The home of such iconic perfumes as Rochas, Dior and Chanel N°5, the hilltop enclave of Grasse offers the ultimate olfactory experience. And that’s not to mention the medieval streets, magnificent cuisine and meadows strewn with wildflowers…
Words: Susie Hollands
Grasse, just 15 km away from Cannes with its fine sandy beaches and exclusive marina. Nice lies to the east, just 30 km from the town centre and acts as a gateway airport with daily direct flights to an extensive number of European capital cities. Grasse slumbers between hills and woods, deep gorges and wild rivers. Thanks to its relatively high elevation, between 300 and 400 metres above sea level, its Mediterranean climate is very pleasant and the summer heat is never unbearable. The historic town centre is exceptionally beautiful and interesting. Most of the houses that line the narrow streets date back to the 17th and 18th century. There are also many Romanesque and medieval sights which give the town its unique atmosphere. In the 16th century the renowned French perfume industry was centred in Grasse. This gave the town great prosperity and fame, particularly from the 18th century onwards. The numerous beautiful gardens in the residential neighbourhoods remind us of this glorious past.
Set high in the hills behind Cannes, halfway between the sea and the mountains, Grasse has long been renowned as the perfume capital of the world. Home to some of our most famous fragrances, this is the place to come to learn about such iconic aromas as Chanel N° 5, arguably France’s best-known perfume, which is produced from the idyllic flower fields down below. However, there is more to this picture-perfect enclave than simply its fine fragrance, so even for those with a penchant for Yardley’s English Lavender or, heaven forbid, Brut, there is plenty to delight the senses.
For a start, there’s the sheer breath-taking beauty of the place. Perched on the top of a precipitous hillside, at nearly 1,150 feet (330m) above sea level, this tiny town comprises a tightly-woven network of steep streets where the creamy yellow buildings bathe in the soft sunlight of the French Riviera. Nestled together in a dense cluster, they look for all the world like a fairy-tale citadel, giving way to meadows of flowers and, eventually, the sparkle of the Mediterranean.
Dating back to the late Middle Ages, the town came to prominence due to its unique microclimate, which allowed even fragile flowers to flourish, and the perfume industry took off from there. According to local folklore, this was precipitated by Catherine de Medici who brought a taste for perfumes from her native Italy in the 1500s – and in fact the Italian influence is still very notable in the town even today. In parallel with this, there was also a thriving leather trade with the tanneries making the most of the plentiful water supplies locally. As the fashion for perfume gathered apace, alongside an increasing demand for luxury goods, the town soon became an important trade hub.
Nowadays, Grasse provides a welcome alternative to the classic Riviera hustle and bustle – and if you take the time to discover it, you are in for a treat. Just walking through this beautiful town itself is enough for a day, with the streets transporting you back centuries. Be sure to take time to discover the old buildings where perfume was once produced. In some, the smell still lingers; simply pop your nose through the open windows and inhale!
In addition, there are some great little shops – and plenty with the inevitable tourist tat. The best street is rue de l’oratoire, with its old books, prints and posters. Another highlight there is Les Secrets du Goût where you can stock up on their well-selected range of olive oils, tapenades and wines (including those from Brad and Angelina’s old property in the Var, le Château de Miraval). In nearby rue Marcel Journet, there’s also a newly-opened artisan chocolate workshop and store, Maison Duplanteur, that is both organic and proudly fair trade.
The must-see museum, of course, is the Musée International de la Parfumerie. A modern, interactive experience, it tells you everything you could ever want to know about the world of perfume – and possibly a few things you didn’t (beaver’s anal glands, anyone?) – in a fun, accessible way. As well as showcasing some beautiful artefacts, such as Marie Antoinette’s toilette case, fragrance bottles from the antiquities to the present-day and other perfume paraphernalia, there are scientific demonstrations explaining how the final product is made. The only museum of its kind, it’s a testament to France’s world-leading position in fine fragrance.
Later in the day, avoiding the midday sun, head out to the museum’s fragrant gardens, just beyond the town. Beautifully located in the heart of the flower fields, here you can see all the plants in their natural habitat, where you are encouraged to touch, smell and photograph as you wish. The special flowers to look out for are the creamy/pink tuberose, which produces one of the most expensive perfume extracts available and can only be harvested at dawn; the delicate “Rose de Mai”, which flowers around May time and is a staple of Chanel; and the star-like jasmine, which has been grown here since the 17th century. The latter two even have their own dedicated festivals in the town (the ‘Expo Rose’ in May and the ‘Fête du Jasmine’ in August).
For a contemporary take on things, three historic perfumeries, Fragonard, Galimard and Molinard, all open their doors to the public offering the chance to get a sneak peek into the manufacturing techniques of today. Fragonard, in particular, is well worth a visit with three separate sites to enjoy. At their 18th-century factory, there is an impressive collection of perfumery objects retracing 5,000 years and you can also join a perfume-making workshop. Then there’s the Musée Fragonard, dedicated to the painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806), Grasse’s most famous son, and after whom the brand was named. Finally, their Musée Provençal du Costume et du Bijou is home to a private collection of beautifully presented Provençal costumes and jewellery from the 18th and 19th centuries.
