Flower Power in Grasse

On the occasion of the 2018 annual Rose Expo on 17 to 20 May in Grasse, celebrating its 2018 theme of “Flower Power”, we took advantage of the four-day event to savor the fragrances and lush floral displays along the cobble-stoned streets within the ramparts of the old town. This was not our first time to the annual Expo, since we had been May-time visitors of the region with my in-laws in years past, but this was the first occasion for us to explore the wide array of rose-oriented celebrations as actual residents of the town.

Our home, Villa Ndio, at the very edge of Grasse, is actually more attuned to nearby Peymeinade, a small village in walking distance from our home (and is about to celebrate its 150th anniversary in June) than it is to the center of Grasse, which is too far for reasonable pedestrian access but also has no decent pedestrian walkways to get there from where we live. Nonetheless, we are technically residents of Grasse, and that is OK with us. With the good fortune of having acquired a vacation home right next to the home of my in-laws (who led the way for us by choosing  the charming Villa Lou Baguié in Grasse for easing into their retirement years), we were pleased to associate ourselves – and our extended family – with this famed “perfume capital of the world”.  For well over twenty years now, we have always enjoyed our time in Grasse, whether as visitors or as residents.

In fact, our daughter even worked a summer job as a tour guide at the Fragonard Perfume Factory during one of our previous sojourns in Grasse. We did spend some six years from 2002 to 2008 here, with Grasse as our primary residence, even when our professional lives were based in Geneva. It was in that time period that our daughter had the Fragonard experience. But we must admit that we were still living in an expat world of international schools and weekly easyJet commutes to Geneva in that time period.

It wasn’t until we committed ourselves last year to easing into our own RETIREMENT in Grasse that our attention truly shifted to a local focus. Even now, we still operate our daily lives in English and rely on American television and Internet networks for our news. So we aren’t yet fully localized. But both of us are improving our French, and each of us is approaching the immediate world around us with an interest in what ties our Villa Ndio cocoon to the neighborhood – Ralph (aka Peppy) with his photography and Kathy (that’s me) with my interest in history, politics and the geographic context.

So back to this 2018 Rose Expo. Both of us benefited from this special occasion, with several visits to the specially bedecked Old Town of Grasse. Both of us enjoyed the delightful fragrances of the abundant displays of fresh roses, to be sure, but we don’t have the channels yet to share those olfactory pleasures with anyone. Ralph has, however, done a beautiful job of capturing the visual atmosphere of the festivities through his camera(s).  The two photos here are among my favorites. Take a look at many more in Ralph’s photo gallery here.

Flower Power 2018
A thorn between two roses.
Grasse Mayor Jerome Viaud in his element

I was personally delighted by a chance encounter with the youthful Mayor of Grasse, Jerome Viaud, with his dimpled smile.  Meanwhile, my own focus for the 2018 Rose Expo was to take advantage of a special thematic rose tour at the International Perfume Museum of Grasse, “the only museum of its kind in the world” and a walking tour of the architectural features linking “the rose” to the Old Town of Grasse. Here are a few highlights from those tours.

First, I learned that Grasse has a unique “micro-climate” in contrast to the rest of the Riviera. It is an elevated and protected enclave from the Mediterranean below and the pre-Alpes behind it and with hilly sections to the west blocking the infamous Mistral but also hilly sections to the east, such that it is an enclosed area that regularly benefits from cooler temperatures as compared to the rest of the Cote d’Azur. This is reinforced by cool streams flowing down from the mountains and a clay and limestone soil rich with minerals, making the terrain conducive to the cultivation of fragrant but highly sensitive flowers. Both tour guides emphasized the significance of three of them – the rose, to be sure, but also the jasmine and the tuberose, as the mainstay of the fragrant flowers of the region. Not lavender – which has too “heavy,” a fragrance for perfumes, it seems. And not lilac, which has limited fragrant value, it seems. (Both of these are prevalent in the region, however.)

The architectural tour guide also described the commercial significance of the olive trees and orange trees, both for the region and for the perfume industry. A statue emphasizing the commercial history of Grasse features all of these plants, as shown here.

Commercial symbolism of a statue in Grasse
Rose carvings on doorway to a wealthy home in old town Grasse

And both guides emphasized the key role of Grasse historically as a community focused on commerce throughout its history, even back a thousand and more years ago when the European world was mostly feudal and agricultural. Architecturally, this is featured in the floral carvings of doorways and window frames of the wealthier homes nestled in the narrow streets of the old town itself.

