Trip to Grasse: Part II

In Part I of my trip, I showed you around the town. Now, let’s turn our attention to that which has made Grasse famous: perfume. Trade with the Moors in 16th century brought jasmine to Grasse, which is perfectly placed to grow these fragrant flowers. It enjoys year-round warm conditions, is far enough inland to protect the plants from the sea air and is well irrigated from the surrounding hills.

By 1747 the oldest parfumerie in France, and the third oldest in Europe, Galimard had been established, first selling scented leather gloves – using scent to hide the smell of the leather. And it was to be the scents and not the tanning that eventually made Grasse so famous.

Roses

Perfume put this town on the map and there are plenty of places where you can find out about its illustrious past. There are three historic perfumeries, open to the public, that still operate in Grasse: Galimard, Molinard and Fragonard, though there are many other less well known perfumers all over town.

Galimard

The third oldest European perfumery, after Johann Maria Farina gegenüber dem Jülichs-Platz (1709) and Floris of London (1730), launched its Studio des Fragrances in 1997.

Molinard

Founded in 1849, Molinard caught everybody’s eye because it used beautiful Lalique glass and Baccarat crystal bottles for its products. You can visit the Molinard perfume factory and learn about this perfumery’s history, discover the raw materials for which it is famous and check out their savonnerie (soap workshop) where they’ve been producing beautifully perfumed soap since the 1920s. In addition, its collection of glass and crystalware is impressive.

Fragonard

My personal favourite, even though it was founded later than the others, Fragonard was named after the famous French painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard, a native of Grasse.

I always enjoy a tour of their Grasse Fragonard Perfume Factory (and museum), set in the oldest factory in town. Once an 18th century mansion, the International Perfume Museum opened in 1989. Around ten years ago it underwent significant renovations and doubled in size. Dedicated, of course, to all things perfume, it takes you on a 5,000-year journey through the history of perfume, including sections on how Grasse and the surrounding area has made an impact on that history.

Another thing I like about Fragonard is that it’s still a family concern. Started in 1926 by Eugène Fuchs based on the then novel concept of selling perfumery products directly to the tourists who were beginning to discover the French Rivera’s charms. However, it grew under the tenure of Jean-Francois Costa through rapid expansion and modernisation. As an avid art collector, during the 1970’s he amassed a large and unique collection of antique perfume-related items now on show in the museum. Today, Jean-François Costa’s daughters, Agnès and Françoise preside over the perfumery’s destiny.

The importance of Grasse and its flowers cannot be understated. In fact, the jasmine and May roses that go into making the world famous Chanel No. 5 only ever come from Grasse, no flowers from anywhere else in the world are allowed.

Jasmine, rather than lavender, is the much celebrated flower of the town. So much so that every year, for three days in summer, the town puts on the Fete Jasmin or La Jasminade, symbolic of the traditional beginning of the plucking of this fragranced flower.

Up until only a few decades ago picking jasmine was a labour-intensive process. The flowers had to be picked at dawn and immediately treated in cold enfleurage (odourless fat used for capturing and preserving scents).

It’s well-worth visiting one of the factories to learn more about the fascinating history of perfume and its production processes. Plus, you get to sample some of their wonderful products!

Trip to Grasse: Part I

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.

Musée d’Art et d’Histoire de Provence

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.

Vieille Ville

Grasse ramparts

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.

French Riviera: Must See Places

Most of us can only dream about where we’d like to visit next however I would encourage you to do more than just dream. Plan and prepare for when we can all travel again. I’m conscious that many of you only have a few days to spare for my part of the world, so where would I encourage first-time visitors to the French Riviera to go?

These places are in no particular order and can all be easily reached using public transport – train, tram bus.

Nice

Obviously I would have to say start with Nice, an all year round destination, about which I have already written one or two (slight understatement) posts. It overlooks the sparkling waters of the Mediterranean. Start with a climb up (or take the small train) to La Colline du Château (Castle Hill) to see what I’m talking about. Once you get to the top, you’ll have panoramic views of the Baie des Anges, the Old Town, Promenade des Anglais and the city’s varied and vibrant architecture. And while a few crumbling walls are all that remain of the namesake castle on the hill, there is a verdant park that’s perfect for an al fresco picnic lunch.

