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Pingu, where were you?

By roving hack Ignatius Rake
Grasse, France

Posted June 30, 2012
Looking for Pingu: Place de la Poissonerie. © Ignatius Rake

Films aren't always to be believed, as this particular hack discovered on a trip to Grasse.

Sited around 350 m up in the Alpes-Maritimes, the French town of Grasse, which translates as 'Fatty', has long been dubbed the perfume capital of the world.

I know this not because I'm some kind of "perfumed ponce" as that bloke in Withnail & I might put it but because by sheer chance I happened to watch a DVD of Perfume a few days before setting off on an assignment to Monaco, a soulless pit of opulence roughly 60 klicks up the coast.

Set in 18th century France and released in 2006, the film stars Pingu out of Nathan Barley (Ben Whishaw), who puts in a suitably well weapon performance as a bloke with an exceptionally acute sense of smell, something that makes him a dab hand when it comes to whipping up scents.

Offsetting his talent as a 'nose', however, is his rather unsavoury hobby.

Consequently, despite what you might think from the title, the film is not actually some soppy slush fest with Meg Ryan in it, although that should be fairly apparent from its subtitle: The Story of a Murderer.

That's right, old Pingu is something of a Jack the Ripper character or, more correctly, a Jack the Sniffer.

Based on a novel by Patrick Süskind that Kurt Cobain apparently loved and which I haven't read, the film starts off in Paris before finishing up in Fatty, where it culminates in a fairly memorable scene in the old town square.

On the whole, I thought it was a pretty good flick but what particularly caught my eye was its depiction of Grasse, with its narrow winding streets and well tasty place principale.

Wanting to know more about this town I had just seen on a screen before me, I did a cursory web search1 and soon discovered that Grasse was not only in relatively close proximity to Monaco, but it would also be the ideal place to buy some smellies for the Good Lady's upcoming birthday.

Thus, having quickly grown tired of the sham, māyā and illusion of Monaco, I boarded a train and buggered off to Grasse at the first opportunity2.

Once I'd infiltrated Grasse's warren of tiny streets, I wasted no time in making a total dick of myself trying to procure some perfumed presents in a shop more akin to a camp chemist's than a typical airport duty free.

A recent inductee into the world of washing, I know very little about soap or shampoo let alone perfume.

This became readily apparent when the shop assistant asked what kind of scents the Good Lady liked.

"Dunno," I replied. "Flowers?"

She rolled her eyes and led me the section marked 'Morons'.

Half an hour later I emerged smelling like a tart's boudoir and clutching a big bag of expensive stinky things destined to gather dust beneath the bathroom sink, including three bottles of bath lotion and some incense jobbies I'd thought were crayons3.

My girly shopping done, I was now free to get on with the much more manly pursuit of grabbing a few pints on Pingu's old town square.

The only trouble was I didn't have a clue where it was.

After mapless meanderings up, down and around a labyrinth of tightly packed four- and five-storey red, yellow and orange houses, however, I eventually stumbled out onto the main strip, the palm-lined Boulevard du Jeu de Ballon (or Balloon Game Street as I translated it).

Here, after passing a clock called Brian, I located the local tourist office and promptly went inside in the hope of finding a map.

"Bonjour!" I said in my best French accent.

"Bonjour!" the woman behind the counter replied. "How can I help you?"

Damn it, I really would have to sing along to Stereo Total more often.

"Avez-vous une carte libre de Grasse?" I continued unperturbed.

"Yes. Please take one," she said, passing me a freebie slice of cartography.

"Merci beaucoup. Mais où se trouve la place principale?"

"The main square... is here," she informed me, taking back the map and ringing the nearby Place aux Aires with un stylo noir before once again sending it my way.

Quickly judging the distance involved, I declared: "Merci. Au revoir!"

"My pleasure," she beamed. "Have a nice day!"


I now knew where it was that Pingu and co must have filmed the climactic scene in Perfume.

A hop, skip and a jump and I was there.

Except it looked absolutely nothing like what I'd clocked on screen.

Like a deflated balloon after a heavy street game, I slumped down outside a café to study the map over a savoury crêpe and a pot of tea.