We understand that the narrow confines of the geographic scope of this “micro-climate” of Grasse meant that the population expanded upward inside the town’s ramparts, with tall structures in narrow and curved pathways rather than sprawling outwards with wide open boulevards. We ourselves can certainly confirm that the relative coolness of this unique “micro-climate” can even be appreciated in our garden on the western hillsides beyond the ramparts – especially after a brilliant summer sunset over the nearby hills is noticeably followed by a significantly cooler evening breeze!

Meanwhile, back to these Expo Rose guides, they both described the historic evolution of the perfume industry from the earlier role of Grasse as the center of a thriving leather industry. This includes the anecdotal tale that one such seventeenth century leather merchant (with the Galimard name) came up with the idea of fragrances to cover the unpleasant scent of leather gloves, much to the delight of Catherine de Medici, who then triggered the spread of the fashion among the aristocracy of the times for perfumed gloves from Grasse. Thus, even as Grasse lost its commercial advantage in leather in the seventeenth century (due to tax levies and competition from Nice), it retained its pre-eminence in fragrances and thereby acquired its title as the perfume capital of the world. Different production methods have evolved since the seventeenth century for extracting fragrances from the rose, the jasmine and the tuberose. But even as synthetic sources of fragrances have come into the business, Grasse has adapted its expertise in fragrances to the changing times.

We do recall a time, even some ten or fifteen years ago, when Grasse seemed to have been on the decline as a perfume center. The “multi-nationals” apparently took over much of the business and started outsourcing the flowers from elsewhere (i.e. developing countries with cheap labour). Recent developments, however, have revived the value of the accumulated knowledge about perfumes and fragrances – and the increasingly significant commercial uses of fragrances in flavorings, too!  And, as evidenced in the International Perfume Museum, there continues to be a strong link between Grasse and the high-end perfumes from French haute couture houses like Chanel, Givenchy, or Christian Dior.

Chanel No. 5 and Kathy’s reflection

The museum has a display, year by year, of “new” high-end perfumes – like Chanel No. 5 in 1921 (wow!), Shalimar in 1925, Arpège in 1927, or more recently, Opium in 1977, Fahrenheit in 1988, and my own favorite Obsession, in 1985. (That’s my reflection in the window trying to capture a photo of the enduring Chanel No. 5.)

As for my “obsession” with Obsession, by the way, it is similar to the Fragonard fragrance known as Diamant. I know this from our daughter, the Fragonard tour guide of some years ago, who has now moved on to a political career in the US but still retains a network of acquaintances who remember her at the historic Fragonard factory in town). However, and oddly enough, the Museum’s tour guide insisted that there was no connection between the museum and the three main tourist-oriented factories of Fragonard, Galimard and Molinard here in Grasse. This is too bad, since the tourist factories attract far more visitors than the museum, even though the museum has a far more informative and historic panorama of different extraction methods and an illustrative display of what a traditional “nose”( as a specialist in mixing aromas is called), has to work with .

All in all, it was a superb four-day festival of the links between Grasse and “the rose”. This is, of course, an annual event in the middle of May. Our impression is that this festival is mostly for a local and regional audience – with performances and a wide variety of activities throughout the town. There was a large market of florists (see the photo below) selling their latest rose plants, and we did buy a couple of them to add to our own garden. We also appreciated the promotion of local artists, emphasizing once again the 2018 theme of “Flower Power”.

Rose market

We understand that the annual jasmine festival is another major annual event for Grasse – in August and therefore more oriented to the extended tourist business of summertime in the Cote d’Azur.  Of course, both events have the usual beauty contests and debutantes in high heels – awkward, indeed, on these cobble-stoned streets. Check out the beauties below in their gold spike shoes!  

But I have to admit that I did as much as a teenager. So I can’t really complain about the high heels. At least not in this particular musing.

Ah well, there was so much else on the festival’s program that we did not get to this time around. But we are here for a while. So we shall explore Grasse and its festivals on an ongoing basis. We will be sure to have more to say on the jasmine festival in August. But in the interim, there is also the Peymeinade anniversary celebration in June! And, of course, the brilliant sunsets and cool breezes of summer evenings to enjoy at Villa Ndio!

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