Grasse, best known for its secrets of scent as the perfume capital of Europe, is a sophisticated hillside resort where the freshness of the air, cool breezes, congenial surroundings and exceptional views have enticed many visitors north from the Côte d’Azur.
A Roman outpost reputedly made fashionable by Senator Marcus Licinius Crassus in about 60 BC, Grasse was ravaged by the Saracens in the Dark Ages and became a poverty stricken independent state by the 12th century. In 1227 Raymond de Bérenger, Count of Provence, seized the town and added it to his domains. Grasse frequently found itself on the wrong side in conflict and was sacked by Emperor Charles V in 1556 and besieged during the French Wars of Religion.
The town became prosperous by buying ships and cargoes and at one point owned Marseille’s entire trading fleet. Grasse even supplied its own admiral, François de Grasse, who later fought for the American rebels against Britain. His naval victory in September 1781 at Chesapeake Bay cost Britain her supply route to the troops and made American independence inevitable. But following his defeat soon afterwards in the Battle of the Saints, the admiral was imprisoned and then literally put out to Grasse, where he replayed the encounter and presumably modified his tactics, using model ships in his back garden.
A cottage industry turning out leather goods, especially gloves, began to expand in the 17th century when Grasse found a French market for perfumed gloves, an idea brought by the Medici family from Italy. This sideline soon became the principal industry of Grasse, the perfume manufacturers even opening shops in Paris and selling their wares direct to an eager public.
The principal raw materials of scent are perfume flowers, especially wild mimosa, but also jasmine, roses and violets. However, many more exotic substances are added during the manufacturing process, including musk from Tibet, canine civet from Ethiopia, vanilla from the West Indies, ginger from India, aniseed from Spain, patchouli oil from Iran, and sandalwood from the Solomon Islands, and the rather less exotic whale vomit. At some risk of simplification, the closely guarded secret of the final product is the mix and balance of alcohol with antique oils.
You can hear a more detailed explanation first hand by touring the Fragonard perfume factory and museum in the centre of the town. The perfumes are for sale, but there is no hard sell, and the prices are lower than elsewhere. The factory takes its name from Jean-Honoré Fragonard, the son of a poor tanner and later glover from Grasse, who in the 18th century became the painter to the Royal Court. His brilliant technique enabled him to produce delightful scenes of Court life and magnificent landscapes in a style whose soft colours and naturalistic motifs anticipated the work of the great impressionist painters. Less well known is that Fragonard made money on the side with highly erotic miniatures, some of which featured his sister-in-law, one of his many mistresses.
In the winter of 1806-7, Napoléon’s sexually insatiable sister Pauline spent a scandalous four months at Grasse. Separated from her husband, Prince Borghèse, she took a series of young lovers and was summoned back to Paris in disgrace. After escaping from Elba, Napoleon himself passed through Grasse on 2 March 1815, on his way to defeat at Waterloo.
The true heyday of the town came in the late 19th century when the cream of British society could be seen fingering their Baedeckers in its quaint squares, or clambering up its steep steps and quenching their thirst at the highly fashionable Café de Monte-Carlo. Grasse was the favoured winter resort of Queen Victoria, though the Grand Hotel where she stayed has gone, and so has her other residence, the Villa Rothschild, leaving a space occupied in summer by hundreds of campers. The Queen usually arrived in the royal train via Cannes, on a branch line opened in November 1871. After several periods of decline and intermittent disuse, the line reopened in March 2005 with double-decker trains; the revitalised service links Grasse to Cannes, Antibes, Nice, Monaco and Ventimiglia in Italy. At Nice it connects with the new tram line that runs just short of the Promenade des Anglais. Trains from Cannes, 25 minutes away through olive groves and rose plantations, operate to Grasse until 11 pm, ensuring an effortless night out on the Riviera.
Nearby Le Rouret has a Roman camp, and a fine array of plants destined for the Grasse distilleries: jasmin, roses, violets and orange trees. Peymeinade offers regular antique fairs and markets and several musical events in summer. At its heart lie rows of well-preserved 18th century houses, grouped around the church. At Cabris, perhaps the prettiest of these Provencal villages, look for bargains in the weekly craft fair, especially stained glass and anything made from olive wood. The ruins of the feudal Château, partly rebuilt in the 19th century, lead on to an esplanade with a truly magnificent view over the Var towards Italy.