first: recreating the café culture. Start your day with a coffee somewhere within COVID-restrictions that resembles Bruges’ iconic squares. Or level up and get ahead of the game by making it a hot chocolate. If there’s somewhere nearby that does waffles, or if you have a waffle maker of your own: never too early. Pile this with cream and chocolate, a la Belgians.
This day is all about getting cosy. Bruges offers some warmer climates in the summer, but its northern European location means the winter takes a definite chill. Return home and tuck in.
Depending on your beer preference and whether you can face a cheeky drink earlier on in the day, crack one open - Leffe is a Belgian beer widely available - and watch one of the most famous films from the city: In Bruges. Although it’s principally a harrowing watch about a hunted assassin, its humour and really beautiful shots of the city will make you feel like you’re there, without Ralph Fiennes on your tail.
Using the film as inspiration - because Bruges isn’t big and it does showcase the majority of the city - venture into the world of the online (preferably with another beer in-hand) to see the city virtually. Also worth just searching ‘Bruges’ on the Instagram locations tab and living vicariously through others.
Bruges’ most famous dish is actually one of the easiest to cook up at home. Moules frites is exactly what it says on the tin (though if there is a tinned option available, we wouldn’t recommend). Mussels, a pan of hot water and a bag of French fries. Voila.
Of course, what Belgium is timelessly famous for is its chocolate. This is sold in most retailers in most countries - the difference might be a few euros for quality. Though Hygge is a cultural right of Denmark, nothing says Bruges like cracking open a cold one, and settling in with a block of chocolate and your comfies.