Monday, April 20, 2009

The Scent of Grasse

I was squeezed onto a tiny strip of sticky sand in Cannes, head heavy from the sun and the cloying smell of monoi suntan oil, when I decided I needed a change. After days on the famed beaches of the Cote D’Auzur, I felt less like a lounging beach bunny and more like a nervous wreck.

I was tired of fighting for space between the umbrellas, tired of having surly teenagers kick sand in my face, tired of battling pushy families, topless sunbathers and yapping pooches. This was the time to head inland, away from the packaged heat of the French Riveria. I would journey to the Provencal town of Grasse, where I could clear my head, inhale the country air, and find the holy grail of my trip: the perfect French perfume.
Fifteen km away from the ritz and glitz of Cannes and 30 km from the bustle of Nice, the French Provencal town of Grasse has always been a popular escape for locals and tourists alike. Known for its fresh air, fragrant meadows and small town charm, it is often described as the perfume capital of the world, which was the real reason I was going. With three famous perfume production plants (or “perfumuers”) offering free guided tours of their factories, I was determined to finally sniff out my signature scent, the kind that cloaked you in uniqueness, prompting those around you to ask what you were wearing.

My guidebooks had told me that the only way to reach Grasse was by car or bus, but when I arrived at the station in Cannes, I found out that the SNCF railroad had added a new route. I purchased a return ticket and hopped on the shiny double-decker train. While across from me a local girl ate noisily from a giant bag of peanut M&M’s, I was content with staring out the window and watching my first glimpses of the real Provence zip by. The stereotypical postcards were true, as rough stone houses, lined with cream and violet fields, framed both sides of the tracks.

Twenty-five minutes later, the train rolled into the modern Grasse station. The only problem was that the station itself was built on the outreaches of town, and the old town (“vieille ville”) was located at the peak of a looming hill, which presided over the train station like an ominous vulture. By the time I got my bearings, the train had rolled back to Cannes and the station was deserted.

Stubbornly refusing to waste my money on a cab, I trudged up the hill, having no idea where I was headed except up. I could feel the sympathetic stares from the local motorists and at one point an elderly lady offered me a ride. Not willing to be kidnapped by a crazy French woman, I politely declined and continued on my aimless way. With each step, the air grew thicker and a bank of dark clouds rolled in from the unseen sea to south. Finally, clothed in gray humidity, I reached the summit of the town. Before me, gracefully perched at the end of a steep flight of poppy-lined stairs, was the Fragonard Perfumuer, perhaps the most famous one in all of Grasse.

I entered the stately mansion and was immediately enveloped by a sense of stillness and the clean scent of white linen. It was strangely hushed and when I journeyed up to the reception on the second floor, I found only a handful of tourists milling around, poking at antique perfume bottles.

The perfumeur was closing soon and the last tour of the day was about to commence. It was held in French (the English tours had ended hours earlier) but I figured I could wing it and try and put my French classes to good use.

I joined a group of about ten other people, mainly French nationals in pastel clothing with a few confused Germans sprinkled here and there. Our guide was a smiling, young Korean girl who spoke fluent French with an Asian accent. Because of this, she spoke her words slowly and clearly, which thankfully allowed me to understand most of the things she was saying.

She took us into an echoing room filled with vats of sterile containers and briefly went over the history of the factory. There were only a few snippets of information that my mind could make sense of. The Fragonard building was one of the oldest in Grasse, built for the serious business of smells in 1782. Ever since then, they’ve produced perfumes and soaps on a daily basis, still steeped in the traditional ways.

Grasse was a great perfume producer because the climate nurtured delicate flowers such as jasmine and mimosa. 3000 people work in Grasse at the fragrance factories, which produce 50 per cent of France’s turnover and six per cent of the world’s turnover. And Queen Victoria once spent a few winters here on vacation. I tried to imagine what kind of perfume the Queen would have worn. Probably one of those headache-inducing stenches that overtake you in the elevator.

When the history lesson was over, she led us into another room, this one piled with
huge steel tanks. Each tank was given a name like Damask Rose and Vanille. These were used to distill the fragrances and we were shown aging copper tanks that were used in the olden, golden days of perfuming.

The next part of the tour was more interesting. Here, wooden crates were laid out around the room, each resembling a bee box. Only, instead of layers of collected honey, there were scatterings of delicate flowers between glass planes, all resting on what looked like a strip of gauze. We learned that the flowers would melt onto the layer of fat that lay beneath the gauze. Over time, the flowers and the fat would concentrate and what was left was called “absolute.” The primal essence of smell.

Near the end of the tour, after we were lead through the museum part, which housed ancient relics from the bygone eras, we had a glimpse at one of the “noses” hard at work. On the other side of a thick glass door, contained as if he were radioactive material, sat an doctor-ish man, scribbling into a notebook. Hundreds of tiny vials of perfume surrounded him on all sides like a scented congregation. The man looked over at us and waved, as he probably did for every other tour, then went back to work, peering over the vials like a mad French scientist.

Later, the guide told us that “noses” like him could differentiate 10,000 different smells. Most humans can differentiate between 4,000 and 10,000 different smells, though most of the time we aren’t aware of it. Expert “noses” go through years of training to achieve this level of awareness. But, enough about the sciences of odors and smells, I was itching to try on the perfumes and get down to smelly business.

And so, after the tour was over, I spent more time than I should have in the factory’s gift shop. I was trying to decide between Miranda, a warm, thick eau de toilette and Diamant, a spray that promised to “leave a luminous trail of desire” behind whoever wears it.

