Travel: 90 posts

Searching for scents and sensory traditions around the world.

Illyria : Postcard from Albania

I was walking up the hill, leaving behind me the ancient town of Apollonia with its graceful ruins of temples and arcades, when I saw this vista. A golden field, a tree, blue skies. The setting sun colored the burned grasses dark gold, and if I turned around, I could see a ribbon of the sea glittering on the horizon. But I stared straight ahead. Centuries compress into seconds when one sees visions like this. This could have been Illyria.

Illyria is what this land in the west of the Balkan Peninsula was called in antiquity. Today, its largest part is in Albania. The town of Apollonia was famous for its university, and it was here that in 44 BC Gaius Octavius Thurinus learned of the assassination of his great-uncle Julius Caesar. Being named Caesar’s heir, he rushed to Rome to claim the throne and become emperor Augustus. He never finished his university studies, but it didn’t prevent him from being one of the most brilliant of Roman statesmen.

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Laurent Gerbaud: The Chocolate Treasure of Brussels

Brussels is a city renowned for its chocolate, but even so, the creations of Laurent Gerbaud stand out. Their flavors are exquisite, their quality is impeccable and the presentation is beautiful. The boutique on Rue Ravenstein, located close to the Royal Museums of Fine Arts–another one of the city’s treasures–is a place I return often to taste chocolates or linger over a glass of wine.

In my recent FT Magazine article, Laurent Gerbaud, I talk about this enigmatic confectioner and his craft. The range of flavors is seasonal–fig and apricot in the summer and yuzu in the winter. One of my favorite discoveries has been milk chocolate with salt and green cumin, a combination that seems unexpected and tastes addictive.

The boutique itself is a destination–charming and serene.

When I’m finally ready to step back into the real world, I leave with a couple of chocolate bars or perhaps a Mondrian set, a box divided into squares and rectangles reminiscent of the Dutch painter’s compositions. Gerbaud’s is edible art at its best. The flavors range from delicate to intense, but the experience is invariably of pure delight. To continue reading, please click here.

 

Scent Diary : Bulgarian Roses

Bulgarian roses smell of honey, cinnamon, cloves, lemon peel, green leaves and a hint of raspberry. It’s the rose damascena variety, but the unique terroir of the Rose Valley gives it a particular fragrance. Imagine what a whole field of roses smells like!

Please jot down any interesting observations in this thread. You can write about your favorite books, interesting scents you’ve encountered. For those who would like to use the Scent Diary to sharpen their sense of smell, I will give a short explanation. As I wrote in How to Improve Your Sense of Smell, the best way to do so is to smell and to pay attention to what you’re smelling. It doesn’t matter what you smell. The most important thing is to notice scents around you. It’s even better if you write it down. So please share your scents and perfumes with us.

Photography by Bois de Jasmin

On the Japanese Incense Trail with a Paris Detour

I’m sitting in front of smoldering joss sticks trying to determine whether they smell of the milky sweetness of sandalwood or the raspy sharpness of cedar. A young woman with a glossy black bob lights one stick after another, blowing each out with a gentle wave of her hand. I’m unused to kneeling for so long, and I feel the crunch of tatami mats through my thin wool trousers. The back of my head throbs slightly from jet lag, and I am being overwhelmed by the size of Tokyo and the strain of trying to remember Japanese covered by layers of other languages I’ve learned since my university days. I also feel anxious that I may not be able to guess the scents correctly, but then I remember my perfumery teacher’s words “don’t think, just smell,” and I let myself go.

I’m inside a Shoyeido incense store hidden in the elegant Aoyama district of Tokyo. Nearby are the glittering avenues of Harajuku, lined with fashion boutiques and populated by some of the most stylish people on the planet, but inside the earth toned store, there is only serenity and incense.

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Postcard from Uzbekistan : Desert in Bloom

Every spring the Kyzylkum Desert lives up to its name, which means red sand, by turning crimson. Except it’s not the sand that gives it its vibrant hues, but the wild poppies. Located in Central Asia and shared between Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, it encompasses the region historically called Sogdiana or Transoxiana. Traveling in Uzbekistan for my new research project into the cultural history of aromatics has been full of such discoveries. This land may be associated for many people with its recent Soviet past, but what are 70 odd years of Soviet rule in a place that counts its history in the thousands of years. Even if the recent past left deep scars, from social to environmental, the more ancient traditions and customs remain.

As do the scarlet flower fields of the Kyzylkum Desert. Alexander the Great crossed it. And so did Genghis Khan and Tamerlane. The remnants of Alexander’s fort still stand in the desert, their ancient ramparts still imposing enough. And the lines of the Persian poet Ferdowsi came to my mind.

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