Some people, when they find themselves at a crossroads of life, travel to meditate alone in a secluded place. Mostly they choose Nepal, or some Buddhist or other monastery hanging somewhere on the edge of the cliff just due to the willpower, the prayers of the monks and some malfunction in the laws of physics. I wish them well, each according to their taste, but for me, I picked the French Riviera.
The reasons are clear: pleasant climate, considerably more tolerable slopes of hills (and especially much more driveable by a car), views of the azure-blue sea, good food, decent coffee on every corner (I usually yell when offered a tea with yak butter) and especially… perfumes.
So I settled down for almost two weeks in Grasse.
The leather processing developed here in the Middle Ages, and it was so good that their producs were sold in far places. One of the important merchadise were leather gloves. When Catherine De’ Medici moved to France with her court perfumeres, a certain leather-maker named Galimard got an idea to infuse gloves with perfume. He got a patent, money and fame, and a the city industry got new direction and a source of income.
The area around Grasse is relatively dry, so the local farmers had long ago built irrigation systems, which suddenly became a heaven-sent gift. In the local pleasant climate, they were able to grow fragrant plants that would otherwise have to be imported from exotic destinations, and thus the region got and kept much more profit. Moreover, local growers have also proven to be flexible enough to always grow what is most advantageous. For example, a century ago, most of the tuberose used in perfumery came from Grasse, today its consumption is mainly covered by India. But in Grasse they grow roses, jasmine, lavender, orange blossom…
Generally in the whole area, people are evidently passionate about growing, with parks and beautiful private ornamental gardens everywhere – even on side roads where the beauty is evidently just for locals. Sometimes they may overdo it:
Simply, Grasse has gradually become a center of perfume production and later also the center of food aroma production. Different sources give different data, but even if we take some more modest estimates, more than half of the perfumes and perfume ingredients and two-thirds of the food flavorings around the world originate right here.
The city is also home to the International Perfume Museum (MIP) and near the Grasse in Mouans-Sartoux, this museum has its own botanical garden.
Originally I was determined to try as many perfumes as possible – after all, about 2.5 thousands perfume companies is located here – but I realized very quickly that if I wanted to look at it a little deeper, I’d be glad to catch at least the most famous classic three – Fragonard, Molinard , and Galimard, and also the International Perfume Museum.
All three companies have their own museums (Fragonard has three of them – Perfumes, Arts and Museum of Provencal costumes and jewelry), Fragonard and Galimard also offer a factory tour and Molinard and Galimard hold perfumery workshops.
Musée International de la Parfumerie (MIP) and its gardens
The International Perfume Museum is neither big, but nor expensive, and the interesting information and attractions are there. Unfortunately, it is not well maintained, so even though it was recently renovated, many attractions are simply out of order. Also in the museum shop the testers were in such a bad condition that the only thing I dared to buy there was a book. The museum does have a winter garden, where there are live examples of the most important plants used in perfumery, so if someone does not want to travel to Mouans-Sartoux, this can suffice as a small sampler. However, if there is time and opportunity, I really recommend the trip to the gardens. They are large, divided into sections and nooks. There are herb fields, a rose garden, flower beds, sun loungers and a generally welcoming atmosphere that you consider buying a seasonal pass and just enjoy it day by day. And I really saw quite a lot of people “just” sitting and talking. Part of the gardens are designed to give you a picture of how everything was grown in the Provencal countryside, some are relaxing, and some are somewhat of a “catch-up” and demonstration place for plants that are grown elsewhere in the world, including those already replaced by synthetic substitutes, or those that served only as a “model” for synthetic chords from the outset, because obtaining aromatic essences from them is either impossible or too expensive, or the plants have become protected. And there is also a teaching corner, while I was there, there were schools coming one after another. A single ticket is valid for both the museum and the garden, as far as there is no more than 4 days between visits.
As for the city center, Fragonard just caught it. The idea of calling a perfume factory after a famous local painter proved to be brilliant. The whole city is dotted with places like Boulevard Fragonard, Villa Fragonard, Musée Fragonard, which, along with a number of boutiques bearing it’s name (and that they have them blessed and even thematically divided) and the oldest factory located almost in the center create an impression that they perhaps bought the city. The museum is larger and more comprehensive than the MIP (as well as museums of other companies) and the excursion smoothly continues with a tour of still functioning factory. The plant was purchased from an older soap company and its equipment was designed by Gustave Eifell himself. Pure perfumes are produced here, other concentrations in a newer factory farther from the center (even there it is possible to tour) and cosmetics is produced in the nearby town of Eze. It is a huge experience and if you are in Grasse is just for a short moment having to miss a lot, I definitely recommend choosing just this one. On top of that, speaking English paid off here — and in other places too — since the perfume industry is a French pride and the vast majority of tourists were French, so I had an individual guide here (and elsewhere.)
The Molinard brand is close to my heart because their iconic perfume Habanita reminds me very much of my grandmother. In the best sense, it is definitely wearable today and its latest reformulation is extremely successful. The company is based in the beautiful old villa La Bastide, they are celebrating the 170th anniversary founding this year and they are led by the fifth generation of the family. The museum is smaller, rather symbolic, but a part of it is a wonderful experience I would not miss for a world, is the opportunity to attend a perfume workshop. Again, I got it – for the reasons mentioned above – totally individual. For the first time in your life to sit down in front of a completely real perfume organ and to create (under the supervision of a real perfumer) a real perfume of your own is amazing and even if the result is not a complete turnaround for the perfume industry, it is pleasant, wearable and it is a great keepsake.
Galimard is the oldest of the three brands and seems to have the greatest international reach. But I judge only by the number of foreigners on the show and at the workshop – during the workshops they even had a Japanese speaking perfumer. The museum that also offers the factory tour is smaller, so I digest it just as a snack just before the workshop. The workshop was much more crowded coparing to Molinard’s, and given the number of foreigners I had no advantage of individual guidance, yet they have a larger and richer organ available. Less supervision gave me more freedom in design – but there was enough staff of qualified perfumers to ask for help at any time. It was also very interesting to compare the differences in the recommended procedures towards Molinard, as well as in the factory the differences in production methods compare to Fragonard. It is also notable that since olive wood processing is nearby, Galimard cooperates with one of the local wood processors and offers their perfumes in a wide range of wooden flasks (or rather wooden packaging, ordinary Galimard flasks are inserted inside).
And what did I bring home besides a lot of impressions? Well, apart from various goodies, sweets, soaps…. directly in terms of perfumes:
And besides, I saw Cannes, Nice with the Promenade des Anglais, the Cote d’Azur, found an amazing violet village (stay tuned…!), ate well, and so generally pampered myself.