Sunday 1 August 2010

The Scents of the Mediterranean the World Over

In my childhood, fashionable clothes were frowned upon as needless “fripperies” – by my father at least, who was keeper of the household purse. But when it came to foreign travel, our family was ahead of the curve. For we started taking package holidays to the Mediterranean in the early 70s. Smitten by the climate, scenery and cuisine, I have been going back regularly ever since.

So when Ines of All I Am - A Redhead invited me to take part in this joint blogging project (co-hosted by Ines and Elena of Perfume Shrine), I was delighted to accept. I saw it as more than just an excuse to dig out old holiday snaps (though it was also that), for it prompted me to impose a semblance of order on the multinational jumble of smells evoked by the region.

My earliest scent memory of the Mediterranean (age 12) is my face hitting an aromatic wall of heat, as we stepped off the plane in the small hours at Mahon airport in Minorca. I have absolutely no idea what herbs or flowers I was smelling – let’s just call it “Mediterranean accord” - but it was a potent blend that stirred the senses and is now hardwired in my brain as the scent of hot, languid holidays abroad.

In tackling this theme, I am slightly hampered by the fact that - whilst I have "scent" memories of various countries - I have no “perfume” memories as such, as my interest in fragrance only dates from 2008. So I thought I would approach things by drawing up an inventory of scent associations with specific places (from whatever source - not all pleasant!), followed by six perfumes I would choose now to capture different facets of the Mediterranean.


In 1979 I was posted to the Côte d’Azur for a year as a teaching assistant in a lycée in Cannes, so this area holds most memories for me, with its rugged coastline, glittering blue sea, private beaches and palm-fringed promenades.

General scent associations

Mimosa, lavender, pine trees, sun tan oil, warm plastic sun loungers, bouillabaisse, pistou soup, fennel, aioli, Socca (pancakes made with chickpea flour), ripe melons, beeswax candles, olive wood and soap, ivy geraniums, plus unidentified perfume sillage from patrician-looking ladies wearing recklessly pale trouser suits and carrying miniature dogs.


L’Artisan Parfumeur Mimosa pour Moi

Notes: mimosa (flower, leaf and stem), violet leaves, blackcurrant bud

Spring comes early on the Riviera – as early as February, sometimes – and this scent is mimosa to the max, capturing the dazzling bright sunlight and the feeling of warmth on one’s skin after the dank days of winter. Cheerfulness in a bottle. : - )

Urban Retreat Rêverie (by Roja Dove)

Notes: geranium, bergamot, lavender (all I could find)

I am not mad on lavender, yet I associate it very closely with this part of France. So I am including a (relatively unknown) scent by Roja Dove, where the lavender is understated and blended with two other notes that are also typical of the area. I look upon it as a dumbed down “garrigue” scent for wimps, for which there should be a place on the shortlist.

Jil Sander Sun

Notes: bergamot, rosewood, jasmine, lily of the valley, rose, orange blossom, patchouli, amber, vanilla

When I lived in Antibes, the cult of sunbathing was bigger than it is today, and people slapped on factors 2 and 4 and Hawaiian tropic tanning oil with carefree abandon, as though “melanoma” was just another word for a fancy cocktail. How Jil Sander Sun manages to capture the smell of sun cream with that particular set of notes beats me, but the patch-amber-vanilla base (for which I am always a sucker), doubtless has a lot to do with it. Thanks to Wordbird for the sample of this one!


Corsica is France’s wild child little sister (though it wouldn’t thank me for saying so). It is craggy, untamed, proudly independent and still largely unspoilt. Home to the Foreign Legion, its cliff top towns have an “edge of the world”, frontier feel. Vegetarians may be treated as alien life forms.

General scent associations

Forest fires (some set by terrorists!), miscellaneous aromatic plant matter, salty mountain ham, sharp sheep’s cheese…. and antiseptic (I came off my moped at the same bend two years running, and on each occasion received first aid in the nearby monastery. Having grazes anointed with pink disinfectant by monks – twice - is something that stays with you.)


