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Scents of The City

Think of Grasse and flare your nostrils. Every ancient city boasts its own distinctive smell; Grasse has thousands. For more than 200 years, the hilltop community perched above France's Mediterranean coast has lived on its skill at concocting new fragrances to sweeten daily life.

This is where the art of parfumerie meets the demands of big business in a blend of antiquity and exclusivity. A 13th-century cathedral towers over an old quarter of twisting streets, but the city is ringed with factories turning out products for the global scent market. The world capital of the perfume industry, just inland from the glitzy resorts of the Cote d'Azur, is home to some 30 companies, brewing scents for the grandest of designers from Chanel and Givenchy to Dior and Jean-Paul Gaultier.

Grasse's perfume industry can trace its origins to the 16th century, when local tanners needed powerful scents to overcome the natural smell of their leather gloves. Happily the region's sun-soaked soil could provide the raw materials: jasmine and lavender. Since then, the scent business has reached far into the city's everyday life. Among the best-known delicacies: fougassette, brioche flavored with orange blossom.

Much of the business remains in the hands of a few venerable companies, often family owned, and still inhabiting elegant premises in the city center. The oldest, Galimard, was founded in 1747. Such firms still depend on the skill of their "noses," specialists who have completed seven years of training so thorough that they can recognize 1,000 fragrances.

Keen to see how your favorite scent is mixed? The three leading companies, Galimard ( galimard?.com ), Fragonard (www.fragonard.com) and Molinard ( molinard.com ), all offer tours of their workshops. Company stores sell their own-label soaps and perfumes at discounts. For the truly choosy, Galimard and Molinard will also create a mix-and-match perfume to suit your personality for $42 a bottle.

If you need a place to stay, try the Bastide Saint Mathieu, a converted farmhouse on the edge of town, for Old World elegance ( hotel-bastide-saint-mathieu-grasse.cote.azur.fr ).

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