A long and varied past and a rich heritage.... But also eau de toilette, soaps, powders... of which the fragrances come from the flowers in the surrounding countryside. In the 19th century, Grasse became the world perfume capital and a big tourist destination.
Just 15 kilometres from Cannes, at 300-400 metres altitude, Grasse is a breath of fresh air in a verdant setting of mountains, forests and caves. Although the fourth biggest city of the department of the Alpes-Maritime, the city and its environs are also a place for rest and a vacation. Illustrious people have stayed here, including the emperor's sister Princess Pauline Bonaparte in 1807-08, Queen Victoria and the actor and writer Dirk Bogarde. Without forgetting Napoleon himself, but he was in too much a hurry to stay for long.
Coming from Cannes, you will pass in front of the Palais des Congrès convention centre in its Belle-Epoque building that was once the Casino of Grasse. A bit farther along and the splendid 19th century villas and 17th and 18th century private town mansions appear (Hôtel de Cabris, Hôtel de Ponteves, Court de Fontmichel). Then, the Place aux Aires welcomes you, bordered by arcades and the red and yellow ochre façades of the buildings, with, in the middle, a four-tiered fountain. Here, you can stop and relax at one of the outdoor cafés or restaurants and try the local specialty, the “fassoum”, zucchini flower fritters.
View over the town of Grasse on the Riviera
Square Tower of the town hall and the Notre-Dame-du-Puy Cathedral in Grasse
The Fragonard perfume factory in Grasse
Arcades on the Place aux Aires in Grasse
Fountain on Place de l'Evêché in Grasse
From that square, you start to go back in time as you descend towards the old town centre. The maze of narrow and shaded streets that make up the historic quarter could serve as the setting for a cloak-and-dagger film. But if no masked marauder is going to jump out at you from an arched passageway, something will still surprise you along each stairway or in some small square.
With their houses and buildings from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the sometimes dirty streets retrace the city's development: the square Saracens Tower, the vestiges of the 16th century ramparts, the former bishop's palace today the town hall... Unfortunately, some buildings show their age and a facelift would not be out of the question.
All the streets converge at the Place du Puy and the Notre Dame du Puy Cathedral (also reached by the arch leading to the Place Godeau). Built between the 10th and 11th centuries and altered again in the 17th, its immense bell tower was added in the 17th century. This Romanesque church houses a magnificent altarpiece by Louis Brea, paintings by Rubens and one by Fragonard as well as stained-glass windows and statues.
But Grasse's history is also in its perfumes.
The tanning of leather had been the city's main activity in the Middle Ages until it reached its peak in the 17th century. With the concept and then growing popularity of perfumed gloves, this period saw the birth of the perfume industry, which reigns supreme since.
Today, the industry with its 30 perfume factories remains discreet but three manufacturers open their doors to you and offer free guided tours, The Parfumerie Fragonard, its historic factory and perfume shop, the Parfumerie Molinard and the Galimard Factory and Museum. The tours let you discover all the steps in perfume making, from the gathering of the flowers to the bottling, and at the end of the tour, the visitor can create and go home with her, or his, own perfume.
The International Perfumery Museum (MIP), situated in the centre of Grasse, retraces the 3000 years of perfume's history in its exceptional setting and the MIP's Garden in Mouans-Sartoux is a perfume plant conservatory.
Other museums of interest are set up in the sumptuous town mansions
The Museum of Art and History of Provence
A museum of local history laid out in 1921 in the former Cabris Mansion, it evokes life in Grasse in the 18th century. Visitors can admire the rooms in the mansion just as they were when the Marquise de Clapiers-Cabris lived there.
Set up in the Hôtel de Villeneuve, a magnificent residence from the 18th century, the age of Enlightenment, it offers up to the visitors' eyes many works by the artist Jean-Honoré Fragonard, a child of Grasse who became “painter to the King”, as well as by his descendants, including an amazing trompe l'oeil in the stairway created by his son, only 13 years old at the time.
In the area around Grasse:
The caves with evocative names such as the Trou du Curé (the Priest's Hole)
Good news for tourists without cars: Grasse has a train station with regular service from Cannes, Nice and Ventimiglia.