Parfums 06130 Lentisque

Notes: lentisque, ambrette seed, jasmine, melon, orris root, Turkish rose, musk, vetiver, amber

Named after the pistachio tree, a fragrant shrub common in Corsica, Lentisque is a sheer yet creamy, amber scent shot through with sharp herbal notes and a slight nuttiness. It is unlike anything else I have ever smelt, and serves me well as a symbol of this “miscellaneous aromatic plant matter” found throughout the Med that my nose finds so hard to deconstruct.


When I think of Greece, the Cyclades always spring to mind first, with their white sugar cube houses and windmills, against a backdrop of cloudless blue sky. Other memories of island-hopping holidays include straw-roofed beach tavernas, fishing boats and nets, octopi drying on clothes lines, whippet-thin cats, Greek salads, wizened old ladies in traditional black dress, and entire families riding a single scooter (on Spetses, where cars are not allowed).

General scent associations

Bread baking in stone ovens, Greek lamb and rosemary, barbecued seafood with lemon, retsina & ouzo, figs, honey, donkeys (their warm fur AND droppings), Greek coffee (strong black sludge), occasional dodgy plumbing, sea spray washing over the rails of the inter-island ferries, mosquito coils (incense, but not as we know it…), outboard motors.


Parfumerie Générale Jardins de Kerylos

Notes: fig, sycamore, musk

This scent neatly links Greece with the French Riviera. It was inspired by the gardens of Villa Grecque Kerylos in Beaulieu-sur-Mer (pictured above), which in turn was modelled on a Greek villa on the island of Delos. The name Kerylos means “sea swallow”, the harbinger of happiness, according to legend. I certainly find this lush yet green rendition of a fig as mood-enhancing as a plate of the ripe fruit, drizzled in honey and served with a blob of thick yogurt.


Italy is a beautiful country, if not very ergonomically shaped and lawless in parts, though this is greatly offset by a fine selection of leather goods. It has the hairiest driving conditions in Europe, but the best coffee, and affords occasional glimpses of the Pope.

General scent associations

Orange groves, cypress trees, mouldy church crypts, vellum paper, amaretti biscuits, ragu, basil, cappuccino, sulphur (from the Solfatara volcano), the smell of fear! (I was briefly kidnapped in Naples, but had a lucky escape at traffic lights – needless to say, this was before the days of central locking.).


Tom Ford Private Collection Neroli Portofino

Notes: bergamot, mandarin orange, orange blossom and amber, vanilla

A Mediterranean selection would not be complete without a citrus scent, and this one contains pretty much every part of the orange, though happily not in an “orange comminute” kind of a way. This is a crisp, “grainy”, bracing orange fragrance to lift the spirits when you find yourself driving the wrong way round the Colosseum in rush hour.

So those are my six picks, which collectively – and retrospectively - “distill the essence” of the Mediterranean for me.

Thanks to Ines and Elena for their work in organising the event! And assuming I have finally mastered the necessary technical wizardry, here is a list of the other blogs taking part:

I Smell Therefore I Am

Notes From the Ledge



The Non-Blonde

WAFT...what a fragrancefanatic thinks

hortus conclusus

A Rose Beyond the Thames


Katie Puckrik Smells

Sonoma Scent Studio Blog

Roxana Illuminated Perfume

Scent Hive

Perfume Shrine

All I Am - A Redhead

Under the Cupola

Photo of Villa Kerylos from, photo of Portofino from, photo of Corsica courtesy of David Gleeson. Others are my own.


Ines said...

Wow! You've been practically to every part of the Med. :) I am so jealous. And also happy that I have new things to try that will make me think of the Med when I'm not there.

You were kidnapped?! Thank God, it all ended well.

Vanessa said...

Hi Ines,

I guess I have - that snap of me was actually taken in Dubrovnik or somewhere on the Adriatic coast, but it is the only one I could find from this early travel era!

Yes, going to Naples on my own was probably a mistake - the friend who was supposed to come with me cried off at the last minute. I had a few other bits of bother, but that was the worst...

La Bonne Vivante said...

Great pics, and I am very jealous of all your wanderings!

ScentScelf said...

