The town of Grasse with its terraces and labyrinth of narrow, crooked, steep streets, is a walker’s delight. This historic hill town is most famous for the perfume industry, a major attraction for many visitors, but there are other good reasons to visit this lovely old village.
Grasse makes a worthwhile daytrip in your travels through Provence, but be aware that it is relatively remote and would require up to a 3-hour round trip if you are coming from Nice. You can reduce the time by including Grasse as part of your visits to Antibes and Cannes, for it is less than one hour away from the shore. This town does cling to the side of a hill, which provides for charming walks on steep narrow alleys, or can present a problem if you are not in decent condition.
Deep arcades, overhead vaults, sudden terraces, and steep winding stairways are all part of the fascinating Old Town architecture. It is possible, however, to plan your walking route to minimize the ups and downs, and reduce your climbing to the equivalent of several staircases and a small hill. Grasse is situated 1090 ft. above the sea, on the southern slope of Mt. Rocavignon, which rises almost perpendicularly 695 ft. above the town. To the northeast is the Marbriere, 2920 ft. above the sea.
Walking up and down, sometimes on lanes that turn into staircases, can be fun, earning your badge of valor as you check off another exotic destination, adding a third dimension to your explorations. Another issue is proximity to nothing: there are no other notable villages nearby. These challenges do give Grasse another advantage – fewer tourists venture here so you will enjoy a more authentic local experience.
With those disclaimers out of the way, consider the charms of little Grasse, home of Fragonard perfumes and various other fragrance outlets, and blessed with an ideal pedestrian lane from one end to the other. The small historic zone is truly a walker’s delight, with narrow lanes, no cars, many shops, cafes and peaceful places to enjoy -- another charming place in the hills of Provence.
The Grasse pedestrian zone is about 500 meters long and wide, so despite some stair climbing, you can easily see it in one or two hours. Notice on the map of the Old Town a basic route you can take -- into the large plaza, continue along the main pedestrian lane, zigzag up and down a bit, then depart. However, you don't really need a map here, just follow your nose in this small town and look around, then take whatever lane looks interesting.
The Old Town portion of Grasse is picturesque and filled with interest. Its winding lanes are steep and narrow with tall houses along both sides, creating shadows and mystery. The streets ramble and curve about in that leisurely manner which is characteristic of Grasse and many other hill towns of Provence. Visitors wandering through Grasse are likely, after walking its many streets, to find themselves in the exact spot where they started.
This whole village feels like a Romanesque stone structure, with intricate maze and alleyway intersections going left and right. You don't have to worry about getting lost -- it's so small you just walk around.
Because Grasse is relatively remote it will take 66 minutes to get here if you are coming from Nice by train, or Bus 500 will bring you directly from Nice without changing in 90 minutes. The Grasse bus stop is much closer than the train station to the Old Town, so you will find it easier to take a bus, especially if your hotel in Nice is near the waterfront, which is also where you catch the bus, at Albert I Park in front of the Meridian Hotel. Or if you are already visiting Cannes, take bus 600 to Grasse (54 minutes). Alternatively from Cannes you could take a 30-minute train ride to Grasse, which seems quicker than bus, but again, the bus stop in Grasse is much closer to the Old Town and buses run more often. Arriving by public bus at Place de la Buanderie is very convenient, located just a few minutes from the Old Town. The Tourist Information Office is near the bus stop, so drop in and get a free map and travel tips, or sign up for a guided tour -- but with our descriptions it is easy to see the town on your own.
In a couple of blocks from the bus stop you will reach the main square of the Old Town, a delightful place to begin. Walk downhill from the bus station, the open-air Gare Routier, through a busy intersection, Place de la Foux, then take the first staircase and lane on the left called Maximin Isnard, then turn right into Place aux Aires, the main square.
This typical Provençal plaza has an arcaded loggia along the side, a beautiful fountain anchoring one end, a double row of shade trees in the middle, surrounded by shops, cafés and comfortable places to sit and watch the people go by. This Place aux Aires is the largest public gathering place in the Old Town, and yet it never seems crowded. You’ll probably notice more locals than tourists here.
