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The Unmistakable Aromas of Paris


Most people, when they recount the highlights of their stay to Paris, focus on museums, restaurants or historical sites.  France is indeed richly endowed with many of these.  But as I sit in Paris, on the eve of a return to California, I wanted to share with you some of my strongest associations with this beautiful city.  Although there are countless visits I could recall and many-a-fine meal I could mention, what stands out most for me are some of the unique smells of life in Paris.  Yes, the smells.

Like Marcel Proust, who over a 100 years ago recounted the episode of the madeleine which brought back a surge of childhood memories, there are several distinct smells of Paris and France that do exactly the same for me.  Maybe you will recognize a few:

  1. The boulangerie.  Arguably one of the finest smells in the world, you simply haven’t lived until you have stood inside a bakery early in the morning to take in the rich smell of bread and pastries coming out of the oven.  Without a doubt, my favorite smell which takes me back to my early years when I would get a pastry after school or when my parents would pick up fresh bread for the day.
  2. The boucherie’s roasted chickens.  A close second to the boulangerie are the racks of slowly roasting chickens outside the butchers.  I can’t tell you how often I have simply stood in front of a wall of roasting chickens to actively inhale the delicious aroma.  With fat dripping all the way down (and on top of each other), these delicious and golden brown roasted chickens are a weekend lunch treat that cannot be missed.
  3. The Fromagerie.  Although it may take some getting used to, the warm, complex aroma that greets you when you enter a cheese shop is as mesmerizing as it is unique.  This is how you get to smell an entire country and its regions – through the combined aroma of hundreds of cheeses.
  4. The Papeteries (news shops, stands and kiosks).  There is a delightful smell of clean, fresh papers & magazines that greet me every time I enter a French news shop.  I love the smell from all these publications and for some reason, I simply cannot find the same aroma anywhere outside of France.  Maybe it’s the French paper they use or maybe its just the sheer volume and variety of neatly stacked magazines which create this very distinct smell.  Who knows?
  5. The Paris Metro.  Love it or hate it, the metro does have a unique, warm, musky and slightly rubbery smell to it.  You immediately know you are in Paris when you smell it.  In spite of all the filth, masses and less attractive smells to be found underground, the Paris metro has kept a very distinct smell over the years.  While you will find it in fewer places each year, anyone who has been to the Auber or Charles de Gaulle/Etoile stations should recognize what I am talking about.  The metro is the smell of Paris.

Lest you think that my nostalgia for Paris is all rainbows and unicorns, there is of course a darker, less fragrant and more pungent side to the city.  You can’t talk about Parisian smells without recognizing some of the more infamous and prevalent aromas of the City of Lights.  Let’s face it, Paris is a gorgeous but polluted city.

  1. Cigarettes & tobacco.  Smoke is everywhere in Paris.  Millions of cigarette butts are littering the streets.  You can’t sit in an outdoor café without someone lighting up next to you.  Heaven forbid that you walk the streets, downwind from smokers ahead of you and have to inhale their nicotine filth.
  2. Urine.  Another sad and unavoidable fragrance of Paris is the perennial smell of urine.  Whether from human or animal origin, bodily waste decorates sidewalks, subways, underground parkings and even the slightest building angle.
  3. Car exhaust.  France has embraced diesel fuel as a more economical form of energy, but on a cold and windless day, walking the streets of Paris can take hours or days off your life.  Smelling the pervasive car exhaust fumes is unavoidable.  It is especially bad on a congested, workday morning or in small side streets.  Cars, trucks, buses, motorcycles, scooters, they’re all in on it.

Got any other (odoriferous) memories of Paris?  Share a comment!
photo credit: Franck Vervial via photopin cc

3 comments on “The Unmistakable Aromas of Paris

  1. Renato
    May 9, 2014

    The Paris Metro smell! I visited Paris four times, in 1982, 1987, 2006 and 2009, but that smell was every time the same.

  2. Richard
    April 15, 2015

    A great little article. I’ve been thinking about this recently so I thought I’d look around the net…
    The smells of Paris were something that really stood out for me.
    Aside from the fragrances of the boulangeries etc. there was a particular smell that I picked up in a variety of locations – from the Metro to the catacombs to fancy arcades!
    Its a mixture of sweet perfume, cigarette smoke, cheese, sewage and…something else I’m not sure about!
    A true olfactory cocktail…
    When I was in the deep dank tunnels of the catacombs I could smell it in the clay soil and puddles of groundwater. So perhaps part of the smell I’m describing has its source in the simply the earth and water of Paris itself!

  3. Dominique
    October 31, 2020

    My memories of Paris are largely as a child when I visited my grandparents, who lived there. I’m so glad that Andrew included the “librairies – papeteries” — book and stationery stores. They have a particular smell that I have never experienced anywhere else, never once in the USA, sad to say. But to add to that, I always remember most “Bureaux de Poste” (post offices) had a particular smell similar to bookstores. I assume that again it was something to do with the paper and/or the glue used. More recent visits to France haven’t rekindled these Proustian olfactory memories as well, but I wish I could bottle the smell of French bookstores — it was such a pleasant, comforting and interesting odor.

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This entry was posted on March 19, 2013 by in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , .

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Parifornia is the creation of Andrew Hyncik, an experienced International Marketing executive who's lived and worked for over 20 years in both Europe and North America.

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