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Scents of Provence

Why Provence is the home of perfume

Many people would agree that fragrance adds a whole new dimension to an aesthetic, be it the interior of a home or the invisible detail that completes a fashionable look. Scented candles, room spray, aftershave, eau de parfum… they all depend on perfume of some kind. Plug-in air fresheners, well not so much.

Fragrance in Provence

The scrubby, coarse vegetation of Provence is known as the garrigue. The long hot, dry summer months are punishing, followed by harsh winters, and this means the vegetation has to be tough to survive. Part of its defence mechanism is to reduce the intensity of the sun by producing fragrant molecules that form an invisible cloud over the plant, helping to deflect some of the damaging UV rays. In short, it’s an aromatic sunscreen.

These same molecules are the reason the warm air carries its own garrigue scent, and they also permeate the soil on which the vines grow, lending their unique aromatics to the flavour of the wines themselves.

As for more cultivated fragrant crops, the Provençal climate has always been perfect for growing roses, jasmine, tuberose and other floral, scented delights.

Provencal Lavender Field
Provencal Lavender Field

A brief history of fragrance

Fragrance has been around for a long time. More specifically, the appreciation of a pleasant scent to enhance the ambience has been around for millennia. We’re not aware of Neanderthals having bowls of potpourri around the cave when friends dropped in for dinner, but we do know that the ancient Egyptians used aromatics to create perfumes to disguise the smell of sacrificial offerings.

There was a religious dimension, too, with the belief that scent created a direct connection to the gods. There was even a god of perfume, Nefertem, and powerful figures were buried with scented oils to take with them to the afterlife.

From the time of Alexander the Great through the days of the Roman Empire, trade routes opened up, heralding the arrival of spices, incense, plants and fragrant woods from all corners of the world, as well as developments in steam distillation and extraction of scent.

Lavender Soap
Lavender Soap

Medieval times saw the popularity of rose water soar, often kept in fashionable pomanders, partly as protection against disease and partly to mask unpleasant smells.

It was Catherine de Medici who brought the art of perfumery to Provence in 1533. Grasse quickly became the epicentre of the trade, and Louis XIV, the Sun King, later accelerated the fashion of having one’s own personalised scent to mask the effects of his fear of washing (water was considered by many to be the cause of many diseases).

Since the 20th century, some of the biggest fashion brands in the world have been based in Paris. Many have boutiques in the world’s most exotic locations. But the chances are when they want a fragrance to support their brand, they head to Grasse in Provence (more about that later).

The science of fragrance

Today much of perfume production is more at home in the science lab than the artisan’s bench. Some companies like to promote this aspect of their brand with white-coated, bespectacled technicians operating in clinical-looking laboratories. Others prefer the more authentic approach, celebrating traditional craftsmanship and individual skill.

Perfumiers of old would take blooms and capture the fragrance by steeping them in oil or fat such as lard in an ‘enfleurage’ process. Distillation is widespread, with steam capturing the essential oils (or rather, the aromatic molecules) before cooling. Alcohol is an alternative, with the fragrant elements being dissolved and then released with the evaporation of the alcohol.

Grasse market square
Grasse market square

Spotlight on Grasse

The Provençal hilltop town has been the perfume capital of the world for over three centuries. Head inland from Cannes, and you’ll arrive in Grasse within 20 km. Depending on the season, there’s a chance you’ll smell it before you arrive, such is the pungent nature of its main industry.

Prized blooms are grown all around the town, with the fields of exquisite roses and the neat rows of purple Provençal lavender being a photographer’s dream. The Domaine de Manon is a flower farm lying just outside the town. It supplies Dior with roses and jasmine and offers limited tours during the flowering season.

There are in excess of twenty perfume houses here, some of which do cater for ‘nosy’ tourists by offering tours and demonstrations and, yes, an exit via the gift shop. Some of the most popular and iconic items are not so much the celebrity-style brands but the iconic and traditional soaps, humble eaux de toilette and scented items.

Many illustrious names have beaten a path here, not least Coco Chanel, who came for her iconic No.5 perfume and Dior, Guerlain and others who made their names courtesy of the artisans of Grasse.

Musée Molinard
Musée Molinard

Musée International de la Parfumerie
A dramatic structure recounting the history of perfume as well as explaining the background to the industry itself.

Musée Molinard
A small museum of one of the town’s oldest perfume houses. Admire ancient perfume bottles, the distillery and the 19thcentury soap factory.

Fragonard Usine Historique
In use since 1782, this venerable building was the Fragonard perfumery from 1926. You can see the original tools and equipment, learn about the history of the perfume trade and buy the souvenirs.

Walking through Provence is one of life’s pleasures. The scenery is rugged but not intimidating, with little ochre-coloured villages perched on hilltops and astonishingly vibrant lavender fields around every corner. As you follow the trails and scramble around rocks and past bushes, you brush past wild herbs releasing the aroma of wild thyme, rosemary and lavender into the air as you travel.

Add to that heady mix the scent of pine, herbal notes of juniper and the sweetest of flowering blossoms, and you have an intoxicating fragrance that is an assault on the senses. You’ll find it carried on the Mistral wind down the Rhone Valley and through the Vaucluse.