The weather is nice so I decide to head inland for a bit, from Frejus up through the pine-clad mountains to the hilltop village of Fayence. They like motorhomes here and there are a few spaces in each car park offered for overnight stays. I drive up through the winding village streets to the highest parking spot and am rewarded with views across the southern plains below. It doesn’t take long to explore the town, which has been built on the steep south-facing hillside in terraces, divided by narrow cobbled lanes hiding old baker’s ovens and numerous fountains and wash houses. The best views are from the old clock tower which rings the hours through day and night.
In the Place St Jean Baptiste in front of the church of the same name, is a small market where stallholders are selling seasonal fruit and vegetables, pungent cheeses, lavender soaps and cooking utensils carved from local olive wood. Behind the church is a small hall where films are shown but tonight’s offering, ‘Yves Saint Laurent’, is in French and the chairs don’t look that comfortable. As I wander back to the car park, the local gendarmes are stopping the traffic for a funeral procession. I watch it pass under the archway above the main street where the town hall sits, and up the hill to the cemetery.
On the easterly face of the same hilltop is the small village of Tourettes and further east are the hilltop villages of Callian, Montauroux and Cabris. All are topped by chateaux or churches and all have spectacular views across the valley below. Unfortunately, the valley which was once covered with fields of lavender and roses is now being devoured by huge shopping centres, warehouses and golf courses.
One of the most well-known hilltop villages in the area is Grasse. Originally a centre for the tanning of animal hides, it reinvented itself after Catherine de Medici asked then to supply scented gloves. Even when gloves became unfashionable, they continued to create perfumes and there are now about 60 perfume factories in the sprawling town. Unlike Fayence, Grasse is not keen on Motorhomes and parking in the town is impossible. Luckily, some of the larger perfumers have sites in the new town below and so I duck out of the miserable weather to the warm and inviting aromas of Gallimard.
Stephanie, my guide for the free and personal tour, tells me that Gallimard, established in 1747, is still very much a family run business and the perfumes are still made by hand, from the creation of the unique blend of scents to the packaging of the simple but elegant glass bottles. We talk about the various flowers, herbs and spices used and the processes needed to create the essences. Some are distilled, while the more delicate flowers, such as rose and jasmine, used to be infused into animal fat, a long and tedious process that has now been replaced by chemical solvents. The jewel in the crown of each perfumery is the organ, a tiered table of bottled scents, each with a different note, that are blended into a harmonious perfume by the nose (the chief creator of the perfumes). There are only 200 qualified and respected noses in the world so they are extremely well paid. They’d have to be to live in Provence.
The tour inevitably ends up in the boutique (that’s the gift shop to you and me) and there’s the opportunity to try some of the fragrances on offer. Stephanie wants to spray me with half a dozen different scents but I don’t want to leave smelling like a tart’s boudoir and opt to smell them on paper strips instead. I’m rather glad I did, as some of them are really rather vulgar. I do consent to a dab on the wrist of a jasmine based perfume, and I get whiffs of it as I’m driving all afternoon.