Friday, June 4, 2010


So this is the Côte d'Azur.  Sun glittering on the turquoise Mediterranean sea, the wind blowing my hair as we tender to shore.   Cool and sunny. 

It is unbelievably crowded in Cannes the day of our visit, because both the film festival and Monaco Grand Prix are taking place the same weekend.

Paparazzi are setting up ladders and staking territory, but it will be hours before an A-lister shows... In the meantime the tour bus is inching through the chaos to take us to Grasse and St. Paul de Vence.

After what feels like an hour but is more likely ten minutes, we've cleared traffic and are racing through the countryside and heading into Provence, passing  pale yellow stucco cottages with terracotta roofs.

This is not the Grasse of my fantasies.  I had hoped for acres of roses and jasmine, this being the perfume capital of the world.  But now most of the flowers are shipped from other countries in the form of essential oils.   A pretty French woman at Gallimard explains to us that it takes about one metric tonne of jasmine petals to make a single kilogram of Jasmine oil.  She says this with a charming accent that magically combines the sound of well borne British and lilting Parisian.

She shows us the room where 'the Nose' tries to come up with the perfume that will take the world by storm.  There are very few 'Noses' in the world and they live a cloistered life.  No alcohol, no spicy food.  On the upside, they only work three or four hours a day.  But I have to wonder what they do with all their free time?  On display are the tools that were used centuries ago to distill scents.  Copper pots and rose and jasmine petals caught in glycerine frames.

Somehow the tour ends in the showroom, with an explanation of what good value we'll get by spending our perfume dollars at the source.  The beautiful blonde does a great job of selling.  Alex picks out something special for Penny.  I buy a sampler of fragrances because I can't decide.  Even Rob buys some perfume that smells of "sea and forest".... Who can resist?  As I type this I am dabbing some Canaica on my pulse points - I've never really worn perfume in the past but now it seems like a great way to travel!

On to St. Paul de Vence.  Past the young men playing Boulles in the courtyard, and then wandering through the twisty, narrow streets.  If we had more time I would go to the Maeght Foundation  to see Chagall.  It is a surprise to see his grave, I didn't realize he died here.  The monument is simple and spare.  I didn't know Chagall was Jewish, but in honour of his tradition I leave a pebble.

No graffiti here. The doors and cisterns and bricks all seem to be works of art.

I wonder about the people who walked these streets 1000 years ago and what they might think if they saw the crowds wandering in their streets now.

Every so often through the fortified walls I catch a glimpse of the rolling hills beyond and think of the sea.  It must have been much closer to the foothills of this fortress than it is today.  How boundaries shift.

The avenues are filled with galleries,  artists new and established hoping to make a sale. Shops with something for every price point.  I consider buying a Provence-inspired tablecloth, but no, it is round and my table is square.  Handmade paper.  Olive oil.  Wine.  Absinthe.  As tempting as everything is I don't want to stop and purchase.  I don't want to carry heavy bags, they'll just weigh me down.

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