An outdoor market is held in Place aux Aires every Saturday morning from about 8 AM until 2 PM, usually with about 20 stalls where they sell fruits and vegetables of the area, along with clothes, household utensils, and miscellaneous items like fabrics, curtains and various small items. It is a typical market, so if you go on a Saturday morning it can be an interesting and entertaining way to spend some time.
If you miss market day there is another square in town we point out at the end of the walk, the Place aux Herbes, with a small daily market. Exit Place aux Aires from the opposite end, into the pedestrian lane, Rue Amiral de Grasse, lined with an attractive mix of apartments and small shops. This leads you gradually downhill towards the main pedestrian street, just 200 meters away.
Even more important than tourism is the perfume industry, with Grasse considered the world capital of fragrance. Therefore you will find various perfume shops here, including the mother of all, Fragonard, with their flagship showroom just beyond the end of the main pedestrian lane at 20 Boulevard Fragonard. For many visitors, Fragonard is the reason to have come all this way. With two other major brands represented, Galimard and Molinard, you can get your fill of heavenly odors and take factory tours if you wish.
Grasse has had a prospering perfume industry since the end of the 18th century. Many skilled "noses" are trained or have spent time in Grasse to distinguish over 2,000 kinds of scent. The particular microclimate here encouraged the flower farming industry with flower fields that still grow for miles around the town of Grasse. It is warm and sufficiently inland to be sheltered from the sea air. There is an abundance of water, thanks to the situation in the hills and a canal dug back in 1860 for irrigation purposes. Jasmine, a key ingredient of many perfumes, was brought to southern France by the Moors in the 16th century. Twenty-seven tons of jasmine are now harvested in Grasse annually. Grasse produces over two-thirds of France's natural aromas for perfume and also for food flavorings. Perfumes, soaps, refined oil, lotions or potpourri make as ideal travel gift – unique from the area and easy to pack.
Near the Fragonard showroom you’ll see a statue of Jean-Honoré Fragonard, the great French painter, who grew up here, and of course his name was adopted by Fragonard Perfumes. Also nearby look for the 17th century bronze statue of a perfume peddler, which has become one of the symbols of Fragonard Perfumes and the town.
When finished with Fragonard, or if you skipped it altogether, you will see a big staircase descending in front of the Fragonard showroom, Rue Mirabeau, but don’t go there -- it takes you down, down and out from the Old Town. Instead, look left next to Café des Musées for the pedestrian lane you had emerged from earlier, which leads back into the historic center. So far you have only seen one block of this lovely lane, so there are many wonderful blocks to explore just ahead.
Called Rue Jean Ossola in these first few blocks, the main street changes names a few times, typical of the small lanes in the old historic towns of Provence and throughout France. It contains many old houses of interest with fine stone doorways, some with a rounded and others with a pointed arch. The historic center consists mostly of this one pedestrian lane and a few short side alleys that extend off from it. To minimize your hill climbing, stay on this main lane. Most of the shops and cafés in Grasse are right along this route anyway, so you are not missing much by avoiding the steep side alleys.
You'll find a variety of different kinds of shops here such as antiques, clothing, gift shops, food stores, galleries, pharmacy, jewelry, outdoor produce stands, all the usual suspects. Several shops specialize in Provençal ceramics, especially those yellow and green colors in floral patterns typical of the area – a nice purchase to bring home, if a little bit fragile, but you can pack it well. The stores are primarily for the locals, although obviously tourism is important to Grasse.
You’ll soon reach a popular café, Le Croissant Rose, which occupies a central spot in the old town right on the main pedestrian lane at 24 Rue Jean Ossola with some busy side lanes nearby. This is a prime place to hang out if you just want to kick back, get a sandwich, have a coffee or a drink, oh yes, a glass of local wine, and watch the passing parade.
