This fragrant pocket on the Côte d'Azur is only a short sniff from Nice and Cannes, writes Keith Austin.
Grasse smells. Not in the same way as Roquefort, a town whose cheesy aroma hangs on the breeze many kilometres before you actually get there; no, Grasse smells … nice.
Stroll past the shops in the meandering streets of the old town, which slumps insouciantly against a hillside in southern Provence just north of Cannes, and it's like walking through cloud after scented cloud. After all, this is the perfume capital of the world, where you can buy pretty much anything that can be "perfumed". You can even buy perfume.
But I'm not here for the fragrances. After a youth spent wafting around London in an eye-watering miasma of Hai Karate, Brut and Kouros – not all at once, of course – it's no longer my thing. I'm here for sun, wine, good food and to celebrate a friend's 50th birthday.
We are staying at La Rivolte, a 19th-century belle epoque villa overlooking the town and with views across the plains to the Côte d'Azur beyond. Old Grasse itself is a short walk away – just close enough to make painless the quest for fresh croissants and pain au chocolat every morning.
The villa, a pale yellow riviera beauty with eggshell blue shutters, sleeps 16 and is set in two hectares of tumbling terraces and garden, including a petanque court and a swimming pool. There is also a gravel drive at the front of the house which sports a long communal table. This is where we gather to eat every night, feeling very old Hollywood and decadent, sipping aperitifs as the sun goes down over the Bay of Cannes and the lights flicker on in the town.
There is also an old toy train track that chugs down through the gardens and on which little locomotives used to deliver G&Ts poolside but despite our best efforts it remains inoperable.
Grasse wasn't always known for perfume. In the Middle Ages it was famous for leather tanning and leather products. Which means it still smelled, but really bad – as did the gloves that went out to the nobility. Then a local tanner, one Jean de Galimard, came up with the idea of masking the noxious odour with the scent of flowers.
Pretty soon scented gloves were all the rage among the aristocracy. This eventually caught the attention of the government which, as governments tend to do, saw a way to bring in more money. The resulting tax hike on leather saw the tanning industry evaporate, leaving the perfumeries behind.
Galimard, founded in 1747, went on to become one of the biggest names in the perfume industry and – along with Fragonard and Molinard – still has a large presence in Grasse. All three have perfumeries and museums in the town where you can take guided tours and even create your own perfume.
Today there are dozens of perfume companies in greater Grasse, employing about 3500 people. And that's without the 10,000 locals employed indirectly by the industry.
But you don't have to be into perfume to enjoy Grasse. Quite apart from the hours spent lazing and reading around the pool at La Rivolte, we also waste away afternoons just poking around the narrow, winding streets of the vieille ville. Here the fun is in getting lost (though you can't, not really) and taking tiny, arched alleyways which eventually lead to precious, restaurant-fringed squares that we determine to come back to but can never find again.
One of the larger squares we come across quite by accident is the Traverse St Martin, at the back of Notre Dame du Puy, the old cathedral. Here, under the watchful eye of the cathedral's 18th-century clock tower, a lookout boasts panoramic views south and a small square of grass has been fenced off and scattered with deckchairs for public use. Above, hung from the houses on either side and weaving through two trees, thin black piping sends out occasional puffs of cooling water spray.
It's a thoughtful civic exercise that is repeated often through the more popular shopping streets. For although Grasse doesn't get as steaming hot as its coastal neighbours it can get pretty sultry by noon in July.
The cathedral itself was originally built in the 12th century and if its basic construction – ribbed vault, no buttresses, 1.7m thick walls – is a little primitive the same can't be said of the artworks within, which include three paintings by Rubens, a Louis Bréa triptych and the only religious work (Christ Washing the Feet of the Apostles) by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, the son of a Grasse glover and after whom the perfume company was named in 1926.
Our own capitulation came in the Rue de l'Oratoire and the understated, almost spartan, boutique parfumerie of Gaglewski. Originally from Paris, Didier Gaglewski is a slight, gentle man with a Nose – and by that I mean un nez, someone with a highly developed sense of smell.
We cannot help noticing that he also has for sale a fragrance called Journaliste. Far from smelling of yellowing paper, ink and desperation, Gaglewski describes it as "boisee and epicee" – woody and spicy, with hints of cedarwood and cinnamon. This will, he promises in his literature, "transport you to the door of an elegant and mysterious world".
I don't know what Gaglewski's on but I want some of it so we buy a presentation box of the stuff. Turns out the main ingredient is alcohol, so he's not too far off the mark after all.
La Rivolte villa sleeps a maximum of 16 people and is available to rent as a holiday home or for bed and breakfast throughout the year. It has five bedroom suites, all with views. B&B prices start at $150 a night (two-night minimum). See larivolte.com.
Nice (about 45 minutes away) and Cannes (30 minutes) are the nearest airports. Buses from either airport drop off at the bus depot in the centre of Grasse, right outside the Tourist Office. Take bus number 500 from Nice and numbers 600 or 610 from Cannes. There is also a 25-minute regular daily train trip (Grasse-Cannes-Nice). See ter-sncf.com/paca.
SEE + DO
The Fragonard perfume factory at 20 Boulevard Fragonard is in the heart of the old town and has been in use since 1782. Free guided tour and museum; fragonard.com.
Parfumerie Galimard is a little outside town at 73 Route de Cannes. Free guided tours here and at the company's Studio des Fragrances (appointment only) you can design your own perfume; see galimard.com.
For a boutique parfumerie, visit Didier Gaglewski's shop at 12 Rue de l'Oratoire, Grasse; see gaglewski.com.
The writer travelled at his own expense.