(144/366) Grasse, the Best Smelling City in France!

May 23, 2012 – Remember how I said that plans are made to be changed? Today we had thought we would go to either Antibes early to hang out at the market, or into Nice. But when we were trying to find out what a strange pyramid shaped building out near Cannes was, we mistakenly thought it was a town called Grasse. The mistake stemmed from the train station map and we had assumed that all the trains went out to the port cities in this area. When I was trying to find information on the pyramid, I discovered that Grasse was actually inland, and that it is the perfume capital of the world. It also was said to house a beautiful cathedral and a wonderful Old Town that winds around like a maze.


So following breakfast we walked into town to the train station. I asked for two tickets to Grasse and the ticket agent gave us our ticket, pointed to the door, and said “Go!” as our train pulled up to the station. No hesitating this time! On we jumped. The train came in at Cannes and we had thought that we might stop there again on the way home, but when we saw the crowds, we changed our minds. The train left the coast after Cannes and headed inland, through forested slopes and beautiful gardens. Eventually we could see a city perched on the edge of the hills and our train slowed and stopped at the last station on the line. The electric high speed train only arrived here in 2005.

We disembarked and picked up a semi-useless map, all in French, with teeny-tiny lettering, and a serious lack of detail. It didn’t even depict where the train station was, so we didn’t really know where to go. But up looked promising! Particularly since everything seemed to be up. Everyone else (all twelve people on the train – The Film Festival in Cannes makes for quiet towns on the outskirts, we like that!) walked around the corner to the bus stop. We opted to walk, how far could it really be? Every town in the Greek Islands requires you to go straight up, why would this be any different? And it was, straight up that is. And of course we went right when we should have gone left, so we walked twice as far as we needed to, but we saw neat stuff on the way, and discovered a cool (literally and figuratively), and very old, pedestrian tunnel.

When we reached the top we found the tourist information centre, looking for a map in English, since the web had indicated that the town had an interpretive walk that takes approximately 90 minutes and maps to lead you through it. The woman at the tourist centre circled a few highlights and made a few suggestions and off we went, immediately off her track. We found a beautiful old school, and wound our way up a bit higher before retreating in the increasing heat. We found a pharmacy and a fellow who didn’t speak a single word in English, and managed to buy some SPF30 sunscreen without too much difficulty. Then we made our way to one of the perfumeries that had been suggested – Molinard Perfumeur – it has been in the same family for four generations. We visited its museum, but the tours were done until 2pm, it was noon. We seem to have a habit of that timing.

I have worn the same perfume for something like 20 years, I didn’t have any intention of buying any perfume, but we thought it would be interesting to learn a bit about the process. As we sniffed our way around the boutique I picked up a bottle of Jasmine eau de toilette and felt like I had just stuck my nose in one of the many bushes in the area. It was that wonderful heady fragrance that I love about the Mediterranean, and I had to have a bottle.

We couldn’t decide if we both had perfume on our noses and kept smelling it, or if the streets just smelled of the heady scents of various perfumes. Since the fragrances were changing, we decided that it was actually the air in this town that smelled so wonderful. It absolutely had to be the best smelling place we’ve ever been. I have to say that compared with Greece, this area of France in general smells good. There is no smell of sewage or garbage, and the streets are clean and mostly litter free. The people wear perfumes, and they wear good ones. They also don’t bathe in the stuff so they don’t kill you if you are within ten feet of them. The women here don’t smell like baby powder or knock you over with Poison, Opium, or any number of other overpowering fragrances. The men don’t smell like Axe or any cheap colognes. The place just smells good. When you go to public toilets they have nicely scented soaps of good quality, and even the washrooms generally smell good. The toilet paper in our hotel room is even perfumed!