Just beyond Le Croissant Rose notice the sign pointing to the Cathedral, which you can easily reach walking downhill on Rue Moughin-Roquefort and then a short staircase down to the Cathedral. Called the Cathedral Notre Dame DePuy, this was built as far back as the 13th century when the Bishop moved here from Antibes. Don’t expect a large grandiose structure with tall towers and highly decorated altars and chapels. “Cathedral” only means it was a church with a bishop, which it was, 600 years ago -- in this case a basic small church, but fascinating. Admire the ancient interior, which feels like it was carved out of a rock cave, a grand example of the Romanesque and Gothic styles combined together. There are no buttresses outside and so the walls are thick, about 2 meters, and the windows are small. It occupies the site of a Roman temple dedicated to Jupiter Ammon.
The cathedral is the most important building in Grasse. It represents a type essentially different from that of Provence, and markedly akin to the architecture of Italy. The plan, like that of most of the churches of Italy, consists of a central nave and side aisles, all originally terminated with eastern apses, the existing choir, which is square, being a late addition. The character of the exterior is essentially Italian being similar in its forms and ornament to the churches of Pisa and Genoa, with which towns Grasse had commercial ties. The arcaded ornament at the eaves is very Lombardic, and the doorways of the west front and north side are of the ordinary Italian design of the thirteenth century, with low pitched roof. The tall and simple square campanile is also Italian in conception. The design of the interior is somewhat remarkable, the massive circular piers with their cushion caps having more of the character of a Northern than of a Southern edifice.
Leave the Cathedral the way you came, then pass the Hotel d’Ville (city hall), formerly the Bishop’s Palace, and clamber up a few narrow lanes and staircases, to reach Rue de la Poissonnerie. This leads to the Place aux Herbes, the other main square of town, which is rather plain but does host a small daily outdoor food market. Most days you find a small group of kiosks with their fruits and vegetables and other days there is more on offer. There is also a parking lot underneath, so if you drove your car here it would be a good place to park, but more likely you're walking and got here by bus and you'll soon be departing by the same public bus. From the northwest corner of Place aux Herbes there is an easy staircase bringing you back to the main pedestrian lane, here called Rue Droite.
At this point you have covered the highlights of this little town from one end of town to the other with a few detours in between. If you would like a speedy exit, the easiest way back to the bus stop, just 300 meters away, is take a right on the main lane, Rue Droite, which changes names again to Rue Charles Nègre, until it ends at Rue Paul Goby. Thscreenen turn left and walk up a slight hill a few minutes to the same busy intersection where you began, with the bus stop just beyond to the right.
However, depending on time of day and energy levels, you have every reason to walk back and forth along the main pedestrian lane several times before you depart, discovering each time some new things. There is a profound reality when travelling: once is not enough when you are on a great street. Each time you walk along from opposite directions you are going to see a totally different show because 1) things change, 2) different people 3) different angle 4) our cone of vision is pathetically small, about 5%. So when you have a wonderful lane like this, by all means walk as much as you want.
Along with the main lane, your extended visit can explore those smaller side lanes and staircases, which really can be more fun than the main shopping street. Quite a few staircase streets branch off and can be fascinating to walk on – they are not long or very steep, and offer short-cuts to reach other levesl. For example, when you have departed Place aux Herbes and returned up to Rue Droite, that main lane, look for the steps that will bring you up to Place de la Fontette. Here is a tiny intersection of three staircases forming a lovely pattern, accented by a two spigot fountain and trough against the ochre-colored wall, a feast for the eyes. Continue up and the steps soon level off, becoming Rue de la Fontette which will lead you back into the main plaza, Place aux Aires.
It is up to you to discover more of these little alleys if you wish, perhaps with more wanderings up and down, a good time to get lost in the narrow side lanes – so small you will quickly find yourself again. Another advantage of visiting the town of Grasse – you get a little workout, which is true of many of these beautiful little hill towns in the South of France. You do have to put in some effort, but that's why it is so rewarding. The inclines add a wonderful picturesque charm.
