The medieval town of Grasse in southern Provence is located in the pleasant green hills just north of Cannes, overlooking the Côte d’Azur (French Riviera). It’s a beautiful town to visit whilst staying in Nice and essential for perfume aficionados, as Grasse is the world’s perfume capital.
Grasse wasn’t originally known for perfume manufacturing. In fact, it was quite the opposite. In Medieval times it was a prosperous leather manufacturing town. The tanneries made the town positively stink, which didn’t go down to well with local nobility.
Legend has it that a local tanner presented Catherine de Medici, the queen of France, with a pair of leather scented gloves, and from there a new trade was born.
Today Grasse is home to the famous French perfumeries of Fragonard, Molinard and Galimard, as well as the Musée International de la Parfumerie, and the Grasse Institute of Perfumery: a school for passionates, amateurs and professionals, who want to learn the science behind the smell.
The industry in Grasse is best known for its natural botanical components. The hospitable climate is ideal for flower production. The area is sheltered from the sea and gets a good amount of sun. The soil is fertile and the protected flower fields produce harvests of May rose, jasmine, wild mimosa, myrtle and lavender, which are used in the production of Chanel, Dior and Hermes perfumes, including the legendary Chanel Nº5.
Around Grasse Town
Grasse is one of the lesser-known towns on the French Riviera, but it’s a fascinating and beautiful place, in equal measures. The medieval cobblestone streets and passageways wind through town and are lined with ochre and rust coloured villas, in the typical Provencal palette. This is a place to lose yourself and explore every pretty square and stairway.
The central point is the Place des Aires, a traditional market square, which features beautiful arcades and a central Louis XV Fountain. Sunny cafe terraces, brasseries and restaurants encompass the Place des Aires.
The town gets quite busy during the summer months, and the gift shops are packed with tourists looking to buy a sweet-smelling memento: scented soaps, scent sachets, and of course perfumes. There are also lots of gorgeous French boutiques and stalls to purchase wares.
One of the architectural highlights of Grasse is the Notre-Dame du Puy Cathedral. Originally a simple church, it was converted into a cathedral in 1244, when the bishopric was transferred from Antibes.
Designed in the Provencal Romanesque style, the cathedral’s exterior is simple, bordering on austere, which is quite contrary to the interior. The cathedral’s interior layout, vaulting and decorative elements were designed in the North-Western Italian architecture style of Liguria and Lombardy.
The walnut entrance was carved by local Grasse cabinetmakers, Deschamps and Raybaud. There is a vaulted ceiling, central nave and two side aisles. Of particular beauty are the stained glass windows and statues, designed by Baillet.
The Notre-Dame du Puy Cathedral also features an altarpiece designed by Louis Brea, three Ruben paintings, and a painting by Fraganord.
The Museum of Art and History of Provence is a must-visit for art and architecture lovers. Housed in an 18th-century mansion, which was constructed by one of Provence’s noblest and most powerful families. The mansion itself is a work of art: a mix of Milanese and French Classic architecture. There are permanent and temporary collections which showcase local artists, sculptures and jewellers, as well as artefacts which tell the story of the Provence region.
Also worth a visit is the Jean-Honoré Fragonard Villa-Museum, set just outside the city walls, the Villa Fragonard was the residence of the great painter and printmaker Jean-Honoré Fragonard, who escaped the political events of the French Revolution in Paris, returning to his hometown in 1790. The villa displays 12 of Fragonard’s paintings; the largest collection in the world, outside of the Louvre Museum in Paris.
Whilst wandering the streets lookout for the square Saracen town and the remains of the 16th-century ramparts; the old Bishop’s palace which is now home to the Mayor and the local council, and the original Belle Epoque Casino, which is now home to a conference centre.
Grasse Perfume Heritage
If you’re ever read Patrick Suskind’s novel, Perfume: the story of a murderer, you’ll have already visited Grasse amongst its pages, as part of the book was set here. The 2006 film adaptation also features scenes filmed around town.
To understand better the rich heritage of the industry, a visit to one or more of the town’s museums is a must. Situated in the centre of town is the Musée International de la Parfumerie, and the perfumeries of Fragonard, Molinard and Galimard, where you can learn all about the industry.
And probably the most important of these is the Fragonard Perfume Factory. Set in an iconic building in the centre of town, which was originally a tannery, the Parfumeur houses the distillery, bottling room and the maceration and filtering room. The onsite museum takes the visitor on a journey from ancient to modern perfumery.
If you want to delve deeper into perfumery, Fragonard offers perfume workshops, which will teach you all about the raw ingredients and distillation process. The workshops are 90 minutes and you will create your own perfume to take away.
The International Perfume Museum has a delightful rooftop garden and a wonderful collection of ancient Egyptian perfume bottles. The International Perfume Museum Gardens are also not to be missed. This is a plant conservatory and five-acre flower plantation with a difference. Book a plant tutorial and learn how the plants are used in making perfume.
All the museums and perfumeries of Grasse offer English speaking guided tours, which don’t need to be booked unless you are visiting in a large group. Walk away having learnt interesting facts, such as there are three tons of flowers used to get just one litre of oil! And you’ll also get to test different scents, and learn about what flowers and ingredients are combined to create those
The Château de la Colle Noir, located just outside of Grasse in Montauroux was the once residence of Christian Dior. It was acquired by the house of Dior in 2013 and both the Provencal residence, parkland and delightful gardens have been restored to their former glory. Although not open to the public, the Château de la Colle Noir plays an important role in the heritage of Grasse.