The Poblenou district of Barcelona overflows with the heady citrus scent of orange blossoms, coffee and fresh bread
he streets in the Poblenou district of Barcelona are overflowing with the heady citrus scent of orange blossoms. Anniqua and I stand under an orange tree filling our lungs with the fragrance of spring. It is two weeks into April and we are in Spain for a little break.
“If I had a beach chair, I’d plant myself right here and spend the rest of the day under this tree.”
“Or, you could just buy a perfume with notes of Azahar,” Anniqua says, using the Spanish word for orange blossom. “We should buy some to remind us of this trip. I love the scent of flowers – it’s so soothing.”
I look sideways at Anniqua. “Did you read, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer?”
“Uff, yes, that was so weird, and the ending…”
“I saw the movie too.” I say when I realise she isn’t going to finish her sentence. “Remember the scene in the perfume shop where young Grenouille learns how to mix fragrances? It is an actual shop just off La Rambla. We can walk to it now if you want.”
Of course she does. We head to the narrow streets in the old part of the city.
“That’s strange,” Anniqua says. “Everyone seems to be heading in the same direction as us.”
Then, just around the next corner, we walk directly into a solid mass of humans. Anniqua immediately turns to go back, but the streets behind us are already full. There is no way out.
Gradually, a hollow rumble of drum beats moves in our direction, the sound of trumpets becomes louder too. There is a procession moving slowly up the street. The leader is holding up a huge banner of dark green velvet, embroidered with gold thread. Behind him, row after row of penitents walk in silence, men and women, dressed from head to foot in black robes. Black gloves on their hands, and tall cone-shaped hoods completely cover their faces except for tiny eye holes that make them look sinister, menacing.
Unable to take my eyes off them, I say, “I know there is absolutely no connection between these people trying to atone for their sins from the previous year, and the Ku Klux Klan in the USA, but they look very similar. No?”
“Yes, they do, but I wish they would walk a bit faster,” Anniqua answers, “I’m feeling claustrophobic.”
No one in the procession is going to move any faster. The sturdy but ornate float, which is part of the procession, probably weighs about 900 kilos. It is being carried on the shoulders of 30 or so bearers who consider it a privilege to be holding it up without the help of wheels or any other support.
Anniqua looks up at the sky hoping to take the edge off her fear of closed spaces. I follow her gaze.
This city is a work of art. It’s no surprise that it won the Royal Gold Medal for Architecture – an award usually reserved for individual architects. In the distance, I can see the magnificent neo-Gothic Bishop’s Bridge, Pont del Bisbe, that connects the two buildings on either side of the street. It was built in the early 20th Century and the architect proposed making other buildings in the same style. The proposal was rejected outright. Legend has it that in a fit of anger, he added a skull and dagger into the intricate designs on the bridge, and anyone who catches sight of it as they walk past will be cursed. Of course, Anniqua and I make a point to look at it every time we walk under the Pont del Bisbe.
In the end, we find what we came for, an olfactory memory of this perfect holiday, and walk out of the perfumería luxuriously wrapped in the scent of fresh orange blossoms.
A two-minute walk from the Bishop’s Bridge is the Plaza San Filip Neri, tucked away in the winding streets of the old city. You could be excused for thinking that it has always been this peaceful as you sit on the side of the fountain, in the shade of tall trees, listening to the water trickling gently into the large stone basin. But the wall of a tiny church nearby tells a very different story. It is disfigured, pock-marked by shrapnel damage caused during the Civil War. Civilians, mainly children who had taken shelter in the convent, lost their lives during the bombing. The city has made no attempt to repair or cover up the scars of this horrific event, perhaps as a stark reminder of the barbarity of war.
A loud drumbeat startles me back to the present. I look towards the procession and see a thin haze of smoke moving in a zigzag fashion across the street. A priest wearing his traditional white robes walks past, swinging a censer from side to side towards the onlookers. There is a comforting familiarity to this sweet earthy smell of frankincense. We burn incense at religious gatherings too. Maybe this is why I like it. I mention this to Anniqua.
“Counterbalancing the thousands of human bodies that gather in one place?” She speculates clearly, still discomforted by the crowd.
“Probably. Can you imagine standing in a throng of mediaeval working-class people waiting for this procession to pass? the sweat, the odour…”
Anniqua closes her eyes trying to block the image of smelly bodies I’ve brought to life with my words.
“Stop it.” She says, shuddering slightly. “Look, they’re moving away, let’s get out of here.”
We make our way through the thinning crowd towards the Plaza Real to find the 200 year old shop called Herboristeria del Rey, the King’s Herbalist. In the movie, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, this is where the blind Grenouille first experiences the fragrance of perfumes. He is compelled to follow the smell to its source and decides he will create perfumes as a profession. This is the exact moment when the murderer inside him comes alive.
Anniqua and I make do with looking through the shop window because it is closed. The interior is tiny but it has a marble fountain topped with the bust of someone important. Anniqua immediately pulls out her phone and starts searching.
“That’s the head of a Swedish biologist, Carl Von Linné. He introduced the modern system of naming organisms.”
“Interesting,” I say, “but why the fountain?”
“It says that they used to keep leeches in it. It’s always been a health store, not an actual perfumería. That was just for the movie. Just look at all the bottles of supplements and essential oils on the shelves.”
“Hmmm. There must be hundreds of concoctions in there.”
We stand there with our foreheads to the glass, admiring all the details, murals on the walls, hand-painted ceramic apothecary jars, and glass vials with liquids of every colour imaginable.
“Let’s go and pick up our flor de Azahar perfume before we forget.” Anniqua reminds me.
“There’s a real perfumería on Passeig de Gràcia. Let’s go there. They have a mini perfume museum at the back.”
We continue towards the Plaza de Cataluña. It’s a short walk up La Rambla where florists have packed their booths with fresh spring flowers. Floral scents mingle with the smell of coffee and fresh bread coming from cafes, a feast for the senses.
The museum at the perfumería has a collection of perfume bottles from ancient and modern cultures, Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and Arab and many more.
“I’m curious about the tradition of Arabs and their interest in perfumes,” I tell Anniqua.
“Because you lived in the United Arab Emirates for so many years?”
“Yes, and also because once I visited the home of an Emirati student, Arwa. After we’d greeted each other, a woman came into the living room with a silver tray full of all kinds of perfume bottles. Each person in the room chose the fragrance they liked and put it on. By the time it was my turn, the living room smelled like the hallways of the university where I was teaching. Arwa told me that they use spices, plant and animal essences for bukoor, oudh, and oil-based scents, mostly rose petals, saffron, musk, jasmine, and orange blossom. She said her mother mixes her own perfume and gives it as a present on special occasions. Perfumes are clearly a big thing in the Arab world.”
The museum agrees with me. It credits Arabs with perfecting the art of mixing fragrances by using new techniques to improve on existing traditions. Muslim alchemists devised the alembic in an effort to extract finer essences for perfumes like Musk and Rosewater. It also says Arabia was known as “the Land of Perfumes” and Arabs used to send incense and perfumes across the Mediterranean to the Western world.
Anniqua and I go back to the shop counter to try out their testers. In the end, we find what we came for, an olfactory memory of this perfect holiday, and walk out of the perfumería luxuriously wrapped in the scent of fresh orange blossoms.
The writer is the author of CON YANCI When Chickens Fly and blogs at Tillism.com