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August 07, 2005

Fragrance Shopping In Paris : Part I

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The hazy light lends a serene quality to the view that is unfolding before me as I walk towards the Seine leaving les Invalides with its large gilded dome behind me. The outlines of the Pont Alexandre III begin to emerge fuller, its beaten copper water spirits catching an occasional ray of sun breaking through pearly gray clouds. For me, Paris is at its most enchanting on an overcast day and preferably before trees are covered with thick foliage that obscures the distinct architectural style of the city.

Perfume and Paris are linked in a strong bond that is difficult to severe. It is a place where one is guaranteed to make a fragrant discovery, be it a bottle of perfume or a scent of éclair au chocolat. Whatever sensory pleasures one wants to experience, from sight to taste, Paris offers them generously.

By the time I reach Sephora at the Caroussel du Louvre, where I am supposed to meet Neela, I already can hardly contain my excitement. Calling her up before I arrive, I ask whether she would be willing to take me on one of her signature perfume discovery tours. When I first met Neela, a fellow perfume lover, she was thinking of capitalizing on her thorough knowledge of Paris and her love of perfume. Eventually, the ideas she had took shape of Perfume Paths, customized tours of perfume treasures hiding in all corners of Paris. Naturally, I am curious, and I want to explore the perfume haunts of Paris, especially since I have only a couple of days on this visit and need to optimize my time.

Neela walks into the store, and one cannot help but notice her warm and friendly presence. She already has a plan of our adventure in mind, having previously learned about my latest perfume loves and disappointments. Moreover, I am touched that she remembers that Palais Royal is my favorite place in Paris. Not to mention, my deep affection for Serge Lutens boutique located under its arcades. The geometrically arranged rows of trees stretching their dark branches against an overcast sky on site of what used to be the residence of Cardinal Richelieu create a melancholy atmosphere. Les Salons du Palais Royal Shiseido with their dark purple interior and a spiral staircase in the middle have a seductively mysterious atmosphere. However, the most enticing sight is of the rows of bottles precisely arranged on the tables. I smell Iris Silver Mist, the first Serge Lutens’ fragrance that captured my heart. Created by Maurice Roucel, it is a vision of a winter garden, with scent of flowers forgotten in the snow cutting through the crisp evening air. Next, I sample Chêne, and its layers of smooth bitter wood with a rich mossy ornamentation develop into a beautiful dark veil on my skin. Neela suggests that I should wait longer for the final dryout note, but I decide that I am already too smitten. A bottle of Chêne and a replacement bottle of my other favorite Bois de Violette are being rung up for me, while Neela and I exchange a few words on the new releases with the Serge Lutens sales associates, who clearly know and like my lovely tour guide.

The sky turns darker as we walk through Jardins du Palais Royal on our way to Colette, a store on rue St. Honoré selling avant-garde clothing, home furnishings and beauty lines. Named after the famous French writer, Colette always has an atmosphere of excitement and fun. It is the place to see the latest creations by Lucien Pellat-Finet and Tom Ford as well as perfume lines like Norma Kamali that cannot be found anywhere else in Paris.

Walking via Marche du St. Honoré, we make our way to Montale boutique, which is another discovery of the day for me. A line by Pierre Montale, who used to work for Comptoir Sud Pacifique, is a journey into the Arabian Nights, with its fragrances based on rose attar, sandalwood and Middle Eastern spices. The line also includes a range based on oudh, the fragrant wood of Aquilaria species. In contrast to somewhat formal Serge Lutens boutique, Montale is very laidback. A beautiful sales associate with long dark blond hair asks whether I would be interested in some samples, which is a very appealing offer, since seeing dozens of exotically named scents is both intriguing and overwhelming. Based on Neela’s suggestions and my own tentative conclusions, I ask for Crystal Flowers, Chypré Fruité and Patchouli Leaves to test later at leisure. Neela’s attention to detail amazes me once again, because as soon as we step out of the boutique, she handles me a wipe, which she gives her clients to remove the fragrances off their hands before they step into another boutique.

The column commemorating Napoléon’s 1805 military campaign that terminated in the battle of Austerlitz is the focal point of Place Vendôme, a square that is now a home to bankers and jewelers. In contrast to the opaque heaviness of the patina covered bronze column, made out of 1200 cannons seized from the Austrians and Russians, the windows of the jewelery shops scintillate with the intense glow of diamonds and sapphires. Neela and I cross Place Vendôme to reach Guerlain boutique. Its glory rose with the Second Empire of Napoléon III, whose bee motif still decorates the bottles of its classic fragrances. The boutique has a modern interior of curved walls, which is a bit of a surprise given its Art Noveau styled front. I revisit elegant Chamade extrait de parfum and opt for a beautiful heart-shaped bottle of this ravishing fragrance laced with blackcurrant and hyacinth.

Audrey Hepburn’s love for Angélina made this salon de thé quite famous, however its hot chocolat, chocolat chaud l'Africain, renders a visit there not just a consideration, but a requirement. It is starting to drizzle, and the belle époque salon with its frescoes and gilded mirrors décor feels welcoming. I decide that smoked breast of duck on a bed of fresh salad greens is what appeals to me on this slightly chilly day. Neela selects omelette aux fines herbes and salad of mâche tossed with salt, pepper and olive oil. The food is wonderful, and I am thoroughly enjoying my salad with the dark earthy flavor of duck, perfectly accented with orange scented dressing.

Please continue to Part II.

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