The winding and cobbled paths and heritage buildings may make it seem like you have arrived at another tourist-laden European town. But here, let your sight take the backseat and let your nose guide you through Grasse — a small town in the picturesque French Riviera off the Cote d’Azur and home to a majority of international perfume houses, perfumers and institutes.
If you have read German novelist Patrick Suskind’s intriguing Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, you are already familiar with the name and nature of this ancient town. If you have not, we suggest you wait till your return since those pretty streets can get dark and lonely at the bend, come nightfall.
Close to the luxe town of Cannes and a short ride away from Nice, Grasse is quite unlike the rest of the Riviera. Common travel guides are easy to dismiss it and make recommendations of a quick day trip here. But we suggest: stay and inhale deeply while you do.
The city centre around the small town square at Place Aux Aires is where all the action is. While one side of this hilly street is dominated by niche fragrances houses, the other is a medley of restaurants, delicatessens and boulangeries.
Start your journey with the Musée International de la Parfumerie that takes you through the history of perfumery in the world with highlights of creation, natural materials and basic accords. The experiential greenhouse helps you distinguish base, heart and top notes in natural materials — the first steps in perfume creation.
As you move to the floors below, walk through the history of modern perfumery centred in Grasse with a collection of iconic perfumes such as Guerlain’s Shalimar, Jicky and ChanelNo. 5. Interspersed with these are bottles of vintage eau de cologne from around the world, therapeutic tinctures and much more. Discover ancient extraction techniques, cosmetics and observe a traditional perfumer’s organ.
The city with its abundant supply of water and precarious location at the edge of the bay was once a leather tanning centre. Flowers grew wild and enfleurage (an ancient technique that uses flowers pressed in fat) was used to extract scents like those of the famed Grasse jasmine to perfume leather gloves. The same jasmine now makes its way into Dior and Chanel fragrances. For an insight into these fascinating raw materials, a short bus ride takes you to Mouans Sartoux where Jardins du Musee International de la Parfumerie — the official gardens of the museum — will introduce you to fragrant plants. It is here that you will see the Grasse Jasmine (in season) in all its glory, the sharp-scented Tuberose, Mimosa and much more.
Next on your fragrant itinerary would be the grand old perfume houses of Grasse – Fragonard, Molinard and Galimard.
Villa Fragonard, named after the famous painter from the region, is a bright yellow provencal house spread over three floors and an open terrace. With a small museum of its own, Fragonard has a large collection of perfumes, soaps and cosmetics.
Molinard, now in its fifth generation, is known for its award-winning fragrances, extensive work with Lavender from neighbouring Aix-en-Provence and its once flamboyant bottles. Situated in a muted stone house a short walk away from Place Aux Aires, it has a small museum that takes you through the history of the fragrance house complete with vintage bottles. The store has a large variety of perfumes including a Chocolate scent. Galimard, the oldest of them (dating back to 1747) will take a bus ride from the city centre and will introduce to a life-size distillation apparatus used to extract essential oils — the natural essence that makes it to your perfume.
The best way to experience the perfumeries of Grasse is to take an introductory workshop called ‘Make your own perfume’ offered at each of them. Spanning a couple of hours, they give you an insight into creation and let you go back with a bottle of one you have created. Scented memories do not get better than this.
While at it, do not forget to explore the small open-fronted independent perfume stores. It is here that you can get your hands on some experimental creations and even take home a bottle of prized extrait (the most concentrated form of perfume).
Flowers are everywhere — from the osmanthus that grows on the hedges to streaming bougainvillea dangling from provencal balconies, all the way to the occasional wayside rose shrub.
In summer, the Grasse Jasmine festival takes over the streets and is in the best time to visit this otherwise sleepy town.
However, perfume is not all these flowers go into. In summer, stop by at one of the many street corner gelato vendors and get yourself a scoop of flavours like lavender, jasmine, cassis (black currant leaf ) or violet. Floral preserves are common too and souvenir sizes available at most stores.
If you have chosen to visit in January and February when the magical Seville oranges have made their way into town, find yourself a glass of the balmy Vin D’Orange, a traditional orange wine fortified with brandy that is as fragrant as it is potent.