As our camping ground was down the hill from the centre of La Colle sur Loup, I was interested in translating the name of our host town. I had been to Colle Val D’Elsa (Hill of the Valley of Elsa!?) in northern Italy so I knew Colle meant ‘Hill’ in Italian. ‘Loup’ sounded like ‘Lupus’ from my schoolboy Latin so I informed my children back home that I was staying on the ‘Hill of the Wolf’; sounded dangerously romantic. However when I discovered that we were camping beside the Loup River, I decided that perhaps the name of our host town just indicated that it was a hill town on the river Loup. We set out on our first full day touring in the area and followed the Loup River for a while before we started heading slowing upwards towards Grasse in the foothills of the Alps.
Arriving in Grasse, it wasn’t long before we realised that these hinterland villages were not built for cars and finding a park close to the centre was a major task. We eventually found a small commercial car park that appeared to be not far from sections of a medieval wall that assisted in enclosing the old hill town. The sign on the gate in the image on the left below translates as ‘New Place’ which may undercut the previous suggestion.
The logic of a hill town is that the major sites of the town are on top of the hill, such as the main church; the rest of the old town would have clustered close by. As we didn’t have a map yet, this approach to walking the streets of Grasse seemed as good as any…we took to the narrow streets that headed up hill.
It was a good sign that we were getting close to the top of the hill when we escaped out of alleys and into a large square (Place de Petit Puy) that contained an imposing War memorial. We only had to look around in the other direction to see that we had found the town’s main church, Cathedral de Notre Dame du Puy. ‘Puy’ appears to be the original name for the hill on which Grasse is built. Built in the 13th century, the church externally is austere and plain but internally it is a beautiful space, blessed with three paintings, Christ Crowned with Thorns, St. Helena, and The Crucifixion, attributed to Peter Paul Rubens.
Beside the Cathedral is also to be found the Hotel de Ville of Grasse and on impulse, we walked inside the foyer and were greeted by a very pleasant receptionist. She insisted we walk around this ancient building…it was the Bishop’s palace back in the 14th century and we were able to stroll around the ‘Synodal Room’ where apparently the local councillors meet as well as the Bishop’s Private chapel; it is now called the wedding room. Given the Cathedral and the Hotel de Ville were on the highest point of the town, the view from the plaza outside (Place de 24 Aout) across the valleys was spectacular.
From the highest point in the town, we wandered down hill into the commercial district of Grasse looking for lunch. On the way we came across the town’s old communal water supply that no doubt was a vital asset for the locals before modern plumbing.
We found our way to Rue Jean Ossola which appeared to be the main commercial street in Grasse with lots of shops and cafes. Lunch at one of the local cafes was delicious and we were then able to walk out into the afternoon already covered by a sea of pink umbrella’s overhead. Multiple umbrellas provided us with a sheltered arcade as we headed down towards Cours Honore-Cresp Square, a large square in front of the Palais des Congres. I thought it was a pity it didn’t rain to test out the effectiveness of the umbrellas.
Grasse’s greatest claims to fame is that it is considered to be no less than the World’s capital of perfume. It has a long history of this high-end trade which started with the export of tanned skins, often as gloves for the wealthy. Freshly tanned skins are generally ‘on the nose’ so in order to disguise their less than attractive smell they were scented with perfumes. Thus a side industry came to dominate the town when the tanned hide industry was taxed out of business and the perfume business came to be the largest source of employment in town. Grass has a micro-climate that is perfect for growing lavender, Roses, Oranges and other aromatic flowers necessary for the perfume trade…the tonnage of flowers produced in a season reached 5000 in 1940. If you are a tourist interested in perfumes than Grasse is your Mecca…there are museums of perfume, perfume factories as well as many shops to provide you with your aromatic needs.
For me, my favourite perfume related site in Grasse was at the end of Rue Jean Ossola where the Musee International de la Perfumerie (MIP) is located. On the footpath in front of this significant establishment is one of the most bizarre bronze statues we encountered on our travels. On first inspection it looks like something out of Alice in Wonderland or perhaps an alien creature visiting Grasse on an intergalactic visit of peace and goodwill. This elegant lady is in fact a ‘Parfumeur’, an artisan with a highly developed ‘Nez’ (nose) whose job is to create the perfumes. The statue is called the ‘Habit de Parfumeur’. Unlike its woodcut inspiration from the late 17th century held in the British Museum, this bronze character (1997-Tomek Kawiak-d’apres une gravare du XVII siecle) is a female seller or creator of perfume who wears a kettle for boiling up her creations on her head! (Note the solid steam!) The rest of the image in both versions is made up of fans, for waving-on unsuccessful scents, and containers to hold the various perfumes for sale.
The Cours Honore-Cresp Square is a large open space at the end of the old town centre of Grasse. On the right-hand side there is a beautiful building called the Palais de Congres that was built at the end of the 19th century, originally as a casino. Today it is a convention centre running international conferences, no doubt promoting perfume sales. On the other side of the square is the escarpment where visitors can gaze down the valleys towards the Mediterranean. The area has a number of public art pieces, the ‘Rose Sculpture’ in the fountain in front of the Palais de Congres was particularly striking.
There is another memorial on the other side of the square that speaks of the French Revolutionaries love of the American Independence movement. For example, ahead on our tour of the west coast of France, we would come across a memorial to Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of the United States of America. He visited France in 1776 at great peril to himself and came in though Auray in Brittany before moving on to Paris. We also encountered a memorial to Thomas Jefferson on the embankments of La Rochelle. In Grasse there is a memorial to Francois Joseph Paul, Count of Grasse. He was the Admiral of the French Navy that fought at the Battle of Chesapeake Bay in 1781 in support of the Americans in the last year of the Revolutionary war against the British. The pedestal of the monument bears a quote from George Washington: “You have been the arbiter of war “.
It was time to leave Grasse and head further into the Alpes to Gourdon. It is a rare judgement to make but we passed a World War 1 monument on the escarpment that was perhaps the most moving I have ever seen. Rather than concentrating on the fallen soldiers, the artist captured a common moment of humanity, the sadness of those left behind and how important it is that the next generation understands the sacrifices of their parents and grandparents.
PACA (Provence, Alpes, Cote-d’Azur)
APPENDIX 1: Our walk around Grasse
APPENDIX 2: Grasse’s most curious building
On our way back to our car when we had finished our circuit of Grasse, we passed by this building on Boulevard Fragonard that attracted our attention. We didn’t have time to wonder whether there were any real windows in the building, if the front door was just an image or whether there were only ‘impressions’ of people living in this lovely apartment building.