Finally, after my nostrils had gone numb and the shop clerks impatiently checked their watches for the billionth time, I hastily plucked the tiny bottle of Miranda from the counter, leaving the trail of desire for another time. Miranda was unique, a heady mix of coconut, amber and rich vanilla, perhaps “my” scent. I was so sure of my deciscion, I barely even winced when I handed over 22 Euros for the perfume no bigger than a tube of Visine. Satisfied with my purchase, I was ushered out of the factory and onto the street.

The satisfaction didn’t last very long. It was absolutely pouring outside, as if vast bathtubs of cold, gray water were being dumped from up high. It pound down on the streets, down through the North African palms, through the awning of the museum and on to me. I was drenched in two seconds flat.

I turned back towards the factory hoping to call a cab, but a white-cloaked guard had already locked the door after me (I must have been in that gift shop for a longer than I thought). I had no choice but to somehow book it down this tyrant of a hill to the train station, not an easy feat when you were wearing soaked linen pants, a singlet and flip-flops that slid out from under you with every step you took.

After almost falling on my butt a few times, fording overflowing sewer drains and being splashed by what looked like the little old lady who hours before had offered me a ride, I decided the most logical thing for me to do was catch a bus down to the train station. Down another tilted street, I spotted what looked like a bus stop, and, the holy grail of wet weather, a shelter of some sort. Excited at the prospect of getting dry, I scuttled over to it, only to find that the roof of the bus shelter was missing. I gritted my teeth.

The bus eventually came, but it resembled one of those miniature ones, like for school children with special needs. Which is exactly what I felt like after I tried to explain my predicament to the bus driver. Basic phrases in French I could handle but my French teacher never taught me how to negotiate bus routes. But the driver, who resembled a Provencal Joe Pesci, and the rest of the passengers on the bus, decided to humor me anyway.

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity of me awkwardly trying to hold on to the rail and not drip on the curious people seated around me, the bus driver pulled up alongside a fleet of cushy coaches that were idilyng on the side of the road. He pointed them and told me to take the first coach.

I thanked him profusely and slogged over to the first coach in line. The coach driver eyed me wearily as I splashed my way onboard. Not only did I resembled a scantily clad wet dog (in an outfit that I thought looked very “boho chic” when dry) but my face was straight from an impressionist film, with mascara running down my cheeks and a nose that was bright red from the cold.

“I need to go to the train station,” I mustered in my best French. He nodded dismissively and politely demanded four Euros.

Thinking it was odd that a five-minute bus ride would cost four Euros, I forked over the money anyway and found a dry seat to sit on near the coveted back of the bus. Thankfully the coach was almost empty and the snoozing teenager in the corner hadn’t noticed my arrival.

After puttering for a few more minutes, the coach finally lurched forward with a lazy groan. We coasted down the hill, splashing past crowded coral houses and wallowing Smart Cars. Then we drove past the train station and onto a country highway.

As the spanking new Grasse train station faded away in the distance, the water in my brain finally cleared. The reason the coach cost so much was not because it was taking me to the train station in Grasse, but because it was going to the train station in Cannes. (Of course, I didn’t realize that until the coach dropped me off in front of my hotel. I spent the whole bus ride trying to remember the French word for “lost.”)

I sighed and looked down at my soggy, wasted train ticket. I brought my petite bottle of Miranda out of the damp gift bag and sprayed a bit on my wrists. I inhaled the scent deeply and leaned back in my damp seat. At least I smelled good.

Grasse Office de Tourisme
Ph: (33) 4 93 36 66 66 Fax: (33) 4 93 36 86 36

Frangonard – Blvd. Frangonard
Ph: (33) 4 93 36 44 65
Galimard – 73 Route de Cannes
Ph: (33) 4 93 09 20 00
Molinard – 60 Blvd. Victor Hugo
Ph: (33) 4 93 36 01 62

Mecure Grasse – Rue Martine Carol, 06130, Grasse, France.
Ph: (33) 4 93 70 70 70 Fax: (33) 4 93 70 46 31
Hotel L’Horizon – 100 Promenade Saint Jean, 06530, Grasse, France.
Ph: (33) 4 9360 51 69 Fax: (33) 4 93 60 56 29
Bastide Saint Mathieu – 35 Chemin de Blumenthal, 06310, St. Mathieu, Grasse, France.
Ph: (33) 4 97 01 10 00 Fax: (33) 4 97 01 10 09

STGA Bus Lines – provides daily service from Cannes and Antibes, stopping at local towns and villages along the way. Ph: (33) 4 93 36 37 37
SNCF – the new railway connects Grasse with Cannes (6.80 Euros, 2nd class return ticket, 25 minutes) and Nice (21.20 Euros, 2nd class return ticket, 1 hour) as well as Monaco, Menton and Ventimiglia, Italy.

All images, excluding the first two, courtesy of Grasse Tourism

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6 said they wanna go too:

Anonymous Mathieu wanderlusted...


I don't know your email so I'm using the comment function to this article :

Girl bloggers wanted for spring break (follow the links). I think you got all they want.


3:28 PM  
Blogger simon wanderlusted...

another great post Wander.. I can almost smell the perfume! thanks!

7:11 PM  
Blogger Dayngr wanderlusted...

OOOOH! I am so jealous. At least I can live vicariously through you.

7:49 PM  
Blogger Memphis Steve wanderlusted...

Augh! What a nightmare! But at least you got back to the hotel in the end. And you got your perfume.

9:40 PM  
Blogger Rachel wanderlusted...

ok, i am quite smitten with southern france. me and the fiance stayed in st. maxime just a little bus ride away from st. tropez. i loved it. i miss it!! our campsite did have it's own beach though.. so that might have made it a nicer experience all around.

6:28 AM  
Blogger proudly says, wanderlusted...

to visit france is one of my wishlist!
i can't wait to go there!

1:28 PM  

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