Any sightseeing should include a trip to Nice’s colorful Vieille Ville, or Old Town, which is a delightful maze of narrow streets full of lively restaurants, galleries and shops. There are cafés dotted all around the Old Town’s many squares, so take the opportunity to sit down, coffee (or rosé) in hand, and people-watch the day away. For a more active visit, spend some time strolling along the Promenade du Paillon, the city’s public park and botanical garden that links the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art with the Promenade des Anglais.

Menton

The town of Menton has all the beauty of the better-known coastal villages, but a fraction of the crowds. Its half-dozen beaches are all but empty in the off-season, and boutique-filled alleyways are relatively tourist-free. With over 300 days of sunshine a year, exceptional gardens, and quality Italian cuisine due to its position on the Franco-Italian border, it’s an ideal spot for a day trip. (For an unparalleled Provençal gastronomic experience, however, head to Mirazur, chef Mauro Colagreco’s triple Michelin-starred spot that earned the number one title in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list for 2019.) In February, the town holds a magnificent Lemon Festival, a celebration of spring and a throwback to the town’s past, when it survived principally on citrus production.

Antibes-Juan les Pins

Beyond the megayacht boat porn and picture-perfect beaches, Antibes is a draw for its literary and artistic history. It was at the Villa Saint Louis (now the popular Hotel Belles-Rives) in Juan-les-Pins that F. Scott Fitzgerald took up summer residence with wife Zelda and his daughter Scottie in 1926 and began his work on Tender is the Night. The enclosed mansions and dramatic villas lining the shore that once fascinated Fitzgerald are still very much a part of the landscape, but there’s local charm to be found, too. Stroll around old Antibes, through the Cours Masséna, a Provençal food market, and up to the Musée Picasso, the first museum dedicated to the artist. Formerly the Château Grimaldi, the stronghold was Picasso’s home and workshop in 1946 and remains one of the commanding cultural draws of the resort town.

Cannes

Long before it was synonymous with the International Film Festival and earned its reputation as a playground for the world’s dizzyingly well-heeled, Cannes was a shimmering, seaside destination made for resting and people-watching  – something that still remains true. But it also offers extraordinary views and culture. Climb the winding staircases and pass the pastel-coated homes in Le Suquet, the city’s old quarter, and you’ll end up at the Musée de la Castre, a home for ethnographic art in a medieval fortress overlooking the marina and the Croisette. For restorative beaches and landscapes free of crowds, take a 15-minute ferry ride to two of the Lérins islands off the coast: Ile St. Honorat, known for its working monastery and forest groves, and Ile Ste-Marguerite, the spot for hidden coves and beaches.

Eze

Nestled into craggy cliffs high above the sea, the medieval village of Eze is a delightful step back in time. The well-preserved stone buildings, winding alleyways, 14th-century chapels and dramatic Mediterranean backdrop make this tiny village seem like a movie set. The dramatic views are best earned by taking one of the many hiking trails, like the famous Nietzsche path, that connect the the town and the summit, which sits over 150 metres (1,400 feet) above sea level. At the top, is the town’s medieval fortress, which you may recognize from Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief, surrounded by the Jardin Exotique, a desert garden brimming with succulents and exotic florals.

Grasse

Grasse (visit write-up coming soon) is a quiet, pretty medieval village that also holds the distinction of being the world’s perfume capital. While famous perfumeries like Fragonard offer free tours of their factories, the real reason to come here is to take in the near-endless fields of flowers that dominate the area’s hilly landscape. Come August, the town plays host to the Jasmine Festival, a three-day celebration of jasmine, one of the two flowers to have dominated local perfume production (the other is Damascus rose). Grasse is conveniently located between Cannes and Nice, so a quick stop here is worth your while, if only to smell the flowers.

Monaco

Bordered by France on three sides, the petite principality of Monaco is a bastion of glitz and glamour. While it’s typically known as a playground for the ultra rich, those short on cash can still enjoy themselves. Its easy enough to walk around to view stately sights like the Prince’s Palace, Fort Antoine and Monaco Cathedral. Don’t forget to take some time to observe the luxurious yachts in the harbour (or, even better, make friends with someone who owns one), and wrap up your trip with a spin at the Monte Carlo casino.

I hope I’ve provided you with some inspiration for your next trip to my part of the world.

How much?