Ah...I, too, am one for whom the olfactory sense has not been given prominence for the last few years. It is interesting to sift back through memories, and decide if scent is concretely present, or best expressed through the lens of current understanding, isn't it? (And yet, isn't that all memoir?)

:) @ "Mediterranean accord"

Now, for a schoolgirl moment...OMG, Lentisque!!! I love that scent, and it was the anchor of my first attack at this topic. Funny, I spent a time early in my curve trying to understand was at once simple and hard to deconstruct for me...I don't really care in the end, as I am happy to enjoy it. Who knows, if I tried now, maybe I could tear it apart more. But those exercises aren't generally where I find my joy in perfume. Not sure if it would be how I would enjoy Corsica, either.

Thoroughly enjoyed the travelogue. Thank you.

ScentScelf said...

Erm, make that "one for whom the olfactory sense has not been given prominence UNTIL the last few years."

These awkward constructions are going to kill me. You'd think I'd have learned by now...

Vanessa said...

Hi, LBV!

The tendency of us Brits to gravitate to the Med has a lot to do with our lousy summers. This current one looked promising in June, but has been a cool damp squib ever since. Consequently, the lure of guaranteed sunshine keeps us coming back to Spain, France and Greece etc with predictable regularity. Package holidays are plentiful and cheap - do you have an equivalent in the US? - though more and more people are becoming their own travel agents and booking flights and hotels independently.

Vanessa said...

Hi ScentScelf,

That was a timely correction, just as I was musing over the meaning of your opening statement! : - )

There is a definite dichotomy in my "smelling history", between the voracious lover of perfume I have become, and the regular tourist/"lay sniffer" person I used to be.

Hence why I set about teasing out genuine scent memories - by way of raw material or base data, if you will - before superimposing a "fine fragrance framework" of representational scents over the top of it.

Pseuds' Corner, here I come!

So glad you like Lentisque! Corsica is a very rugged, visceral place which, as you rightly say, doesn't bear too much deconstruction. I've not been to Sardinia, but I gather it is a little more sedate.

lovethescents said...

What a wonderful read for a Sunday morning! I've never tried the Jil Sander but think I must now :-)

The scent I associate most with the Cote d'Azur is Evody's Note de Luxe (sample will come your way soon!).

Vanessa said...

Hi lovethescents,

That Evody sounds very special, and though I believe the perfume house is based in Paris, your bottle originates from the heart of the Riviera!

Suzanne said...

Dear Fittersniffer,

How do you do it? Write in a way that so carefully balances the personal with the humorous, such that the effect is always sensitive, charming and a breezy pleasure to read?

Needless to say, I loved this tour through the places you've been. And as I've never tried any of the perfumes on your list, you've given me a new list to consider. Though the scents I really want to smell are those of the local aromas you've inventoried under each place. Enchanting!

Vanessa said...

Hi Suzanne,

Thanks for your kind comment - I must confess to having fretted long and hard last night about striking the right balance, conscious that this group blog was after all about scent memories rather than "What I did on my holidays".

I have read your post and thoroughly enjoyed your "crazy quilt" approach - well, not so crazy even. You also threw up a couple of scents I had not heard of before.

So it seems we have both Cow Parfymeri AND Socca in common - what will be the third random item, I wonder? : - )

Anonymous said...

Wow, great post! Lovely memories, and thanks for all the interesting scent suggestions to try! :)

Vanessa said...

Hi Laurie

Thanks for stopping by! I just hopped over to your journal and clocked a few more scents I am not familiar with that sound as though they hit the Mediterranean spot. : - )

Fleurs de Sel is a great seaside pick - I have been thinking of it recently in connection with various haircare products that are meant to give you that rumpled surfer look. Though when I try to recreate it I just look as though I am rubbish at blow drying.

Illuminated Perfume said...

How fortunate you are! I too had a bit of fortune in childhood traveling the world over, although not to as many part of the Mediterranean as yourself. Thank you for sharing, the photos are beautiful and make me yearn for travel.

