Grasse - the perfume capital of the world. The setting for Patrick Siskind's novel (and film) and also the place of Edith Piaf's death. Nestled in the hills about 90 minutes bus ride from Nice, Grasse is another pastel-coloured town that is popular with tourists.
Grasse was originally known for its leather, and became the French outpost of the tanning industry. In an effort to combat the unpleasant odour of the tanned leather, a man called Galimard began using the perfume and, after sending a gift of scented gloves to the Royal Court, the popularity swept across Europe. Soon, the fragrance business took over from the tanning and Grasse was surrounded by vast fields of jasmine, rose and orange blossom. As trade ships brought exotic spices and perfumes back from around the world, the range of perfumes grew and grew...and now, there's over 2,500 essences in the world. Grasse still accounts for almost 8% of the global perfume production, and over 10,000 local residents are directly involved in the perfumery business.
We jumped on the 500 to Nice and wound our way inland to the small town. A lot of places were closed - it was a Monday - so Grasse was a lot quieter than it usually is. We meandered to the Fragonard perfumery, Grasse's oldest factory, and did everything backwards - the shop, then the museum, then the guided tour.
The tour explains how they create essences today (they still use cold water and distillation to separate the oils for the perfumes but no longer spend three months replacing jasmine flowers daily), how it is bottled (in distinctive aluminium bottles rather than glass, as sunlight degrades a perfume three times as quickly), and how all perfume noses are trained in France and can identify over 3,000 different scents. Perfumes can feature between 5 and 250 essences, combined in top, middle and base notes, and can take up a year to create. Responding to abstract briefs, the noses (mostly male) have to create something that will last and work on as many people as possible - perfumes settle and smell very different from person to person.
As someone who's worn the same perfume since she was 16 (Dior Addict), I'm not phased by the flippant new releases of floral perfumes but loved trying to identify the notes from the bottles in front of us. Perfumes are like signatures and I think it's tricky to get it right - we all tried one of the colognes for me (perfume for men doesn't exist) and all agreed favourably on the fresh scent. Agreeing on a majority choice for us women, on the other hand, was impossible. But I liked that.
After Grasse, and an obligatory stop for ice cream, we headed down to the coast to Cannes. Despite a promise of the boat show (always one to stop at yachts), we found Cannes pretty unremarkable and a little underwhelming. The film, literary and advertising festivals breathe life into the infamous coastal town but off-season, it's home to bumbling tourists and we left a little disappointed. Not before tracking down the various handprints of movie stars (Hollywood, eat your heart out) and snapping a photo of the internationally renowned Carlton - said to be one of the best hotels in the world...