Once again, like a river heading to the fragrant ocean, this post won´t be a direct journey to perfume. We will get there though, I promise. Strap on your pith helmet, have a flashlight at the ready, and settle on down for the meandering ride.
As a kid, if I wasn´t digging holes in the garden/yard to the misery of ma, or reading novels, or setting light to newspaper in the old bomb shelter up the road, I could be found studying maps. Man, I loved them. My grandfather had given me a pre-war atlas where half the globe seemed coloured a colonial pink, and that bore little resemblance to the ongoing transformation of the world in the 1970s. I´d sit there in my florally embroidered denim flares (funny how feminine male wear was in that mad decade) and look at the names of far flung places and the contrast between the political maps and the natural tapestries of the physical ones. Like many young boys and girls, I longed to travel and see these deep purple mountain landscapes, lost lakes, and lands of ice. I felt by touching the maps, by saying the place names, I could somehow transport myself to the contours under my fingers. It was an aesthetic appreciation rather than a political one – I didn´t much care for the borders or the shapes of countries, or who apparently owned what. What most appealed was the feeling of place names in my mouth as I said them – Kamchatka, Tierra del Fuego, Ouagadougou; the patterns of blues and browns and greens against each other.
I didn´t really get to travel until my late teens. Before starting university I bought a two month European rail travel ticket and set off in late June. I had a choice to head east or west, and after much prevarication I decided a provisional route would be through France to the Alps, down the spine of Italy and then the Greek islands. I had a wonderful time, came back bronzed and apparently worldly (little did I know…), but in my heart of hearts knew I´d travelled in the wrong direction. Italy and Greece were after all the ROMANTIC destinations and were therefore the default settings for a young man whose head was full of fluff and longing. But in reality I longed for Spain. And Morocco, which was somehow magically included in Europe as far as interrailing was concerned.
Spain, for dreamy old me at least, wasn´t the land of the tacky costas but a world of unbridled passion and reinvention, kissing distance from Africa, the continent with the best names on the map. I had romanticised it completely in my head: all Moorish legacy, gypsies, beautiful people, danger and wild party spirit that kept going forever through an eternal summer. Surprisingly, when I finally made it to Seville much later on, I found I was right. Morocco, in contrast, was a shock.
As a fragrance fiend, both these places are recalled by smell. Seville is a cliché of orange blossom of course, but it´s also reawakened in my head by wafts of Guerlain´s Vetiver, sniffs of smoked paprika and fresh fish frying in olive oil. Morocco, and Marrakech in particular (a must visit before it changes completely), is a little different and works more as a juxtaposition of the sublime with the downright malevolent – intense heady florals sit right next to a layered accord of intense heady piss (male of course) drying in the intense heady heat; delicate spices waft up as a fragrant counterpoint to the nasal wtf? of raw sewage and rot. Aaah, memories…
In his standard faux-poetic promo blurb, Serge Lutens, denizen of Marrakech, is described as a traveller in time´. Well, it´s not time I´m after today even if we´ve ended up in the souk, it´s space, and my nomination for traveller in space, in a non-Neil Armstrong sense, would be another perfumer altogether, Bertrand Duchaufour. My hunch is that BD was also a childhood map studier, as his inventions are as site-specific as that sculpture you recently raised your eyebrows at outside your least favourite office block. You know the one.
Take Sequoia, that winy liniment heavy Comme des Garà§ons number which does for West Coast sap what Viagra did for other wood (aherm): you´re in a redwood forest, or at least a virtual version of one, with all its aromas, including the decay, with a few eucalypts just round the corner. Or Timbuktu, a place I´ve never been to, but which seems to be securely bottled by Duchaufour. It´s mayhem close up – shrill acidic shrieks, spices and flowers and heat and dirt – transformed into an exotic yet friendly incense in its sillage. The close up is the reality; the long shot is the romantic imagination at work. I never seem to like Timbuktu when I spray it, but no other perfume garners as many compliments when I wear it.
No surprise then that dear Bernie was asked to invent scents to capture the smells of Paris, Budapest and Helsinki in a 2003 olfactory exhibition. Or that the Eau d´Italie line of fragrances used him as the nose behind their four scents. And it´s these I´m going to talk about now.
Like I´ve already said, unlike many, Italy doesn´t hold a romantic footing in my imagination, and for some reason, Italy in French less so. However, lagging behind many other scent fiends, I finally got in touch with the delightful Sebastià¡n (who´s Spanish – so that´s three countries covered…), one of the brains behind the line, via Eau d´Italie´s gorgeous website (www.eauditalie.it/english/products.html) and blagged some samples. Their eponymous first scent sets the scene for the other three – they´re naked and clean in design, transparent and minimalist fragrances with little clutter in top or base. This one begins with a refreshing blast without resorting to the cologne 101 of in your face lemon or bergamot or some other predictable hesperidic HELLO. It´s quiet, understated and for me the best bit of the scent. Their website says that the scent has a je ne sais quoi quality to it and that it melds with the wearer´s own skin chemistry. Unfortunately for me, I sais exactly quoi the scent does with my skin chemistry, and it´s plastic, melted slightly in a Bunsen burner. Oh dear. Seems like I´m unlikely to become that cosmopolitan European who stays at Hotel Le Sirenuse as a matter of course, if this scent´s response to me is anything to go by.
Paestum Rose in contrast is much more likeable, and perhaps more recognisably a Duchaufour fragrance. It has a little something in it to dirty up the rose, and is as much about resins as it is the flower itself. It´s dry, crisp, bright and fairly rapid in its journey from top to base notes. It has been blogged about in greater detail elsewhere and I can imagine it being the most popular in the line.
A theme seems to be emerging – I like the first few minutes of these scents much more than the scents overall. And this definitely applies to Sienne l´Hiver which is a delight at least in its top notes – crisp lychee (not listed but I´m sure of it) and violet – before it becomes a green scent very reminiscent of something else I´ve smelled recently (and wasn´t too keen on). It´s early spring rather than winter to me, and will appeal to green scent lovers quite readily.
My favourite of the line I´ve saved until last – Bois d´Ombrie. This has notes of cognac, leather, orris and vetiver, a deliciously rich combination. Here though, they retain that sheerness of the other scents, whilst being slightly more linear. It´s very much a reading by the fire sort of smell – in an old fashioned sepia world where everything is a shade of brown and the flames flicker caramel colours in the glass of brandy warming in your hand. In fact, this combination of notes smells most like rich pipe tobacco and for that reason alone this brings me comfort. My grandfather, who gave me my first book of maps, was a pipe smoker, and he´d always allow me to fill his pipe with the aromatic herbs before tamping it down and inhaling.
I´m there again now, lying on the floor in front of the fire, whispering place names to myself as the delicious smoke fill his lungs, and my nose. My grandfather nods off in his chair as I flick through pages, gaze up at the fire and speculate about my future. I´m already living more in my imagination than in the room in which I lie. Travelling in space; travelling in time.
The Eau d´Italie line of fragrances are available from www.lafcony.com or www.aedes.com in the States and Liberty in the UK. You can also pick them up in Positano.