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Perfume and pipi: The 10 smells that tell you you’re in Paris

Perfume, bread and cigarette smoke are the smells pf Paris
Paris is all expensive perfume, freshly-baked baguette and Hollywood actors, right? Sort of. Photo: AFP
Think the whole of Paris smells delightfully of Chanel perfume and freshly-baked croissant? Here are the 10 smells that really let you know you're in the French capital.
1. Urine
 
Afraid so. It is an unpleasant but undeniable fact that large parts of Paris reek of urine. In enclosed places like under bridges and in alleyways – particularly in summer – the smell can be overpowering.
 
Not wishing to get involved in gender wars here, but this is mainly the fault of men, who seem to have little compunction about peeing in the street when caught short. Asking male Parisian friends about this provoked some feet-shuffling and muttering about cafés having too few toilets. Hmm.

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Freshly baked baguette is one of the greatest smells in the world, no question. Photo: AFP
 
2. Bread
 
One of the clichés that is definitely true is the delicious smell of freshly baking bread. With an estimated 30,000 boulangeries in the city you are never far away from a baguette.
 
While eating in the street is generally frowned upon in France, even the most hardened Parisian will sometimes make an exception for munching on the end of their still-warm baguette as they carry it home.
Walking past a fromagerie is also a delicious sensory experience. 
 
3. Traffic fumes
 
While Paris is slowly weaning itself off its addiction to the car, there are still a lot of them about and it’s undeniable that the busier streets smell of traffic fumes. City Hall is bringing in a lot of initiatives including car free Sundays, banning older diesel vehicles and encouraging cycling, so maybe this won’t be a defining smell forever, but for the moment the air quality in Paris is not the best.
 
In fact a 2018 study revealed that breathing the polluted air of Paris for a year is the equivalent of smoking 183 cigarettes. Which brings us of course to . . .
 
The Paris café terrace is a popular hangout for smokers. Photo: AFP
 
4. Cigarette smoke
 
Smoking rates in France are actually declining and the country has lower rates of smoking than many other European countries. But despite that, you won’t walk far down a Paris street before you get a whiff of cigarette smoke.
 
Perhaps the reason that it seems more prevalent than it really is are the numerous café terraces dotted around the city, which is where the smokers congregate since the 2007 ban on smoking in the workplace. Although as vaping becomes more popular you’re also quite likely to notice the revolting sickly sweet smell of certain vape liquids.
 
 
5. Perfume
 
France is of course known for its luxury perfumes and French men and women are not shy of using one of their country’s most famous exports. Particularly if you’re in the smarter central areas of Paris, your nostrils will regularly be delighted by a trail of Chanel, Yves St Laurent or Dior fragrance wafting down the street.
 
6. Body odour
 
There are some unkind souls who suggest the French only wear perfume to cover up the fact they haven’t showered. A lack of washing seems to be a prevalent myth about the French, although it’s never been corroborated by any kind of scientific measure and the vast majority are squeaky clean.
 
However the enclosed space of the Metro, particularly in the evening rush hour at the height of summer, does provide a few choice whiffs. But maybe don’t get too self-righteous about this as no-one is at their freshest when the temperatures in Paris hit 42.6C.

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On some Metro lines you will unavoidably be getting up close and personal with a stranger’s armpit. Photo: AFP
 
7. Metro
 
Speaking of the Metro, that too has its own special smell. Slightly hard to describe, but something like metal and smoke and exhaust fumes, it’s very particular to Paris.
 
Might not sound too appealing, but if it’s a sign that you’re on your way home after a long hard day then it can provoke some relaxed feelings.
 
 
8. Cannabis
 
And speaking of relaxing, many people in Paris apparently choose to do so with a little herbal help.
 
Despite some experiments on medical use, the recreational use of cannabis is illegal in France, which often comes as a surprise to people who have sniffed the air of Paris. Still, get caught smoking it and you can face a fine and the possibility of a jail term depending on the circumstances. Don’t say you weren’t warned.
 
Getting hungry just looking at this . . . Photo: AFP
 
9. Chicken
 
Got the munchies? You will never be short of chicken in Paris and the smell of a roasting rotisserie bird is one of the joys of the city. Many butchers, supermarkets and market stalls have racks of ready-roasted birds being slowly basted in their own juices, sending out delicious aromas.
 
In fact markets in general are good for nice smells. Often thought of as a small-town or rural thing, Paris in fact has hundreds of markets, from the smaller neighbourhood or suburban markets to the big ones at Bastille or Belleville, they provide delicious whiffs of cheese, olives, sausage and freshly cooked delicacies.
 
 
10. Sewage
Sorry to end on a downer, but unfortunately the sudden waft of sewage smell from an underground drain is a regular occurrence in Paris, particularly when it rains.
 
Still, you can always buy a baguette to cheer yourself up.

Member comments

  1. Parmi les odeurs prédominantes à Paris se trouve Petrichor, l’odeur unique après la pluie. Avec 200 églises catholiques romaines, l’odeur des bougies, de l’encens et de la myrrhe est répandue. Plus poétiquement, l’odeur de la mode, de la cuisine et de la politique est partout.

  2. It’s not a very politically correct thing to say, but the smell of pee in the streets/under the bridges/in the metro stations is a lot to do with the large homeless population in Paris who don’t really have the option of ducking into a café to go if they need to.

    A lot of it too is thanks to the city government and the lack of public toilets. There’s more than there were before, yes, but there’s still large parts of Paris that have none, so where are you going to go then if all the cafés/restaurants say “toilets for customer use only”? Another example is down on the quais, people have been gathering there in their hundreds for aperos in the good weather since it was pedestrianised I don’t know how many years ago now, but it’s only this summer that they actually put toilets there. Before that, there were several trees there that were very well watered every night, due to lack of other options.

  3. Yes.
    The actress is Carla Bruno Sarkozy.
    Wife of Nicolas Sarkozy former President of France.
    The movie is “Midnight in Paris,” a great film.

    1. It’s Carla Bruni (not Bruno) the famous Italian-French singer, songwriter, model, actress, and heiress to the Pirelli Tire fortune…

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