France is my least-favourite country in Europe. (Oh, wait. Except for Belgium, of course.)
I simply just don’t get it. I’ve slowly warmed to Paris, the French Riviera is quite lovely, and then that’s it.
Apart from spending short amounts of time in Avignon, Bordeaux and Tours, I just haven’t seen much of the country. I’ve never found those quaint little villages, the local boulangeries, nor warmed to its people. Instead, I’ve spent most of my time in France tour guiding, finding myself inside smelly Autogrills, along monotonous stretches of motorway, eating things that look depressing.
My sister Amy, on the other hand, speaks French and loves the place. Her favourite spot is the little village of Grasse, tucked behind the famed Riviera in the nearby hills. Perfumeries in Grasse are famous the world over, so it was an easy sell and off I went on the train from Nice one Sunday morning in August.
If you’ve been to Grasse before, perhaps you would have noticed my glaring errors in that last sentence. Yes, the word ‘train’ and ‘Sunday’ definitely pop out. So, two words of advice:
1) Don’t go to Grasse on a Sunday. Actually, don’t go anywhere in Europe on a Sunday unless it is to the beach or church.
2) Don’t catch the train to Grasse, unless you quite enjoy mountain climbing.
Instead, I should have caught the bus to Grasse. I’d been told this, but I’d ignored such advice, as I always prefer the train if a journey is going to take more than an hour or so. However, Grasse’s train station is at the bottom of a hill.
Grasse is at the top.
There are of course buses which connect the train station with the town, but in my confusion (picture me wandering out of the train station, then back in, then out again… repeat) the bus had left before I’d cottoned on to the whole operation. Being a Sunday, the next one wasn’t to come for another hour.
As my breakfast had consisted of the below picture, I decided to walk up the hill.
Before I attempted such lunacy, I discussed my predicament with the lady at the tourist office. Now, French tourist offices are fantastic and Grasse’s was no exception. Full of advice, I tell you. However, in my case, there was just one problem. The advice was a tiny bit wrong.
The lady widened her eyes when I said I was going to walk, but dished out a map anyway and told me to chuck a right, then about a hundred metres down on the left there was going to be a set of stairs. I was to climb those stairs, about three hundred of them, and I would be deposited in the Old Town.
Perfect. So off I toddled, and after about a hundred metres, I came to this.
With steps obviously lacking, I continued. About another twenty metres on, I came to this.
So I began my ascent. I climbed and I climbed and I climbed. A rat ran out and caused me to shriek. Little old ladies dressed in black overtook me as I coughed and wheezed, cursing the sun and my sweat. Eventually, I came to a clearing. I searched for a street sign and then consulted my map.
Somehow, I’d ended up on the complete opposite side of the map, as far as you could get from the Old Town and still be on the map. I was sure the map was wrong, but I just couldn’t figure it out.
The only thing I could do was go all the way back down, then attempt the step-less path. And lo and behold, after about thirty step-less metres, steps appeared. And brought me right into the middle of the Old Town.
By this stage, I was delirious. I needed food (preferably of the chocolately, pastry variety) but as it was a Sunday, I came up with nothing. Instead, I forced myself to get over it all, and enjoy Grasse.
And it was quite a pretty little place.
The main drawcard of Grasse is of course its parfumeries. There’s almost two dozen in and around the town, and I visited two; Fragonard and Molinard.
Fragonard’s the biggest and is right in the middle of town, accompanied by a perfume museum (give it a miss) and tours of its factory. I jumped on a tour and was pleasantly surprised; the guide was entertaining and none of it was a hard-sell. Instead, we learnt practical things like not to rub your wrists together after applying perfume. And who says you learn nothing from factory tours.
I then checked out Molinard, getting lost along the way like only I can do, and when I finally found it, I almost whooped with joy. Now this is what French buildings are supposed to look like.
Molinard didn’t have any English-speaking tours for a few hours, so I was left to roam around by myself, which was fine with me. Here you could even make your own perfume in a one-on-one consultation with a lady in a white coat. It was all very discerning.
Although entry and tours of the parfumeries is free, you’re destined to spend a small fortune inside. I bought the obligatory local perfume for myself, as well as a smattering of products which later proved to be a bit questionable; lavender water is one good example.
I found the way back to the train station pretty quickly this time, but still managed to miss the hourly connection by minutes. No worries, as I still needed to source some food. Lovers of French cuisine may focus their attention on their brasseries and cafes, but I must draw your attention to their vending machines. As soon as I saw it, I had to try it.