The Scents of my Travels

To smell is to remember. Scents evoke memories, the memories of travel strongest of all. One whiff of turmeric and I am transported to the Djemaa El Fna, the main square in Marrakesh. It’s early evening and the food stalls have set up their stands for the evening’s feast. Cauldrons simmer with vegetable tagines, merguez sausages and goat’s head stews. The smells of roasting cumin and coriander, cinnamon and saffron wafting in the air, imploring me to stop and eat.

Wander into the narrow alleyways of the souks and you’ll smell the sweet scents of jasmine oil, musk and orange flower as you pass the herbalists’ stalls and breathe in the ground ginger, coriander and turmeric at the spice souks. You stop at a café and are delighted by the scents of crushed mint in your freshly-made tea and the almonds on your pigeon pastilla.

The Scents of My TravelsBut in Morocco, the smells aren’t always so appealing. Travel north across the Atlas Mountains to Fez and you’ll be accosted by the stench of the oldest leather tannery in the world, a smell so strong that visitors are advised to mask it by holding fresh mint leaves up to their noses.

The Scents of My TravelsAsk my two boys what their favourite travel smell is and they’ll tell you it’s the smell of freshly baked baguettes and pastries in a French boulangerie. No surprises there, but for them, the smells evoke not just the pleasant anticipation of something chocolatey but the memories of a newly-found freedom, the independence we gave them in a little village in Provence to walk to the boulangerie and choose the pastries for our breakfast.

The scents of Provence are invariably delightful. The smells of pine and mimosa mingle with the fragrance of olive trees as you walk into the countryside. In the weekly markets you’ll come across the wonderful smell of lavender as you sniff the soaps and oils, the strong smell of cheeses, meats and bread on display in the stalls.

Paris has a smell all of its own. I lived there for a year and every time I go back, I close my eyes and breathe in the city’s unique fragrance. The memories come rushing back. It’s that strong tobacco whiff of Gauloises mingled with ground coffee beans from the tabac on the corner of my street, the sickly sweet smell from the linden trees on the Place des Vosges where I used to sit and listen to the cellist on a Sunday afternoon.

It’s the warm, familiar smell inside the métro and the sweet scent of lilies wafting up from the flower market on the Ile de la Cité. The early morning smell of exhaust fumes mixed with the synthetically clean fragrance on the streets after they’ve been sluiced down by the street cleaners. It’s the remarkable variety of perfumes worn by just about everyone and the wonderful scent of the second-hand books on sale in the bouquinistes alongside the Seine.

Travel is an assault on the senses. You arrive somewhere new and instantly the sights, the sounds, the smells overwhelm you with their strangeness. Everything is new and unfamiliar. It’s exhilarating yet unsettling.

Nowhere more so than India where I spent the best part of a year backpacking after university. It’s a country where the smells could often be overwhelming. The stench of urine in the public toilets, the dense human sweat on tightly-packed trains and buses, the cardamom from the chai being sold as the trains pull into the railway stations.

But then there was the sweet fragrance of jasmine in the flower garlands in Kerala, the coconut oil in the hair of the girls on the street, the smoky scents of the incense being burnt in the temples. The smells of spices in the air wherever we travelled and the wonderfully fresh air up in the Himalayas.

Being away from home for so long, I missed the familiar smells of the English countryside I’d grown up in. The reassuring change of smells that comes with each season: the horse chestnuts in Autumn, the daffodils and apple blossom in Spring. I longed for the smell on wet pavements after the rain, the fragrance drifting up from a hot cup of tea in the morning and the scent of freshly mown grass.

But it wasn’t until the car pulled up outside our house, and I got out, that I smelled the most reassuring scent of all: the heavy odour from the cow pats in the field. The sweet smell of home.

I’m linking this post up to this month’s Travel Link Up with EmmaAngieJessi and Sus.

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45 thoughts on “The Scents of my Travels

  1. love love love it! The colors of my travels and then scents of my travels…i am secretly glad that India has featured in both of the lists 🙂 Love how you pulled out such a unique thought related to travels.

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  2. Lovely pictures again – and whenever i see travel shots of that tannery I do wonder if people realise how foul it is. 🙂

    Avril O’ReillyChildren’s Book Author and illustrator Here is a very nice review of my new keepsake journalshttps://maviecatholique.wordpress.com/2016/03/10/my-first-holy-communion-keepsake-journal-charming-sweet-and-fun/

    Date: Tue, 29 Mar 2016 08:02:33 +0000 To: avrilfrances@hotmail.com

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  3. What a wonderfully evocative post, Clare. You had my nose twitching 🙂 I did especially like the bit about your boys and the boulangerie. When we first discovered the Eastern Algarve it was a delight to be able to let ours play at being grown up, in complete safety. Nice to meet you. 🙂 Thanks for popping over.

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  4. You really took me straight back to Marrakesh for a while, and to Fes – although we were lucky to be taken to a spot to view the tannery where the smell wasn’t as strong.

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  5. I really enjoyed travelling around the world via your nose 🙂 I like how you’ve included the bad with the good here, always good to be realistic. Sometimes travelling can be an affront to the senses, but it’s always worth it. And sometimes the worst smells are the prettiest, like the tannery. So visually appealing but glad you got the shot and not me!

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  6. Beautiful photos and words, Clare, as always. I don’t think I would survive a walk past a tannery! I can’t imagine what that stench would be like … but I love that your two boys have identified their favorite scents as freshly baked baguettes! One of the best smells in the world.

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  7. So wonderful and gorgeous! I am there, wow! I remember my mom telling me (as she recalled getting a burger with her sister at a root beer joint during childhood) that smells could always “take you back”. The scent of a burger put her right back on her bike, sister following, to get a meal from the roller-skate waitresses.

    Thanks for sharing the lovely pics. Dreamy!

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  8. Such a lovely follow up after the colours of your travels. A beautiful post which takes me to all those places (though I’ve only been to Fes in Morocco not Marrakech). Just like in Morocco and India, the smells in France are not always beautiful either, take a stinky andouillette sausage or a really ripe camembert (or even the ubiquitous dog poo in the streets!) but the good ones are really good…my garden smells of lavender and pine, or mimosa and pine (depending on the season!). For me one very nostalgic smell of Paris is the metro where the rubber tyres on the rails make a very particular and unique smell. Thandk for linking this to #AllAboutFrance

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    • Thank you so much, Phoebe. I love your take on the nastier smells of France – overripe camembert would definitely make my list too. I love how smells can instantly transport us to a place and time. It was of course, a Frenchman who wrote about it so beautifully – Proust. Thanks for having me on #AllAboutFrance. As a Francophile who doesn’t travel there as often as I’d like, I really love reading all the French posts.

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  9. Such gorgeous pictures, I could imagine the scents from looking at them. Provence always looks like it would just be overwhelmingly beautiful, the scent of lavender and flowers in the air… I must go!

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  10. LOVED this post! I could almost smell each of the scents as you described them. I must admit that I am much like your children, the smell of fresh baguettes and buttery pastries in a French boulangerie always makes me swoon! 🙂

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