For those wishing to go beyond the world of perfume, Grasse’s other main attraction is its 13th century cathedral. Inside, you’ll also find three works by Rubens and another by Fragonard. For a broader look at the region generally, head to Le Musée d’art et d’histoire de Provence. Housed in an 18th century mansion, which is one of the most beautiful in Grasse, today it showcases furniture, paintings and accessories that illustrate a true Provençal lifestyle. There are also excellent changing exhibitions, as well as workshops such as cookery, and a children’s atelier.
After all that exploring, you’ll be ready for some of that famous Provençal cuisine. The best place for lunch is place aux Aires, where you can sit outside with the other Grassois. Le Rendez Vous at 35 place aux Aires is a particularly good address, with fresh plates of simple but well-cooked staples. Another lovely spot would be Brasserie de l’Évêché, behind the old Bishop’s episcopal palace on place de l’Évêché, where you can have a quiet meal next to a 17th century waterfall. Back in rue de l’Oratoire, Lou Pignatoun also does local specialities, such as stuffed cabbage (lou fassum), but only in the winter. Also, you must try the fougassette, which is a variation of the Provençal fougasse but a little lighter and savoured with orange flowers. The best can be found at the Venturini Fougassettes boulangerie in rue Marcel Journet.
When it comes to a place to stay, our hot tip is the eco-friendly Le Domaine Saint Sauveur comprising a charmingly converted 19th century chapel and a larger gîte with panoramic views over the valley. Both beautifully decorated by Chrystelle and Eric, the resort also has a lovely outdoor pool surrounded by lemon, orange and olive trees. For discreet luxury, the five-star La Bastide Saint-Antoine is hard to beat. Set in a 17th century Provençal property, the views take in olive groves, Mediterranean vegetation and the bay of Cannes beyond. A little further afield, but offering all-out lux is the five-star Le Mas Candille in the medieval village Mougins, about halfway between Grasse and Cannes. Featuring three stunning swimming pools, two Jacuzzis and state-of-the-art spa facilities, plus a Michelin-starred gastronomic restaurant, this is the place to totally unwind.
If you do have time to explore further, there are also some adorable villages perched even higher up than Grasse. Cabris, where the goats once resided, is one of the best. There is a beautiful old castle, L’auberge du Vieux Château, with a fabulous restaurant that does excellent food, as well as bedrooms with views of the sea or the Alps. Another great spot to stay, although it is a very simple little place, is the Hôtel L’horizon in promenade Saint Jean, with a breathtaking view of the valley, down to the sea at Nice. The past guests were a mix of the ’50s and ’60s intelligentsia, De Beauvoir, Gide, Camus and Malraux, as well as some Hollywood Glitter. French writer Antoine Saint Expury was also a visitor, having spent summer holidays here in Cabris when he was a child.
Smell of success
Needless to say, Grasse itself has also been home to a host of well-known residents over the years, starting with the famous Provençal poet, Louis Bellaud, back in the 1500s, and later the aforementioned artist Fragonard. More recently, there was singer Edith Piaf, who had a house in the back country, actor Dirk Bogarde, who wrote the wonderful book about the years of his life there, and all-round film impresario Orson Welles.
It’s no perhaps surprise that the area remains just as much of a draw today – and equally no wonder that this idyllic enclave has now put in a bid for UNESCO World Heritage Status. We can’t think of anywhere right now that deserves it more than Provence’s perfume hotspot.
WHERE TO SHOP…
22 rue Marcel
Tel: +33 (0)9 67 56 46 69
Les Secrets du Goût
11 bis rue de l’Oratoire
Tel: +33 (0)6 64 72 98 98
WHERE TO VISIT…
6 place du Petit Puy
Tel: +33 (0)4 93 36 11 03
Expo Rose 2017
Fête du Jasmin 2017
Les Jardins du MIP
979 chemin des Gourettes,
Tel: +33 (0)4 92 98 92 69
60 boulevard Victor Hugo
Tel: +33 (0)4 93 36 01 62
Musée International de la Parfumerie
boulevard du Jeu de Ballon
Tel: +33 (0)4 97 05 58 00
Musée Provençal du Costume et du Bijou
2 rue Jean Ossola
Tel: +33 (0)4 93 36 44 65
20 boulevard Fragonard
Tel: +33 (0)4 93 36 44 65
73 route de Cannes
Tel: +33 (0)4 93 09 20 00
WHERE TO EAT…
Brasserie de l’Evéché
9 place de l’Évêché
Tel: +33 (0)4 93 36 40 12
Le Rendez Vous
35 place aux Aires
Tel: +33 (0)4 93 77 25 54
13 rue de l’Oratoire
Tel: +33 (0)4 93 36 11 80
WHERE TO STAY…