Today’s Armistice Day in France and hence a bank holiday. It’s also the designated day for my longer ride, anywhere between 100 and 150km. The weather today was sunny but decidedly chilly. Indeed, the mountains behind the coast already have a liberal dusting of snow. I decided to head off to Grasse via Sophia Antipolis, the coast’s Silicon Valley which affords some undulating terrain, returning by way of Pre du Lac.

While I was riding I was mulling over a recent news story. Allegedly, Astana Bertare offering Alberto Contador a contract worth Euros 8 million per annum if he signs up for another 4 years. This is double what he’s allegedly requested for next year’s contract. No word from Contador, who’s on holiday in Curacao, as the negotiations are being handled by his brother and manager, Fran who denies the claims. So I was thinking does Euros 8 million (US$12 million) seem like an excessive amount of money for a multiple Tour Winner or not?

By comparison with other sports, it’s not, but there’s one big difference. The fans don’t pay to watch live cycling. I accept they may pay to watch cycling on the internet or on cable or satellite tv but this money goes to the tv stations, event owners and organisers, not the owners of the cycling teams.  

So let’s put this in perspective. Tiger Woods, the best paid (and probably the best known) sportsman in the world picks up around US$100-128 million pa; approximately 80% endorsements and 20% Tour earnings. But Tiger isn’t paid a salary, nor is golf a dangerous sport. So maybe an F1 driver or Moto GP rider would be a more appropriate comparison. During the same period, it appears Alonso earned US$35 million and Rossi US$30 million. On that basis US$ 12 million doesn’t seem excessive. After all, Contador is only worth what someone is willing to pay him.

Back home I discovered that my beloved had left for a 10-day trip without his gout medication. That man would forget his head if were not attached to his body. I then sat down to start ploughing through the rather large amount of work I seem to have picked up over the last couple of weeks. Jobs are just like buses, they tend to come along in twos and threes.

Ma cherie

The wind of recent days has sucked the humidity out of the air and lowered the temperature a couple of degrees: ideal cycling weather. In addition, the heat haze has gone leaving clear views of both the coastline and hinterland for miles around.

My husband and I set off just ahead of the club on Sunday morning. Riding up to Le Rouret over tarmac still  painted with the names of those who took part in this year’s Tour de France. At Pre du Lac we tagged onto a large group of riders who’d taken the opportunity to refill their bidons at the fountain. Halfway to Grasse, they suddenly all swerved right up a small tributary road. Who was I to argue with the collective, cumulative knowledge of the peloton. We followed and after a couple of short, steep ascents and descents found ourselves on the N85 Route Napoleon leading to St Vallier, by way of the Col du Pillon.

The hills were most definitively alive with the sound of cyclists. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many on the road. But then the French holidays are over and everyone is back at work. My husband remarked that I seemed to know most of them, or rather most of them know my name.

You see, my christian name, pronounced correctly, sounds exactly like the french word for “darling” and engenders amusement and affection in equal measures. Not long after I started riding with the club on a regular basis, I passed a clubmate, going in the opposite direction, in a group of about 30 riders. He hailed me from the other side of the road “Salut Sheree”. This occasioned some ribbing as the rest of the peloton queried why he was being so familiar with a woman who was not his wife. I could hear him vainly explaining that “Sheree” was my christian name.

While a lot of woman cycle, not many cycle with clubs. On average, we make up only 5% of those taking part in local pointages, cyclosportifs, brevets and randonnees. We all know one another by sight, if not by name. I am one of the fortunate few able to cycle most days and am therefore a well known figure on my distinctive bike.

It’s the combination of these two factors that accounts for my being somewhat infamous. But it’s rather companionable when you’re cycling along to be hailed by your name by those passing in either direction.

In Napoleon’s footsteps

St Vallier de Thiey
St Vallier de Thiey

Tomorrow we’re off to St Vallier de Thiey, just above Grasse. This is also the date of the club’s annual picnic on the shores of Lac St Cassien. Two year’s ago, doubting my ability to cycle all the way to the Lac via St Vallier, I instead drove the car to the picnic and cycled around the lake. Last year, I went to watch a friend compete in the Monaco Ironman. This year I’m doing the pointage, but not the picnic.

