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Fragrance making began in Provence about 500 years ago, when local tanneries sought to make their leather products smell good. The region’s temperate climate has long been ideal for growing roses, jasmine, lavender, tuberose and other flowers.

Costly land and labour values have forced many perfume makers to move to major cities and increase the use of synthetic materials, said Virginia Bonofiglio, associate chairperson of cosmetics and fragrance marketing at the Fashion Institute of Technology. But Grasse, a medieval Provencal town with cobblestone streets, is still considered the perfume capital of the world. There are about 65 perfume-related companies currently in operation.

Some of the factories are built into the rock surrounding the walled city. “When visiting the smaller ones you literally have to duck your head when walking in,” said Jennifer Wilson-Buttigieg, co-president of New York-based Valerie Wilson Travel.

Visitors can take free tours of three traditional perfume factories – Parfumerie Fragonard, Molinard and Parfumerie Galimard – to learn how flowers and plants are distilled into essential oils, and view antique production equipment. 

At Parfumerie Fragonard, named for Jean-Honoré Fragonard, the 18th-century painter born in Grasse, a museum documents 3,000 years of perfume history and showcases bottles used to store the liquid gold, including some from ancient Egypt and China. Each year, the perfume maker celebrates a different flower and 2011 honours the orange blossom. At fragrance workshops, groups learn ancient perfume making tricks as they make their own cologne or orange blossom eau de toilette.

In a building designed by Gustave Eiffel, a Molinard "nose" (perfume maker) helps visitors create their own distinctive fragrance. Their classic scent, Molinard de Molinard contains nearly 600 components and its most popular perfume, Habanita turns 90 this year.

Parfumerie Galimard, founded in 1747 and provider to the royal court of Louis XV, enters its visitor-created scents into a database to ease the re-ordering process. Body cream, shower gel and aftershave balm can also be scented and ordered. Escorted by a master gardener, guests can stroll through flower and plant fields in the nearby village of Gourdon.

At Le Domaine de Manon, outside of the Grasse city limits, tours of flower fields are given during the harvest, which is generally May for roses and August through mid-October for jasmine. Both flowers (which visitors can pick during tours) are reserved exclusively for use in Dior perfumes. 

Grasse also boasts the early medieval Notre Dame du Puy Cathedral and the International Perfume Museum. The museum has botanical gardens about 7km outside of town.

In the town of Manosque, L'Occitane en Provence began making fragrance and body products in 1976 using natural ingredients and traditional Mediterranean methods. Guided factory tours are available.

Les Routes de la Lavande is a road trip along Provencal lavender fields that takes travellers to places associated with growing and processing lavender, such as farmhouses and botanical gardens that feature demonstrations of distillation techniques. Grande-traversee-alpes.com offers interactive maps detailing accommodations, events and attractions along the route.

How to
Grasse is an easy day trip by car from Nice or Cannes.

Le Couvent des Minimes Hotel and Spa, in nearby Mane, is located in a centuries-old former convent with a long tradition of creating natural skin products. The property is now owned by L’Occitane and its products are used in the spa.

If you visit in August, there is a Jasmine festival in Grasse 5 to 7 August and a Lavender Parade in Valréas 6 to 8 August. The Lavender festival in Sault on 15 August will feature Provencal music, crafts, lavender ice cream, a field of lavender in the centre of the festival and a chance for visitors to try their hand at harvesting.

 

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