While Paris is home to the great French haute couture houses, another of France’s most famous exports has its deep and fragrant roots much further south, in Grasse. The de facto world capital of perfume was just a half-hour drive from where we were staying in Antibes so on one morning of our Riviera break we hailed ourselves an Uber (which turned out to be a Jaguar, no less) and headed up into the hills.
Our first stop had to be the Fragonard museum, which has a free exhibition taking you through the history of perfume from ancient times to the present day. I love a bit of dressing table frippery, so I was in my element admiring the elaborate perfume bottles and various other accoutrements – a fascinating reminder that perfume hasn’t always simply been dabbed on the wrists and collarbone …
These are some of the various guises in which Fragonard perfumes have been presented over the years. Aren’t those little penguins just adorable?
These perfume bottles are actually a couple of thousand years old. Can’t imagine the contents would smell too great today if they’d survived, but I found it fascinating that even the Romans felt that the beauty of a bottle was as important as the scent inside it. Lining up beautifully-formed, sparkling bottles on my dressing table or bathroom shelves is one of my favourite ways to instantly glamourise a space.
These mother-of-pearl handles could find a home on my dressing table too. Although some of the implements in that manicure set (if that’s what it is!) look a little terrifying …
I’m kind of sad that we don’t really use pomanders any more. I know some perfumiers occasionally create solid perfume lockets and the like, but they’ve got nothing on these beauties. Perhaps I’ll start a one-woman campaign to bring them back. Who’s with me? (Anyone? Just me? Ok.)
When you reach the last exhibits in the museum, you can take a guided tour of the historic factory, where some of Fragonard’s perfumes are still manufactured today. But with one little person in our party already complaining that she was bored, we decided to skip the tour and scooted past the old and new perfume-making paraphernalia, following our noses to the shop …
Fragonard is celebrating the iris in 2016, which happens to be one of my favourite flowers and also one of my favourite scents – managing to be floral, fresh and delicate all at once. So why I didn’t buy the Fragonard Iris perfume is frankly beyond me.
Instead I picked up one of the beautiful carved soaps (which will sit on my bathroom basin just to be pretty and make the room smell nice and if anyone ever touches it there will be trouble), and a set of five ‘eaux naturelles’, which I like to mix and match to create different scents every day.
The heady mix of a hundred different perfumes in the Fragonard shop can be quite overwhelming, so we stepped back outside into the sunshine to explore the medieval streets of the old town and give our befuddled noses a bit of a break.
I don’t know if there’s some kind of rule that says all these 19th century buildings must be painted in this particular shade of yellow, but I quite like it.
If you’re not a fan of hills and steps, Grasse is probably not your ideal holiday destination. But if you’re not afraid of a bit of hard work and you love getting lost in a labyrinth of medieval streets, put it at the top of your list. The main streets are full of overpriced tourist traps, as you might expect, but it doesn’t take long to find yourself off the beaten track.
Spying a bustling pavement bistro along a passage between two buildings, we realised our tummies were rumbling …
… and a few streets away we found a shady spot to refuel and watch the people at the pricier place across the square in the shadow of the cathedral. I wish I could remember the name of this place, or even where we found it, because the owner was a wonderfully cheeky Frenchman with just enough English to insist that we have a glass of rosé with lunch like the locals do. The food was delicious and generously portioned, but there are no photos of it because we were so hungry we didn’t hesitate for a second when it arrived. All I can tell you is that it was just off the Rue de la Poissonerie – very unassuming from the outside and with a menu of only about six dishes to choose from, but well worth seeking out!
Hunger sated, we thanked our jovial host and made our way across the square, past the verdant waterfalls beneath the cathedral and up the steps.
We took a peek into the courtyard of the historic town hall …
… gazed up at the lofty tower …
… and took a respectful moment by the soaring arches of Grasse’s war memorial.
The cathedral was originally built as a church in the twelfth century, then became a cathedral in 1244 when the bishop moved to Grasse from Antibes. It’s an impressively foreboding building from the outside, but inside it’s something else …
It’s easy to see where additions have been made in later centuries – where the dark, intimidating nature characteristic of the medieval church is embellished with the gilded ornamental plasterwork favoured by 18th century church patrons.
But one of the cathedral’s biggest draws is actually its art collection, housing works by important artists including Louis Brea and Jean-Honoré Fragonard (after whom the perfume house is named). Perhaps the most impressive, though, are the three paintings by Peter Paul Rubens, depicting two of the Stations of the Cross and Saint Helena discovering the True Cross.
I only managed to get a photo of these two (and it was dark in there so it’s not the most amazing shot). You’ll have to go yourself to fully appreciate them. Even if you’re not religious at all, it’s worth the visit just to get this close to paintings by one of the greatest artists who ever lived. I mean … these are 400 years old, and they’re just incredible. Really. Go. You won’t regret it.
But with a certain Miss France not really in the mood for art appreciation, we reluctantly stepped out of the cool cathedral into the blazing sun. Before we’d even adjusted to the light, she was dashing off down a dark tunnel …
… and at the other end, she found something pretty special.
One hell of a view.
We thought we could see a fair distance from there, but not quite as far as some of these places (these are the distances to every town with which Grasse is twinned). And in case you’re wondering about those mysterious clouds overhead: we visited Grasse a week before the town was due to celebrate the Jasmine Festival, held every year to mark the beginning of the picking season, and the streets of the old town are criss-crossed with a network of hoses that spray the street with jasmine water every few minutes. Jasmine is still grown nearby – the jasmine for Chanel No. 5 is grown only in Grasse – but sadly we didn’t find any while we were there. But the mist-perfumed streets were quite a treat. Apparently during the festival itself, the local fire station fills a fire engine with jasmine water to spray the crowds, which sounds like something I absolutely must come back and experience for myself.
It was at this moment that my camera battery failed me, and we were all starting to flag a little from clambering up and down the steep little lanes. So we went in search of a little pick-me-up before we headed home, shooting a couple more pictures on my phone as we went.
Eventually we found what we’d been looking for. Grasse may be famous for making perfumes, but since the 1970s around half of its output has been food flavourings. Which is why some of the ice cream flavours you find here might seem more at home on your dressing table than in a cornet.
But don’t be afraid to try them! Rose ice cream is one of my chief pleasures in life, and if you have fond childhood memories of Parma Violets, treat yourself to a sweetly-scented scoop of violette.
And all that’s left to say is bon appétit! A thoroughly delicious ending to a thoroughly delightful day.