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.
But 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.
Ask 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.