Place aux Aires: A nice spot for a pancake. © Ignatius Rake

With its shade-giving trees, three-tiered fountain, market clock (not called Brian) and assorted medieval and Enlightenment buildings, Place aux Aires is a well chilled-out place in which to ponder your options.

During the Middle Ages, though, things were somewhat different.

Back then, Fatty's economy was heavily geared towards the tanning of leather and, by the 13th century, the production of high quality leather gloves.

Rather than being a living postcard, the square was where the tanners came to wash their honking hides.

That is no longer the case thanks to Florence-born Caterina Maria Romula di Lorenzo de' Medici, or Cat to her friends, who became Queen Catherine de' Medici when the chap she married as a 14-year-old was crowned King Henry II of France in 1547, only for him to die 12 years later following a jousting mishap purportedly predicted by a certain Nostradamus.

The next three kings, viz Francis II, Charles IX and Henry III, were all her little nippers and somewhat young and frail when they each ascended the throne, taking it in turns to replace the other as they one-by-one kicked the bucket.

As a result, Catherine, who outlived her first two kingly sons, wielded a big fat hammer's worth of power and influence over the land.

This was no doubt pretty bad news for the Protestant Huguenots, whose killing and migration to London's East End and elsewhere she applauded if not wholeheartedly encouraged.

For the leather glove makers of Fatty on the other hand, it meant they were all set for a right royal bonanza.

In those days, you see, leather tanning was a fairly smelly business that required cow hides to be treated with such hi-tech substances as shit, piss and animal brains.

Unsurprisingly, this, if not done correctly, could lead to the production of some pretty minging items.

To avoid getting stinky fingers, Catherine rather smartly chose to wear heavily perfumed gloves from her native Tuscany.

Had she not been such an important figure, people probably wouldn't have noticed nor cared.

As it was, though, her fragrant iron fist kick-started something of an unusually practical fashion craze that caused French demand for similarly scented hand-socks to skyrocket.

With their proven ability to make top-notch gloves combined with their ready access to sweet-smelling flowers, the tanners of Grasse were laughing.

Over time, the leather side of things dropped out of the picture as the town's focus switched to the somewhat specialised production of perfumes, with Grasse increasingly prospering as first the Enlightenment and then the growth of the industrial middle classes saw ever more people wanting to smell better than they really did.

And that, to cut a very long story short, is how Grasse ultimately ended up becoming the big centre for flowery whiffs it is today.

However, things rarely stay still and Grasse's contemporary smellies sector, dominated now by multinationals and with an ever greater emphasis placed upon sci-fi methods and biotech, would be a far cry from what old Pingu would have known had he been a) real and b) called Pingu.

Although there is still much call for a talented nose such as he, enfleurage, a process pioneered in Grasse that sees the fragrance of a flower absorbed into purified pork or beef fat smeared on a glass plate, has gone the way of the dodo, replaced by more efficient and cost-effective solvent extraction.

Similarly, raw material, although still largely locally sourced, is ever more frequently shipped in from abroad, primarily from Italy, the US, China and Indonesia.

Meanwhile, output is increasingly destined for such non-perfume applications as the production of soap, detergents and food additives.

Oh, and bath lotions of course.

Furthermore, what with surveillance cameras and all that, it is also unlikely that Pingu would these days be able to nip into the labs at night to distill the scent of a dead woman, but if you haven't seen the film you won't know what I'm talking about.

Central Grasse: Where the streets have no Pingu. © Ignatius Rake

Not that such matters bother the 2m or so tourists who go to Grasse each year, mind.

Tourists, after all, don't have to live or work in the places they visit.

They do, however, buy quite a lot of perfume in addition to consuming a whole array of other products and services, such as pots of tea and savoury crêpes (mine was excellent by the way).

As a result, they are a nice little earner for the town and have been so for quite some time, drawn by the clement weather (it's cooler than the coast yet still ridiculously sunny); the colourful fields of lavender, jasmine, roses and whatnot; and the thoroughly beautiful old town.

More recently, people such as myself have also been turning up on spec having watched Perfume, one of the biggest budget German films to date and which notched up total worldwide earnings of more than $130m.

