Situated just north of the French Riviera’s playground of Cannes, the inland town of Grasse is most famous for one thing and one thing only: perfume. It is internationally renowned as the world’s perfume capital, an industry for which the town rose to prominence in 18th century.
While perfume is the main reason many visitors head to the town, there are lots of other things to do in Grasse that make a day trip there from Cannes or Nice worthwhile, including the views.
Let’s put aside Grasse’s involvement in perfume for Part II of my trip and look at what else the town has to offer. Being an old town, Grasse has many other sights that display the grandeur of its ages gone by, including plenty of small, delightful museums.
Villa musée Fragonard
This elegant late seventeenth century country house, enhanced by a magnificent garden, houses the frescoes and twelve canvases of the famous Grasse painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806), plus those of his son Alexandre-évariste,, grandson Théophile and sister-in-law Marguerite Gérard.
A painter of romantic love scenes, Jean-Honoré was commissioned by the Comtesse du Barry, the mistress of Louis XV, to paint a series of paintings for her new lodge in the Chateau of Louveciennes. Today, replicas of these paintings adorn the halls here. In addition, in the stairwell there is an amazing trompe-l’oeil decoration, painted by Jean-Honoré Fragonard during his stay in Grasse in 1791.
On the Boulevard du Jeu de Ballon – walking along which is a destination in itself with all the beautiful historical buildings on show – this museum is also set in an 18th century building, built by one of the oldest families of medieval Provençal nobility, the Grasse family (which gives the town its name).
Revolutionary events forced the family to flee to Italy and a library was established in their home which sadly underwent several unsympathetic renovations in the subsequent centuries. Finally, in 1918 Francis Carnot revived it, sadly without being able to replace what was destroyed and sold during the previous century such as the wood panels from the lounges and bedrooms, the chimneys, some of the furniture and the parquet floors in the apartments.
The museum has been owned by the City of Grasse since 1952 and houses a collection of objects from throughout the ages, including everyday items, luxury items, musical instruments etc to illustrate the history of this fascinating area of France, including a large collection of traditional Provencal costumes. (Unfortunately this is one museum which doesn’t allow you to take photographs.)
Cathedrale Notre Dame du Puy Grasse
Built in 12th century, this former cathedral, is a stunning example of Romanesque architecture, with the relatively plain stone of its exterior betraying an extravagant baroque interior. A beautiful chapel was later added in 1740. Inside there are three paintings by Rubens, as well as one by the famous Grasse painter, Fragonard. Attached to the cathedral is the 30 metre Saracen tower, an iconic city landmark, visible from some distance.
Palais des Congrès de Grasse
The Grasse Convention Centre isn’t like any convention centre you’ve ever seen, probably because it only has been used for conventions and events since 1950. Colloquially known as the ancien casino (old casino), it was originally built in 1895, designed by Nice native Alban Gaillandre who was inspired by the richly ornamental Belle Époque style of the time. It has previously housed a casino, a concert hall, private party rooms, a restaurant and a café. Converted into a hotel in 1908 and abandoned some years after, it was reborn thanks to the opening of a Baccarat room in 1919 and a 600-seat cinema in 1927. No matter the history, this building is a true stunner.
Most of the sites mentioned above are located in Grasse’s Old Town, but really there are so many more things to see and do in Grasse’s historical quarter which has been much improved in the last 10 years.
Start by wandering around, and up and down, the tiny ancient backstreets, marvel at the multi-storeyed buildings, sit outside a café and enjoy the feeling of going back in time. Check out some of its interesting stores, particularly those of Fragonard. Also, don’t miss the Place aux Herbes, a square featuring market stalls, the Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall) with an exquisite entrance gate and, in its courtyard, an equally lovely fountain by Grasse-born sculptor Camille Rabuis.
It’s best to wander around the old Town with no time limit or schedule – just walk and admire the opulence that was afforded this town by its perfume industry.