We walked back towards the Old Town, and stopped in at another perfumery, also still not open for tours, and visited their museum. It held a fabulous array of perfume containers from around the world and throughout history, they were fascinating. We headed into the maze of narrow streets to explore the Old Town and eventually found ourselves up on a lovely wide boulevard lined with trees and tables, and a pedestrian area only. No cars, no motorcycles, no scooters, no machines of any kind. It was a peaceful respite from the busy hustle below, the weather was fantastic, and the food was stellar. Since we have had poor luck finding dinner lately, we decided to do the European thing and have our main meal at lunch. I had a fabulous chicken in peppercorn sauce dish, and Kirk had a veal dish with a tuna cream and garlic sauce. Rich, tasty, and very French. And we washed it down with a wonderful carafe of rosé wine.

Then we headed back out to Fragonard Perfumeur where we had a very informative tour and almost lost our sense of smell with all the different scents we were exposed to. Our guide gave us quite the education on perfumes, and explained that most of us can really only discern a handful of scents compared to those who are trained. Training can elevate one to being able to discern a few hundred scents, but a “Nose”, a master of scents, can discern up to three thousand scents, is trained for up to 7-9 years to learn to do so, and can only work three hours per day before the nose becomes fatigues. In contrast, most of the rest of us become scent fatigued in 10-20 minutes. She explained to us that perfume in glass bottles is damaged by the light and only lasts a year before the oils are changed. She explained that the best perfumes are always kept  and sold in aluminum/metal bottles and small aliquots may be transferred to glass bottles for display and transport in a woman’s purse. These perfumes are naturally derived, and contain none of the nasty (and toxic) compounds found in most of our North America synthetic scents. Maybe that’s one reason scents are becoming more problematic in North America, and more people are developing sensitivities to them – they are made with too many chemicals in our neck of the woods.

She showed us the lab, also called the perfume organ (We saw this very room, but I forgot to take a photo) and explained all the different levels (notes) of a perfume. Want more? Lots here –> (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perfume)

After the tour we were walked through the proper way to evaluate a scent, and how to apply it, and what to expect of it. It was exactly like a wine tour to be honest. She explained that most of us wouldn’t be able to discern more than three scents before our noses were overwhelmed (much like three wines overwhelms the taste buds), and that breathing into your sleeve could clear the nose (much like a drink of water and a cracker clears the palette). She took us from light and fresh to heavy and spicy (much like wines again). I chose one of the scented sticks that I really liked, and was surprised to have liked something other than what I usually wear, and she gave me a spritz. We had been told clearly to NEVER rub your writs together, but to let the perfume do its thing on its own. Rubbing the wrists together warms it up and ruins the oils. These are true perfumes, heady and powerful, and according to the tour guide, can last up to two days without much loss. When she offered to spray me with another scent I declined, one was enough, and I liked it. Kirk and I both found fragrances that we liked, and so we each walked out with a new scent. Part way down a staircase I sniffed Kirk’s arm again and declared that now that the second scent had had an opportunity to settle, and our noses had a chance to breather clear air again, I actually really liked the other scent too. So back we went for it as well.

Then it was time to go. Back down to the train station we went, only to watch it pull away when we were about 100 yards from the terminal. Hmmmm, didn’t time that well. Probably should have actually looked at the schedule. So we found some shade, bought some water, and waited. We didn’t have to wait long and another train pulled in, but it was 40 minutes before it left for Juan les Pains. Other than that it was an uneventful ride “home”. Both of us wanted something to eat, but nothing heavy, a tomato caprese salad and a glass of red wine would be great. First place on the beach – 20 euros for the salad. Seriously? 20 euros for a tomato, some buffalo mozzarella, some olive oil, and some basil? Ah, but it came with a beach front table. Try again. Next place, just off the beach, but still in visual range – 15 euros. Keep going. Last place, no beach view, 12.4 euros. Fine.

Damn food is expensive here! Just don’t think about it, because it is also good.

A short walk home along the waterfront, watching the sun go down, and we are home.

After a shower I can still clearly smell the perfume on my wrists. Yes, it definitely has staying power! A little goes a LONG way!

It’s late, almost midnight, and tomorrow we go to Nice – we hear it is nice 🙂 so it’s an early morning ahead.

(I’m now two days behind on the growing collection of photos I need to work through!)