Thus, as I alighted my train earlier in the day, I was following in the wake of such eminent emmets as Saddam Hussein, who owned a villa above the town; Édith Piaf, who died nearby, apparently regretting nothing; Napoléon, who in 1815 popped in for a soap-on-a-rope; and Queen Victoria, who, kipping at either the Grand Hotel or on a nearby estate owned by her pipe-collecting friend Alice Charlotte von Rothschild, wintered in Fatty a number of times, no doubt enticed by the locality's excellent opportunities for potholing and hang gliding4.

Whether any of them pondered the signs advertising ju-jitsu lessons and 'combat grappling' that greet you as you enter the town along Traverse de la Gare, though, is a moot point.

I did, unable to work out if they were for real or just some subtle warning to visitors: "Just because the locals are good with flowers it don't mean they're soft, right?"

Not that I was looking to crack skulls as I drank my splosh in the sun.

Oh no, I had much more important matters to attend to.

But as I scoured the map, things weren't looking good.

The square in Perfume was clearly much larger than Place aux Aires, which itself was by far the biggest of its kind marked on the map.

Undaunted, I drained my tea and, like Richard Lander up the Niger or Captain Cook on the high seas, set forth on a voyage of derring-do and discovery that ultimately led me to such marvels as the 11th century Cathédrale Notre-Dame-du-Puy, with its three Rubens; the adjacent Place du 24 août, with its views over terracotta roofs of the hills beyond; the former fish market on Place de la Poissonerie; and a haemorrhoidal monkey plugging arse cream.

Sadly, with time ticking on, I eventually had to concede defeat: Pingu had me beat.

Until that is I found myself in Catalonia a few months later.

Perfume, it transpires, was largely filmed in Barcelona, Figueres and Girona, an excellent old town not totally unlike Grasse where the year before I had partied hard at a nutjob fiesta with DJ NRG Raver and the Bald Destroyer.

While the shots of Fatty's lavender fields were indeed filmed locally, the old town square that lured me to Grasse in the first place is actually to be found within the Poble Espanyol, an open-air museum built in Barcelona in 1929.

Even then, though, after ascending the slopes of Montjuïc, I hardly recognised the Poble's Plaza Mayor as the setting for Perfume's climax, thanks no doubt to the effectiveness of the film crew's 'Dirt Unit' that did its best to make everything look as filthy as possible.

Films, eh?

Turns out you can't trust them.

Except Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo, of course, which tells it precisely how it is.


1) Use Startpage to search the interweb. It's ace and it doesn't record your IP address like Google does.

2) The world's second smallest country after the Vatican, Monaco is both the country and the capital (Monte Carlo is but one of 10 administrative wards and until 1866 was called Les Spélugues, which can be translated as meaning both 'the Caves' and, quite aptly, 'Den of Thieves'). Founded by pirates led by Charles Grimaldi after they plundered Southampton in 1338, Monaco is probably worth a quick geek if you're in the area and you like paying through the nose for everything. Otherwise, don't bother. It's shit.

Yes, I admit that everything looks lovely and clean and tidy, but at best it all just feels like a film set, ephemeral and fake. The marble statues look like fibreglass mock-ups that a prop hand has just put there; the manicured lawns all look destined to be rolled up and sent back to the suppliers the instant the director calls it a take; and the tanned and healthy passersby in their expensive pastel clothes all look like walk-ons from Sol Dangerfield’s casting agency. As such, Grace Kelly, a Hollywood actress, was the perfect choice for a princess. The irony that I fled the place for a town I'd seen on screen never once escaped me.

3) I chose the bath lotions because a) I knew what they were; b) they smelt a bit like Brut 33; and c) they were packed in sturdy plastics bottles pretty much guaranteed not to leak in my suitcase. The Good Lady, though, was unimpressed. But then some people just don’t appreciate good quality packagings when they see them.

4) By wintering in Grasse, Queen Vic played a pivotal role in putting Provence firmly on the mental map of the British middle classes. As a result, this pot-smoking nympho who did actually believe in lesbians must ultimately be held accountable for all those bloody Peter Mayle books.

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