Insight Guides: Explore Nice & the French Riviera (Insight Explore Guides) (2015)
With its challenging topography and the hard sell of the perfumeries on the outskirts of town, Grasse can be a difficult place to grasp. Yet the town merits exploration for its old centre, dynamic perfume museum and the family home of the painter Fragonard.
DISTANCE: 1.5km (1 mile)
TIME: Two or three hours
START: Palais des Congrès
END: Villa Musée Fragonard
POINTS TO NOTE: Grasse has a complicated one-way system, so leave your car in the car park on cours Honoré Cresp. Apart from Fragonard’s ‘Historic Factory’, the main perfume factories (Fragonard, Galimard and Molinard) are located outside the town centre, as are the town’s best restaurants.
Grasse, perfume town par excellence
Grasse grew up around its tanneries before becoming a centre of perfume production. When Catherine de Médicis introduced the Italian fashion for wearing perfumed gloves, the logical step for Grasse’s tanneries was to begin producing the necessary scents. By the 18th century, several firms were processing tons of mimosa, needle furze, orange flowers, roses, lavender, jasmine and hyacinths into minute amounts of concentrate for the wealthy. Today, Grasse is one of the most important perfume manufacturing cities in the world and, unlike much of the Riviera, it is still essentially a manufacturing town. Grasse’s prosperous perfume barons and middle classes hide out in smart bastides in the outskirts, leaving the old centre feeling rather abandoned and surprisingly run down.
Begin on cours Honoré Cresp, which was laid out as a promenade in the 19th century. Here the Palais des Congrès 1 [map], a former casino, is now a congress centre.
MUSÉE INTERNATIONAL DE LA PARFUMERIE
Just up the hill, the recently expanded Musée International de la Parfumerie 2 [map] (MIP, 2 boulevard du Jeu de Ballon; www.museesdegrasse.com; Apr-Sept 10am-7pm, Oct-Mar Wed-Mon 10.30am-5.30pm; charge) displays the assorted plants, minerals, roots and animal matter used for perfumes. A glasshouse contains olfactory plants and materials to sniff and touch. There is also a vast collection of ancient and modern perfume bottles, along with a reconstructed medieval apothecary’s shop, Marie-Antoinette’s travelling case, early make-up, and various stills, alambics and equipment. The museum has its own gardens (JMIP; 979 Chemin des Gourettes, Mouans-Sartoux; same website; mid-Mar-mid-Sept daily 10am-7pm, Oct-Nov Tue-Sun 10am-5.30pm; charge), just south of Grasse, puts an emphasis on biodiversity and traditional methods of cultivation. Visitors can follow an olfactory route, to discover the different flower fragrances, and also visit the conservatory where plants traditionally used to make perfume are grown. There are free guided tours at 5pm from June to August and at 3pm during the rest of the year.
RUE JEAN OSSOLA
At the exit of MIP turn left from boulevard Honoré Cresp into rue Jean Ossola, the main thoroughfare of medieval Grasse, lined with some fine hôtels particuliers.
On the corner, Café des Musées, see 1, is ideal for a drink or light meal. Across the street at no. 2 is the Musée Provençal du Costume et du Bijou 3 [map] (tel: 04 93 36 44 65; Easter-Oct daily 10am-1pm and 2-6pm, Nov-Easter Mon-Sat; free), an attractively presented private collection of 18th- and 19th-century regional costumes and jewellery. A few doors up at no. 14 is the fine doorway of the Hôtel Luce, where swashbuckling musketeer d’Artagnan is said to have stayed.
Take a short detour up impasse des Soeurs, on the left, to the near derelict-looking medieval house where Queen Catherine de Médicis stayed.
Inside the cathedral
AROUND THE CATHEDRAL
Backtrack to rue Jean Ossola and take rue Gazan to place du Petit Puy. On the left is a square fortified watchtower, and at the rear of the square is the 12th-century Cathédrale Notre-Dame-du-Puy 4 [map] (July-Sept daily 9.30-11.30am and 3-6pm, Oct-June Mon-Sat 9.30-11.30am and 3-5.30pm). The stark west front was altered in the 17th century, when the fanciful horseshoe-shaped staircase was added, but the gloomy interior is a heavy example of Provençal Romanesque with massive columns and cursory cross vaulting. To the right of the nave are three canvases by Rubens, while the transept contains some unusual sculptures of saints and a rare religious painting by Fragonard, The Washing of the Feet (1754).
Go through the arch to the left of the cathedral to place du 24 Août, a former cemetery with lovely views.
Return through place Godeau and take the steps beside the Hôtel de Ville down to place de l’Evêché. At the back of the square, a fountain cascades down a row of arches that were originally cellars and warehouses. Cross rue de la Poissonnerie through place Roustan into rue Rêve Vieille, which has an eclectic mix of medieval and 18th-century architecture.
PLACE AUX AIRES
Turn left at the end into rue Marcel Journet and right into rue de l’Oratoire, taking rue des Fabreries into the attractive place aux Aires 5 [map]. Lined with tall, arcaded, mainly 16th- and 17th-century houses, the square was the original focus of the town’s tanning industry. Today there’s a small food and flower market (Tue-Sun). On a street leading off the western side is La Voûte, see 2.
From the southern end, take rue Amiral de Grasse, home to antiques shops and upmarket clothes shops, which curves back to rue Jean Ossola.
Learn about the perfume process at the Usine Fragonard
USINE HISTORIQUE DE FRAGONARD
Return at the end to boulevard Fragonard for the Usine Historique de Fragonard 6 [map] (tel: 04 93 36 44 65; daily 9am-6pm; free) at no. 20. Although most of the perfumes are now made at the modern Fabrique des Fleurs outside the centre, the factory founded by Eugène Fuchs in 1926 still makes and packages some perfumes, soaps and cosmetics, and contains a collection of antique stills and perfume bottles.
Food and Drink
1 CAFÉ DES MUSÉES
1 rue Jean Ossola; tel: 04 92 60 99 00; 8.30am-6.30pm summer daily, winter Mon-Sat; €
This stylish modern café, located between the perfume and costume museums, is ideal for a drink or a light lunch of salads, savoury tarts and home-made desserts.
2 LA VOÛTE
3 rue de Thouron; tel: 04 93 36 11 43; Mon-Sat L and D; €€
A friendly, convivial restaurant where Provençal specialities and meat roasted on an open fire are served in an atmospheric, two-tiered, vaulted room (hence the name) or on a terrace on place aux Aires.