My adventure in the south of France began in Nice, one of the oldest human settlements in Europe. Whilst the old town emits a sense of antiquity, the new town that spreads back inland from the Promenade des Anglais is a compact modern city. There is still a tranquil mood in the streets as feet shuffle along the pavement at a provincial pace and the locals are generally warm and friendly people. As I had to make my way to Grasse my stop in Nice was brief. From Nice to Grasse I had two options; I could take a bus for 1 euro or a taxi would cost 110 euro (Sunday fares attract an additional tariff). Reason told me I should save my money for perfume shopping and before I boarded the Sunday morning bus to Grasse I had all of Saturday to explore the Riviera town for scented treasure.
After a croissant and espresso in the old town, I walked through the weekend market stalls. Stalls were filled with fresh fruit, vegetables, flowers, herbs and every conceivable product made from olives. One stall I passed glowed with the purple hue of lavender sprigs, a symbol of Provence. Earlier in the year majestic lavender fields cover the surrounding countryside with their intense colour and fresh herbal scent.
My perfume search began at Sephora and Galleries Lafayette. This led me to Jules by Christian Dior, an eau de toilette that is often praised as one of the great men’s leather chypres of the 1980s. Dior has limited its availability to Europe, perhaps even just France. I could understand the chypre’s popularity after I walked through the streets of Nice and I detected a veil of chypre, which seemed to cover the entire south of France. The chypre family of perfume, characterized by citrus top notes in harmony with woods and tree moss in the base, is definitely the default choice for 50+ southern French women. You can smell some variation of chypre on most elderly women in the streets of Nice. The common default in Australia for this age bracket of women is often Red Door or White Diamonds. My mind very easily makes associations between memories and scent so I had to block my nose on a number of occasions for fear of having my current image of Guerlain’s Mitsouko replaced with an image of these sweet old ladies and their pampered poodles. As nice as that is, it is not the image I wanted for my beloved Mitsouko.
Parfumerie Tanagra on rue Alphonse Karr is an excellent place to visit if you are looking for well-respected classics or you have something different in mind. Their selection of niche perfumes was the best I could find in Nice. Tanagra carry Frederic Malle, L’Artisan Parfumeur, Serge Lutens, Houbigant and the boutique introduced me to the Parisian niche line, Thierry de Gunzburg. Although my French is limited I could see the staff were knowledgeable about perfume. There was an awe and respect in the way they demonstrated the product, it was a mood I found in many perfumeries in this part of France, unlike the boutiques in Paris where employees tend to be younger and the approach is more modern. Both styles have their place, it was just an observation I found interesting.
On rue de l’Hotel des Postes there are a number of small independent perfumeries. Rose de France has two boutiques on the same block. The product offer is mostly standard issue but shopping here has the benefit of having a more personalized consultation, which may not be offered at Galleries Lafayette or Sephora due to the large size of their businesses. Across the road I found another perfumery called Institut Nogier. The sale sign that advertised 40% discount immediately caught my eye from afar. When I crossed the street I noticed the age of some items in the window and this gave me the impression I might find some vintage gems inside. My hunch was correct and there was a row of Guerlain perfumes packaged in bright gold cartons, a design that was discontinued some years ago. When it comes to consumer products, outdated stock is usually undesirable but for perfume, old formulas can sometimes increase the value of a perfume. Constant shifts in health and safety laws have not been kind to Guerlain who have had to reformulate many of their historic perfumes; not that I think there was ever any danger. I have never heard of anyone having an adverse effect or irritation using Mitsouko or Derby. Most devotees of the original formulas insist the newer versions feel pale in comparison. I fumbled my way through a conversation with the elderly woman who I could tell genuinely enjoyed her work. All I could say to open our conversation was J’aime le parfum antique de Guerlain. She smiled as I pointed to a bottle of Mouchoir de Monsieur. She smiled and replied; yes that one is very antique. Between my few words of French and her few words of English I left Institut Nogier with vintage Mitsouko parfum and Mouchoir de Monsieur.
Rue Paradis is a paved walkway with a number of fashion boutiques. On this street Espace Harroch caters to a modern clientele with prêt a porter by Balenciaga, Bottega Veneta and Jil Sander. Scent hunters will find Diptyque here. Across the laneway, Chanel has a boutique with their Les Exclusifs perfume line and the nearby Hermes boutique on Avenue de Verdun offers their own Hermessence collection.
