A day trip to Grasse

2 November 2023

One goes to Grasse, perfume capital of the world, to smell the roses, the patchouli, the jasmine, the citrus, the caramel and the musk. We weren’t disappointed. In the historic Fragonard parfumerie, which has a fascinating collection of artefacts connected to  perfume, the air was deliciously scented with an expert concoction of some of these ingredients (quite possibly super-charged with ‘linger-here’ and ‘buy-now’ pheromones). In the Fragonard shop we sniffed and sprayed enthusiastically until I could no longer distinguish the sage from the civet. In the end I left without a bottle of perfume, but with several beautifully scented cardboard strips. Great bookmarks! 

The very idea of going to Grasse must have primed my olfactory system, because from the moment we arrived until we caught the return train to Menton, my visit was a tour by nose. A waft of marijuana, an unpleasantly sharp aftershave, chocolate from the open door of a chocolatier, coffee (mingled with cigarette smoke) from the cafes, bread from the boulangeries. In the garden where we ate our lunch, the fragrance of sage and rosemary, suddenly and unpleasantly mingled, as the backpack was unzipped, with the scent of over-heated over-ripe banana.

Near shops displaying fragrant soaps on the Rue Amiral, there was a small second hand book shop called ‘Les Vraies Richesses’. Bookshelves crammed with old books, piles of books on the central table, an aisle just wide enough for one person to shuffle along. That distinctive smell of aged book, of foxed and blemished ink-and-paper – you know it, catnip to the booklover.

‘Avez vous des livres de Katherine Mansfield?’ ‘Oui, Madame. J’en ai un. Voilà.’ The bookseller side-stepped down the aisle and pulled down a 1931 leather-spined hardback edition of Lettres de Katherine Mansfield, the French translation by Madeleine T. Guéritte. Reader, this I bought.

Back in Menton I realised that a previous owner had underlined some passages in pencil, adding exclamation marks, large crosses and asterisk stars where he or she was especially moved by what Mansfield was saying. All of a sudden there were three of us in this relationship. I quickly became fascinated by the penciled mindset of my new companion. It gave me a strange time-wormhole feeling whenever I saw they had marked a passage that I had also marked as special when I first read it. For example, on opposite sides of the world, years – possibly generations – apart, in English and in French, we had both fallen for the same part of a letter written to Lady Otteline Morrell. For me, the heart note, as it were, of these few lines is a very simple sentence, not at all profound. Yet it resonated, and still does. No one who has ever cut a bunch of lavender could fail to register the hit of volatile fragrance released by Katherine Mansfield’s question of July 1918, a summer day in the final year of a terrible war: ‘Vous rappelez-vous le jour où nous avon cueilli la lavande?’ ‘Do you remember the day we cut the lavender?’

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1 Comment
    1. Oh, lovely! I visited the Fragonard perfume factory a few years ago, purchased a beautiful scent that I’ve recently discovered has been discontinued – sadly! I was hoping to get some more, but alas… I’ll have to savour the last of my bottle.
      Sounds like you’re having a fantastic time. Keep enjoying!

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