Coco Chanel may have first set up shop in Cannes, but when she wanted to create her classic "No. 5" fragrance she headed to Grasse, perfume capital of the world. It's the Côte d'Azur's hothouse climate, nurturing nearly year-round shows of tropical-hue flowers, that has always fostered Grasse's industry. Little wonder: the heady, heavy scent of orange blossoms, pittosporum, roses, lavender, jasmine, and mimosa wraps around
you like silk in gardens along the Riviera coast, especially on a sultry night, and since time immemorial people have tried to capture that seductive scent in a bottle. Nowhere else on earth do they do that better than here, as revealed in the town's spectacular perfume museum and the fascinating factory tours on tap.
High on a plateau over the coast, this busy, modern town is usually given wide berth by anyone who isn't interested in its prime tourist industry, the making of perfume. But its unusual art museum featuring works of the 18th-century artist Fragonard and the picturesque backstreets of its very Mediterranean Old Town round out a pleasant day trip from the coast.
In the past, Grasse's legendary perfume-makers laid blossoms facedown in a lard-smeared tray, then soaked the essence away in alcohol; nowadays the scents are condensed in vast copper stills. Only the essential oils are kept, and the water thrown away—except rosewater and orange water, which find their way into delicately perfumed pastries. In Paris and on the outskirts of Grasse, these scents are blended by a professional nez, or "nose," who must distinguish some 500 distinct scents and may be able to identify 3,000. The products carry the household names of couturiers like Chanel and Dior, and perfume houses like Guerlain. The laboratories where these great blends are produced are off-limits to visitors, but to accommodate the crowds of inquisitive scent-seekers, Grasse has set up three factories that create simple blends and demonstrate some of the industry's production techniques. You pass through a boutique of house perfumes on the way back to the bus and—well, you get the idea. You can create your own perfume at Galimard (cost: €45).
For €6 per person, climb aboard Le Petit Train de Grasse for a 40-minute tour of the town, including the Vieille Ville and Cathedral. The yellow line departs from the Cours Honoré Cresp from 11 am to 5 pm, April to October (and by reservation during the rest of the year). You may notice a lot of restaurants here are called Lou something-or-other. Lou is Provençal for le or la ("the").