The French Riviera - wake up and smell the sunshine

The French Riviera captivate your senses and spirit you away, says local resident and writer Nancy Heslin

No matter how one approaches the Côte d’Azur – by land, air or sea – the quality of light that has captivated a century of modern artists, from Picasso to Chagall and Matisse to Van Gogh, continues to dazzle visitors. Yet this stretch of the Mediterranean coast offers more to the senses than the visual intensity of a piercingly blue sky, azure waters and 300-plus days of glorious sunshine. In fact, if ever there were a need to create scratch-and-sniff postcards, an aromatic memento of a holiday well spent, it would spring from here, the fragrant French Riviera.

Nice, the region’s jewel of a capital and my adopted home town, captures the essence of the Côte d’Azur with exuberance and can be reached on a cruise holiday to Villefranche, Cannes or Monte Carlo. The glorious palm-lined Promenade des Anglais (so named having been built in 1820 for the resident English community who wintered here) borders the Cours Saleya market, forming an open-air olfactory museum that will unleash all your senses. It’s a wonderful place to wander and soak up the flavours of local life. You have your top notes as you enter the Marché aux Fleurs – the dizzying combination of sweet roses, piney-floral lavender, floral-rose geraniums, musty impatiens – in rows upon rows and hue upon hue of potted bouquets. As you make your way through the market towards the berries, cheeses, fish, olives and spices, the smells will have niggled at your appetite just in time to hit the middle notes: strong aromas of coffee, croissants and pains au chocolat wafting from under the striped awnings that identify where one café ends and another begins. Try to nose out the toasted savoury socca, the scrumptiously stodgy chickpea-flour crêpe at Chez Thérésa.

Villefranche, France

The lingering base note of Nice, though, is the salty scent of seawater. Take time to find yourself an iconic blue chair on La Prom and gaze out across the waves as they roll in over the pebbled beach, while joggers, cyclists, dogwalkers and rollerbladers whirl behind you. In years to come, a waft of marine will transport you back to this moment.

Experience Nice during a leisurely coach ride along the Promenade des Anglais, taking in famous sights such as the Hotel Negresco and Cimiez Hill. Then enjoy a short guided walk around the Cours Saleya flower market, followed by free time to soak up the sights and smells.

But don’t stop at Nice. The whole coastline is dotted with picturesque villages parading fragrant characters of their own. Menton, the last French town on the Riviera before you reach Italy, is equally blessed with those amazing ocean views. It’s quieter than most of the Côte d’Azur resorts but has oodles of charm. Visit its exotic Val Rahmeh Botanical Garden – particularly splendid in autumn when the hibiscus and brugmansias are in bloom – or discover the city’s Marché Couvert with its blossoms, spices and famous lemons. Try a barbajuan while you’re here, the local appetiser of Swiss chard and other vegetables fried in a crisp pastry.

Or head west to Antibes, a picture-perfect old town, with a fabulous Picasso museum, lovely daily markets and a marina of luxury yachts to ogle at. Wander around the charming Cours Masséna Provençal market where you’ll find, among other local delicacies to taste and sniff, a stand that specialises in the highly sought after Savon de Marseille soaps, selling a rainbow of colours and scents.

Cannes, France

It is the mild microclimate of the Cote d’Azur and inland Provence – good air circulation, rich, moisture-retaining clay soil and abundant sunshine – that makes it perfect for growing flowers, such as mimosa, lavender, jasmine and rose, and citrus fruits such as oranges and lemons. These scents abound in the towns and villages, particularly in spring. They also lie at the heart of the region’s world-famous perfume industry.

Grasse, the self-appointed perfume capital of the world, is located in the heartland of Provence, 35km inland from Nice. During the Renaissance it had a reputation for its tanners, which brought a more repugnant odour than the scented orange blossoms and jasmine we find here today. To cover the stench of leather, Parfumerie Galimard, founded in 1747 and provider to Louis XV’s royal court, invented perfumed gloves, and so began the lucrative relationship between fragrance and fashion. Grasse produces two-thirds of France’s natural aromas for food and perfume, and harvests 27 tonnes of jasmine annually.

To learn more about these evocative fragrances, I head 11km east of Nice to the hilltop village of Eze, centred about the ruins of a 12th-century castle. Eze is justly famous for its views of the sparkling Mediterranean below, and the village retains a unique beauty and charm with a maze of steep, winding streets, shady courtyards and bougainvillea-draped villas. This little village is also home to the factories of two renowned perfumeries, the aforementioned Galimard, and Fragonard, which was founded in 1782. Here, under the guidance of professional noses, you can dabble in make-your-own-perfume workshops to correlate smell and taste, our most underdeveloped senses, and translate our deepest olfactory memories into perfume parlance. In Galimard’s workshop I was inexplicably moved to tears when a sniff of pine essential oil drew upon a childhood memory, while over at Fragonard, a blotter of bergamot (the base of Earl Grey tea), offered a waft of comfort, like a cup of tea on a rainy day. Over the course of a few hours, my perception of smell began to piece together places and memories with flavours and scents. 

Monte Carlo, Monaco

After the free museum tours in English, and with a perfumer’s apprentice diploma in hand, my newly trained nose was put to the test in the perfumeries’ fabulous boutiques, dissecting every note with great authority, before settling on Fragonard’s brioche-scented candle, which conjured up a French boulangerie for me.

Okay, so my nostrils may not be as evolved as I’d hoped. But that’s just the point. Our sense of smell is anchored in a private sea of what we do and don’t like. And as you travel around the French Riviera, there is so much to delight the senses, creating memories that linger beyond the journey home and tease you to come back for more.

Nancy Heslin

Nancy is editor in chief of Forbes Monaco. She swapped life in chilly Canada for the Riviera sunshine in 2001 and lives in Nice. When not writing about travel, sport and local affairs, she is an avid swimrunner.