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.