Katie Puckrik said...

flittersniffer, you did a right proper job on this assignment! Thank you, thank you, for cracking open the archives (photographic and nasal) and propelling us into your colorful adventures. It was a pure pleasure to read. I really did lose myself in your list of place-specific smells. I adore the Cyclades, and hooted at your mention of octopi on washing lines.

Kidnapped in Italy? Ingenue in Cannes? Tended by monks? This thing reads like a treatment for a chick-lit travel book.

One last thing: how damn dapper is your dad in that old pic? "Darling, we're off to Dubrovnik. Don't forget to pack your white sports blazer."
Very smart.

Vanessa said...

Hi Katie,

This being my first joint blog, I suppose I did rather approach it with the seriousness of a student doing a college assignment counting for 20% of the final mark. : - ) If I am fortunate enough to be invited again, I might kick back a little next time, ease the foot off the spellchecker and such like.

If you liked the image of the octopi, I have a photo of my friend posing topless under just such an octopus-laden line. If she had just stood a little closer, the tentacles could have served as burlesque tassles.

On the chicklit front, I shared a villa (a grandiose term for a bungalow with odd stuck on bits of curvy wrought iron) with two women who rejoiced in the surnames Dick and Knuckles. We called ourselves the Three Thin Women of Antibes. I wonder where they are now?

My dad does look a bit dapper, now you mention it! Gosh, he would be pushing 100 now, if he was still around. My crimplene shorts and Start-Rite sandals, on the other hand, are beyond cringeworthy. You wouldn't think I was a month off 13 in that snap...

Vanessa said...

Hi Roxana,

Thanks for dropping by! If I lived in Southern California - San Diego, say - I don't think I'd have such an urge to travel. : - )

Rose said...

Parfumerie Générale Jardins de Kerylos sounds wonderful, I must try. I've never been to Greece sadly but I would love to.

I liked the way you did this and all your general smells- very evocative

Vanessa said...

Hi Rose!

Pop along to Les Senteurs and check it out - if you like fig, it's somewhere in between Premier Figuier Extreme and Premier Figuier on the figgy-ometer - nearer to Extreme on balance.

Perfumeshrine said...

Very true about the Brits coming to the Med. And how they just love to sun themselves with a vengeance. Many have been the times I have recommended Greek yoghurt for the errand Brit's sunburn (put straight from the fridge on skin and you lie down for a while).

How scary to be kidnapped in Naples!! (Gosh, I only had a small trinket stolen from me once at those places, nothing more serious than that.) Thank God everything had a happy ending and we're having you join us here on this project eh?

Vanessa said...

Hi Elena,

Firstly, thanks so much for co-instigating this event, and for inviting me to join you! I must have visited your blog around the same time as you were dropping in on mine, and am still in shock from the lusciousness of your whistlestop tour of the senses!

Greek yogurt on sunburn is inspired! I have had a bit of that in my time, and both my mother and I visited the same doctor on Halkidiki, years apart. In her case it was an injured leg, and in mine...well, let's just say that figs were prescribed in the first instance, then lemon flavoured paraffin, then two men with an array of pointy devices (noooo, not those ones!), before finally the big medicament guns had to be brought over on the boat from a hospital in Rhodes.

Scent Hive said...

I so enjoyed your post and reading all of the comments. I agree that your father looks mighty handsome and you look adorable! I am loving your get-up my dear :-)

Vanessa said...

Hi Scent Hive,

Thanks for the compliments - I guess my outfit could almost have been construed as "tween geek chic", in which case it was forty years ahead of its time... : - )

Bellatrix said...

Great memories...

Abigail said...

Wow!! What fun to read your Med. travelogue :) It reads like a twisty little chick lit tale (I think Katie P. also said this)
And I officially state that I'm envious of all your travels. ((long suffering sigh))

Vanessa said...

Hi Bellatrix

Glad this brought some of them back!

Vanessa said...

Hi Abigail,

Re "travelogue" - not you too! : - ) Ah well, given my questionable nose, maybe that is the niche I am destined to fill...!

do pheromones work said...

Thank you so much for bringing up this its a great perfume review goods that you brought them back.


Vanessa said...

Glad you liked it, Cletsey!