By Sunday lunchtime I was in Grasse exploring the old town. After a lengthy visit to the Musee International de la Parfumerie, which I wanted to write about in a separate post I made visits to Molinard and Fragonard. Fragonard is hard to miss and I thought if Grasse was ever renamed, the town should be renamed Fragonardville. It seemed that every bend in the road contained a street sign or billboard informing tourists how many meters they were from the closest Fragonard usine. Grasse even has a Fragonard train that transports tourists up and down the town’s sloping hill. Across from the Musee International de la Parfumerie, Fragonard has its main usine or factory. Attached to the factory, where visitors can follow the process of perfume making, is a storefront that sells the finished product. During my visit, the store was filled with advertisements of Fragonard’s violet perfume; chosen to be the brand’s flower for 2012. Adjacent to the store, Fragonard’s own museum was a fascinating perfume journey. Some of the displayed antiques hark back to a period of haute-luxury in perfume making.
At Molinard the mood was similar to Fragonard. There was a museum filled with bottles and archived paraphernalia; a factory tour and a store. Molinard are well known for Art Deco creations that were housed in precious flacons designed by crystal artisan René Lalique during the 1920s and 30s. Habanita is without a doubt one of the main reasons why perfume aficionados descent from the old town to Molinard’s usine on the Boulevard Victor Hugo. I haven’t smelt vintage Habanita and experienced users suspect the formula has been altered over time. To my nose it still smelled great and it was just a matter of whether I wanted a bottle of extrait, eau de parfum or eau de toilette. I tested all three on my skin and decided I preferred the eau de parfum.
Grasse has a number of local perfume stores that carry locally made product. Exploring them all I quickly discovered that although the storeowners were friendly, for the most part, these stores catered to tourists and I found it difficult to find innovative, well-made and qualitative perfumes. The one exception was Gaglewski on rue de l’Oratoire deep within the old town’s labyrinth of cobbled streets. I immediately took to Gaglewski’s masculine scent Cambouis. Inspired by the masculine world of mechanics, the perfume has burnt tar notes yet still retains a transparency unlike many other birch or cade based scents. Cambouis is well constructed and is an artisanal alternative to other more mainstream fragrances revered for their petrol notes.
Most local residents who work in the perfume industry do not spend much time in the old town. Although it has been cleaned up, the old town of Grasse is still very disheveled. Locals spend most of their spare time in the surrounding villages. A nice getaway is the small village of Valbonne, a short drive from Grasse. Many of the buildings date back to the 16th century and the village center has some nice antique shops where you can find ornaments and crystal. Fruit shops that meticulously lay out their produce and restaurants serving typical Provençale cuisine surround the square. That night friends and I settled for Morrocan fare after visits to L Olivieroi, an artisan woodworker who creates perfume bottles from wood and La Maison de Charrier. If Astier de Villate is your aesthetic, this designer homewares boutique offers an exceptional range but I advise you to charge your credit card in preparation to shop here.
After two weeks of study at the Grasse Institute of Perfumery (GIP) I traveled with a friend around the southern coast. Our first stop was Cannes; the beachside town famed for its annual film festival. Here I was particularly interested in Taizo, a perfumery that came highly recommended by my tutor at the GIP. Taizo is on the rue d’Antibes, one block back from the shoreline. Here, like Tanagra in Nice, I found a foray of niche perfumes as well as some exclusives from the big names. Taizo had the recently launched Giorgio Armani La Femme Nacre in their window; an iris perfume that exists as a numbered edition of 1000 bottles. The bottle was produced in the glassworks of Masnières in the north of France with a layering of New Zealand Mother-of-Pearl. Taizo also carries perfumes by Keiko Mecheri, By Kilian, Frederic Malle, Francis Kurkdjian, Maitre Parfumeur et Gantier and many more. As we were on route to Avignon, I took the opportunity to refresh my memory of Comme des Garçons’ Avignon, an incense perfume inspired by the town’s catholic history.
Avignon is a charming town 40 minutes drive from Aix-en Provence. Although I managed to find only one perfumery during the afternoon I spent bicycling within the city walls, the charm of Avignon is more about the town’s tranquil atmosphere and of course the Palais des Papes, which served as the seat of Western Christianity during the 14th century. The building’s inner sanctums must have smelt of burning incense once upon a time and this served as an inspiration for perfumer Bertrand Duchaufour when he created his perfume, Avignon for Comme des Garçons. Imagination is required to envisage this Gothic period and the aromas that it created; today the Palais des Papes smells only of old stone. Beautiful stone nonetheless.
My final destination before returning to a Paris bound flight in Nice was Aix-en-Provence. I knew this wasn’t the best time to be there as lavender was out of season. I had the fortune of experiencing jasmine and tuberose fields in Grasse this visit, so fortune would need to bring me back to Provence in late spring to see and smell the purple lavender fields.
5 Bis rue Alphonse Karr 06000 Nice
49 Rue Hôtel des Postes 06000 Nice
7 rue Paradis 06000 Nice
12 rue de l’Oratoire 06130 GRASSE
120 rue d’Antibes 06400 CANNES