Travel: A guide to the world's most erogenous zones

We all know the great love destinations. But does reality measure up to myth? By Gareth Lloyd
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The Independent Travel
WHILE PEOPLE have long gone to great lengths to consummate their love, they have also long gone to great places. At the top of most peoples "love place" lists would be destinations like Paris, the Taj Mahal and er, Gretna Green. But do they live up to the Valentine hype?

Paris

Paris is not only the capital of France, it is also the capital of love. When it comes to describing Paris, it is hard to escape the cliches. More dreamy-eyed, wistful words have been penned about this city than any other place on the globe.

What city experiences could be more seductive than sitting in the flower gardens of Notre-Dame beneath the drifting cherry blossom, reading Henry Miller or Anais Nin? Or perhaps strolling along the quays on a warm summer evening as dusk thickens and night falls? Or even exploring the ancient lanes and cobbled alleyways of Montmartre? Paris seems to have little problem living up to its postcard images and literary myths - at least in springtime.

In high summer, though, it can be choking. Exhaust fumes become trapped in the city's geographical bowl creating a murky pollution potage. Last year the problem got so bad that the government had to declare the city a disaster area. It banned cars from the centre of the city, and waived the usual charges for public transport. Not very romantic.

The Taj Mahal

Built in the 17th century, India's Taj Mahal is the world's most enduring monument to love. It is said that on her deathbed Mumtaz Mahal asked her husband, the emperor Shah Jahan, to show the world how much they had loved one another.

It is also said that as soon as she died, his hair turned grey over-night, he spurned the business of running an empire and resolved to build his wife the most magnificent memorial on earth.

The Taj took a workforce of 20,000 a total of 22 years to build. The marble was quarried in Makrana, some 300 km away, and transported by a fleet of 1,000 elephants.

Precious stones and other materials for the building's inlay came from far and wide. For example, there was red carnelian from Bhagdad, jade and crystal from China, lapis lazuli from Afghanistan and Ceylon, turquoise from Tibet, gold from Egypt, dark green malachite from Russia and mother of pearl from the Indian Ocean. The result is subtlety blended with grandeur on a massive scale.

To see the Taj bathed in the soft light of a full moon it is easy to forget that it is crumbling and fading under the unwanted attention from pollutants generated by the surrounding modern industrial city of Agra.

But it still has something over the 20th century's greatest contribution to "love", namely Las Vegas. The USA's romantic capital has become the ultimate destination for a quickie marriage - or a quickie divorce.

Gretna Green

Up until 1940, thousands of runaway couples dashed northwards to Scotland where a marriage declaration made before any two witnesses was considered legal. Most fugitives journeyed up the main turnpike road to Edinburgh and halted just over the border in the first village they came to, which happened to be Gretna Green.

The most famous village "priest" was Joseph Paisley, a 25-stone blacksmith who was in business from 1754 to 1812. He added a little pomp to the wedding ceremony by straightening out a horseshoe with his bare hands; an act that was more a show of strength than anything to do with symbolism. But it was Paisley's performances that led to rumours of Gretna Green weddings being performed over a blacksmith's anvil.

Today, lovers still flock to Gretna Green in an attempt to add a little extra romance and magic to their vows, though what they find may not live up to everyone's dream.

The Old Blacksmiths Shop, just next to the tourist office, has become a tacky place, stuffed with souvenirs and a handful of marital momentoes.

Couples can still tie the knot over the anvil but these days the ceremony is more akin to a Vegas-style ceremony than an old fashioned fly-by-night romance.

The Broader Picture, Sunday Review, p36.

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