You will also see tempting side lanes on level ground, at right angles and parallel to the main lane, with yet more shops and cafés tucked away. In some places you’ll walk through sidewalk tunnels formed by vaulted buildings overhead, which creates a feeling of antiquity, as if back in the Middle Ages, reminding us these are densely populated little villages -- people living above the shops below.
A great pastime in France is window licking, or as we call it, window-shopping. Those who enjoy shopping and exploring little lanes could spend an entire day walking through this little village. Sometimes you'll get lucky and see a shop girl rearranging the display, putting on a little performance. However if your visit takes place at midday or early afternoon you’ll notice some of the shops are closed with shutters pulled down. They observe siesta here in the south of France, locking up for a couple of hours to take a lunch break, although many shops do stay open throughout the day.
When finally done you will have no trouble finding the bus stop – check the schedules and time so that you are on time or you might have a 30-minute wait for the next bus. Climb on board and collapse for your 90-minute ride back to Nice, preferably by direct route on bus 500, or bus 600 to Cannes, and then transfer to a train
Grasse originally existed as an obscure Ligurian village, the capital of the Deceates. Its name is supposed to have been derived from Crassus, a Roman general who conquered the territory. Written history begins in the year 585 A.D. when it was founded by a company of Sardinian Jews who, having turned Christian, obtained permission to settle and build a town near the spring of water which rises in the mountain to the north of Grasse. They called their new home Gratia or Grace, and it is so spelt in many old documents. Five hundred years later the Count of Arles, gave all this territory to one of his lords, called Rodoard, who, finding the Bishops of Frejus already in possession of the coast, took up his residence, and established his seat of government at Grasse. There he built his castle, and took his title. For the future his family were known as the Lords of Grasse and Le Bar. It was here that the rebel Baron of Castellane came to do homage to Alphonse, Count of Provence.
From an early time Grasse was an industrious and commercial town. It thus became rich, and its wealth brought upon it frequent attacks from Barbary pirates, and the Saracens while they had their headquarters at the Great Fraxinet, a 10th-century fortress near Saint-Tropez. Early in the twelfth century the Grasse inhabitants followed the example of Italian towns with which they had commerce by declaring themselves a free republic. Their consuls formed treaties with Pisa and Genoa, and unfortunately the town got mixed up with Italian politics and the disputes of the Guelphs and Ghibellines, leading to war with Pisa. This divided the people into violent factions, and enabled Raymond Berenguer, Count of Provence, in 1226, under pretext of aiding the Guelph party, to render himself master of the town.
When Antibes continued to be greatly menaced by blasphemous pirates, the Bishopric was removed to Grasse, rich, strong, and safe behind the hills, where it endured from 1244, through all the perils of the centuries, until Napoleon removed the bishop in 1801.
In the sixteenth century Grasse shared the unhappy fate of the rest of this part of France, when Francis I. found himself unable to defend it against Charles V., and therefore laid the whole country waste. The town also suffered greatly during the religious wars of the seventeenth century. Again and again it has been destroyed, each time to arise more prosperous and beautiful than ever.
Before the perfume industry, the main trade here was in leather and tanning work, which developed during the twelfth century around the small canal that runs through the city. However this activity produced horribly, strong awful odor.
At the time of the Renaissance, perfume manufacturers began production of gloves, handbags and belts, to meet the new fashion from Italy with the entourage of Queen Catherine de Medici.
Accordingly the countryside around the city began to grow fields of flowers, offering new scents from the city. In 1614, the French king recognized this corporation of "glovers perfumers". In the middle of the eighteenth century, the perfumery experienced a major expansion with introduction of new production methods that turned perfume making into a real industry which could adapt to new market demands.
The modern perfume industry is still going strong. A network of sixty perfume companies employs 3,500 people in the city and surrounding area. Additionally about 10,000 residents of Grasse are indirectly employed by this perfume industry. Almost half of the business tax for the city comes from the perfume sector, which is even ahead of tourism and other services.