St Vallier was the Archbishop of Antibes  martyred in the 17th century by the Visigoths. While Le Thiey is the mountain at 1552m overshadowing the village which has a pretty12th century church and ancient city gates. 

The route is a gentle incline all the way to Pre du Lac. Thereafter, it’s reasonably flat  to Grasse where you take a sharp right-hand turn up the Route Napoleon to St Vallier. So called because, this was the route Napoleon took  on his return from exile in Elba after having first landed in Golfe Juan. My return route will depend on the weather and how I’m feeling.  

My first trip to St Vallier was last October. Wanting to increase my kilometrage, I had been exhorted by a club mate to ride with an UFOLEP group on Tuesdays, who “rode along the coast”, his words. This was my first outing with them and I was somewhat apprehensive as to whether or not I could a) keep up and b) ride the distance.

I joined the group at St Laurent du Var and we rode along the coast at a pace I could just about sustain to Mandelieu where we took a right-hand turn and headed inland, in the direction of Grasse, over a succession of short steep climbs which saw me slide ignominiously out on the back of the peloton and halfway-down the hill. My club mate kindly kept me company and, from time to time, even gave me a helpful push. I honestly don’t remember the route we took but I do recall we stopped for a picnic lunch in St Vallier. Yes, French cafes are quite happy for you to eat a picnic lunch while seated at their tables, providing you buy something to drink. Ever the pragmatists, the owners understand that the revenue from 30-40 drinks is not to be sneezed at. Shame English cafe owners don’t embrace the same view.

I confess that I am not a real fan of picnics. Many years ago my husband, for reasons I have been unable to fathom, bought me a picnic set for Xmas. We have used it twice. Both times to have a picnic in the gardens of Cleveland Sq, where we used to live in London, with my goddaughter. Frankly, I prefer to stop at a cafe or restaurant, have something to eat and drink, and continue on my way.

I had fondly imagined that after lunch our return route would be downhill all the way. Not so, we were not done climbing. Again, I barely recall the route but we continued to climb before finally descending past the high security prison, built on high above Grasse. This was the first time I had ridden in excess of 100km. Furthermore, I had anticipated that it would be along the undulating coastal route, not in the hilly, arriere pays. While it had been enjoyable, I was truly, but pleasurably,worn out.

L’Antiboise

I was awoken by flashes of lightening and loud overhead thunder at about 04:30am this morning. Now I generally sleep like the dead. Once my head hits the pillow I’m out for the count for 8hrs minimum. So, if anything wakes me up – it’s loud, really loud. My bedroom windows overlook the sea and, since we’re not overlooked, I see no reason to cover the magnificent view with curtains. The bedroom was lit up like the Blackpool illuminations by the thunderstorm.

When the alarm went off at 06:00am, I could hear the rain so turned over and went back to sleep: no L’Antiboise today. Yes, once again rain has stopped play on a Sunday. I had planned to do the 150km Brevet today thereby garnering maximum points for the club and putting in some valuable Livestrong training mileage.

Last year I had ridden the 100km with my husband. The course starts in Antibes,  goes along the coast to Agay, then turns into the l’Esterel hills before returning back along the coast via La Napoule. The longer route takes you past Lac St Cassien and over towards Grasse before returning to Antibes via Valbonne. Both great rides in good weather.

It’s not that I’m afraid of getting wet but, as I found out in the Pyrenees, my brake pads need replacing. They’ve been ordered and will be fitted next week. We rode in the pouring rain in the Pyrenees over Easter. On the Saturday I was able to demonstrate “how to perform an emergency stop” to the rest of the group. My brakes failed as I was rolling down a hill to catch up with them. They were waiting for me by the side of the road. Noting that they were next to a grassy patch, and my husband was at the back I hollered “my brakes aren’t working”. My husband caught my arm, thereby slowing me down somewhat and I flung myself over to my right and onto the grass. Both the bike and I came away unscathed, though I did have some rather spectacular bruising to my right knee and elbow.

Now, I’m a pretty good descender, largely thanks to my bike. I had thought that it was due to my superior bodyweight but if my husband and I descend at the same time, I go much faster than he does and he’s a good 20kg heavier than me. 

By 10:00am the rain had stopped and the roads were starting to dry out. So I went for a ride with my husband, meeting a number of club members en route. Let’s hope the weather will be fine for the Louis Caput sportif next week end.