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May 13, 2008

Scents of Cities : Kiev


I can give you a long list of reasons why I am scent obsessed. The main one is that nothing captures better the feeling of a place than its smells. Therefore, I would like to paint an olfactory portrait of each city that made an impression on me and take you on a journey. The first city I selected for this series is the city of my birth, Kiev, the capital of Ukraine. The turbulent history of the city, from its grandeur as a capital of Kievan Rus to the post-Soviet confusion, marks every stone on its streets. The gilded domes of the numerous Orthodox churches emerge from the lush greenery of the historic city on the Right Bank, while modern high-rises crowd the Left. Burial caves for medieval ascetic monks neighbor WWII memorials. Billboards advertising Nokia cell phones crown the baroque Stalinesque buildings of the 1950s. Most of my early scent memories are connected to Kiev, and no matter where I find myself, I only have to think of a few scents in order for all its streets, sounds and people to spring from my memory. ...


Portrait: Kiev’s coat of arms includes a white cluster of horse chestnut blossoms framed by green fronds. Indeed, every street is lined with these elegant trees, which bloom in the spring producing white to pink flowers. They smell of spice, jasmine and mineral powder, a gentle and distinctive scent. Also, the woody, leathery, and animalic scent of the ripe chestnuts touched by the damp aroma of fallen leaves is likewise quintessentially Kievan to me.
Perfume: Without ever intending to find it captured in a bottle, I was surprised and excited that Serge Lutens Sarrasins captured these two contrasting impressions, thus giving me a small glimpse of the familiar. Also, Frédéric Malle Le Parfum de Thérèse conveys the fresh scent of blooming chestnuts, with its airy, jasmine rich composition.


Portrait: False acacia, Robinia pseudoacacia, has a rich orange blossom, coconut and jasmine sambac fragrance. It is an intoxicating scent, especially when it is experienced in the city with its peculiar mineral odors of cobblestone streets and brick buildings heated by the sun.
Perfume: L’Artisan Parfumeur La Chasse Aux Papillons best captures the idea of acacia for me, given its layering of jasmine, tuberose, and orange blossom in a delicate accord. If Serge Lutens Fleurs d’Oranger were more transparent, it would be the fragrance to most closely convey a balmy evening filled with the heady scent of acacia.


Portrait: Perhaps, this scent is part of my DNA, because my mother tells me that when she was pregnant with me, she smelled lilacs everywhere. Certainly, Kiev in the spring is filled with their characteristic scent of green rose, honey and marzipan.
Perfume: Frédéric Malle En Passant may be its creator's, Olivia Giacobetti’s, idea of Paris in the spring, but whenever I smell it, I distinctly see delicate lilac blossoms scattered on the rain stained asphalt of Kiev's streets.

Orthodox Incense (Ladan)

Portrait: One step under the round arches of Orthodox churches, and I find myself surrounded by a golden mist comprised of incense smoke and the shimmer of opulent priestly robes. As a young child, I was both entranced and frightened by these images. My family likes to recall that during my baptism at the age of five, I behaved so dreadfully that the elderly priest simply sighed, “What a difficult child!” However, when the incense censers were brought in, I stopped my antics and stood mesmerized by the smoke.
Perfume: Frankincense, myrrh, opoponax, and labdanum capture the velvety and warm fragrance of Eastern Orthodox cathedrals. Armani Privé Bois d’Encens is a gorgeous incense, although it is a touch too dry to evoke the sweeter, more ambery note of Orthodox ladan. On the other hand, the entire Annick Goutal Les Orientalistes series (Ambre Fétiche, Myrrhe Ardente and Encens Flamboyant) offers a journey into the incense filled churches of my childhood. Ambre Fétiche has an almost eerie semblance to the fragrance of incense and prosfora (leavened bread prepared for special liturgies.)

Fur and Leather

Portrait: In the northern climate of Kiev, furs and leathers were traditionally favored over lighter materials. The animalic, creamy, warm scent of a full length fur coat is an aroma I cannot separate from my memories of Kiev. Since boot leather was treated with birch tar, its dark, resinous scent reminds me of Kiev as well.
Perfume: One of the most perfect fur perfumes one can have is undoubtedly Serge Lutens Muscs Koublaï Khan. On the other hand, Chanel Cuir de Russie offers the most luxurious and elegant leather note imaginable.

Black Tea

Portrait: Tea was brought to the Russian Empire in the 1600s from China via the Silk Road. The scent of this dark amber liqueur follows one around the streets of Kiev, although the aroma of roasted coffee beans is quite common as well. Add to it the nutty creamy fragrance of Kiev’s famous torte (which is a decadent cashew nut meringue slathered with butter cream,) and you have my idea of bliss.
Perfume: Comme des Garçons Thé, Annick Goutal Duel, and L’Artisan Tea for Two are the olfactory versions of this beloved drink.


Portrait: Carnations were both a symbol of the various socialist holidays as well as a luxury item during winter time. In fact, the most famous of all Soviet fragrances, Red Moscow, was a L’Origan type with a dominant, spicy carnation complex. Rich like velvet, simultaneously woody and creamy,  the scent of carnation paints a portrait of Kiev that perhaps is left behind in my perestroika era childhood.
Perfume: Classical carnation is a beautiful note, and Comme des Garçons Carnation, Caron Bellodgia, and Guerlain Metalys offer a few interesting themes to explore in our journey across Kiev. While CdG Carnation is closest to the carnation in nature, Metalys is a baroque and opulent rendition, befitting a stroll through the gardens of Mariinsky Palace.

Champagne and Madeira

Portrait: The Eastern European predilection for sweet sparkling as well as fortified wines is well-known. In the 19th century, restaurants on the Côte d'Azur would stock up on these  wines to please Russian clients, from wealthy merchants to aristocracy. Thus, the sweet, plumy scent of champagne is a typically Slavic association, and so is the caramel, apricot, and tobacco bouquet of Madeira. If vodka is more of a Soviet era drink to me, champagne and Madeira are of the old imperial past. The mélange of alcoholic vapors in the streets of Kiev truly justifies the remark by the Grand Kievan Prince Vladimir made in the 10th century, “Drinking is the joy of the Rus." Some things simply do not change.
Perfume: Coty Chypre knock offs were a preferred choice of beverage for Soviet era alcoholics when vodka was not in stock. If you are after the opulent side of Kiev, Yves Saint Laurent Yvresse and Etat Libre d’Orange Vraie Blonde provide a lovely glimpse with their sweet champagne notes.

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