Flowers, perfumes and incense | Free from all ties

he streets of Barcelona’s Poblenou neighborhood are brimming with the heady citrus scent of orange blossom. Anniqua and I stand under an orange tree filling our lungs with the scent of spring. It’s two weeks in April and we’re in Spain for a little break.

“If I had a beach chair, I would plant myself here and spend the rest of the day under this tree.”

“Or, you can just buy a perfume with hints of Azharsays Anniqua, using the Spanish word for orange blossom. “We should buy some to remember this trip. I love the scent of flowers, it’s so soothing.

I look aside at Anniqua. “Did you read, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer?”

“Uff, yeah, that was so weird, and the ending…”

“I saw the movie too.” I say when I realize she won’t finish her sentence. “Do you remember the scene in the perfumery where the young Grenouille learns to mix perfumes? It’s a real shop just off La Rambla. We can walk there now if you want.

Of course she does. We head towards the narrow streets of the old part of the city.

Flowers, perfumes and incense

“It’s strange,” said Anniqua. “Everyone seems to be heading in the same direction as us.”

Then, just around the next corner, we walk straight into a solid mass of humans. Anniqua immediately turns to leave, but the streets behind us are already full. There is no way out.

Gradually a hollow rumble of drumbeats moves in our direction, the sound of trumpets gets louder too. A procession moves slowly down the street. The chief brandishes 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 head to toe in black robes. Black gloves on their hands and large cone-shaped hoods completely cover their faces except for tiny eye holes that make them look sinister and menacing.

Unable to take my eyes off them, I said, “I know that there is absolutely no connection between these people who are trying to atone for their sins of the previous year and the Ku Klux Klan in the United States, but they look a lot alike. Nope?”

Flowers, perfumes and incense

“Yes they do, but I wish they walked a little faster,” Anniqua replies, “I feel claustrophobic.”

No one in the procession will move faster. The sturdy but ornate chariot, which is part of the procession, probably weighs around 900 kilos. It is carried on the shoulders of about thirty carriers who consider it a privilege to hold it upright without the aid of wheels or any other support.

Anniqua looks up at the sky in hopes of calming her fear of enclosed spaces. I am his gaze.

This city is a work of art. It’s no surprise that he won the Royal Gold Medal for Architecture – an award usually reserved for individual architects. In the distance, I can see the magnificent neo-Gothic episcopal bridge, Bisbe Bridge, which connects the two buildings on either side of the street. It was built at the beginning of the 20th century and the architect proposed to make other buildings in the same style. The proposal was purely and simply rejected. Legend has it that in a fit of anger he added a skull and a dagger to the intricate designs of the bridge, and anyone who sees it passing by will be cursed. Of course, Anniqua and I make a point of watching it every time we pass under the Bisbe Bridge.

Flowers, perfumes and incense

At the end, we find what we came for, an olfactory souvenir of that perfect vacation, and step out of the perfumery luxuriously enveloped in the scent of fresh orange blossoms..

A two-minute walk from the Bishop’s Bridge is Plaza San Filip Neri, tucked away in the winding streets of the old town. You might be excused for thinking that it has always been so peaceful to sit by the fountain, in the shade of the tall trees, listening to the water trickle gently into the large stone basin. But the wall of a small nearby church tells a whole different story. He is disfigured, pockmarked by shrapnel caused during the civil war. Civilians, mainly children who had taken refuge in the convent, lost their lives in the bombardments. The city has made no attempt to repair or conceal the scars of this horrific event, perhaps as a stark reminder of the barbarity of war.

A loud drumbeat brings me back to the present. I look towards the procession and see a fine mist of smoke moving in a zigzag fashion down the street. A priest in his traditional white robes walks past, swinging a censer from side to side toward the onlookers. There is a comforting familiarity in this sweet earthy scent of incense. We also burn incense at religious gatherings. Maybe that’s why I love him. I talk to Anniqua about it.

“Counterbalance the thousands of human bodies that congregate in one place? She is clearly speculating, still embarrassed by the crowd.

“Probably. Can you imagine yourself standing in a crowd of medieval workers waiting for this procession to pass? The sweat, the smell…”

Anniqua closes her eyes trying to block out the image of the smelly bodies I brought to life with my words.

Flowers, perfumes and incense

“Stop that.” she said, shivering slightly. “Look, they’re walking away, let’s get out of here.”

We make our way through the thinning crowd towards 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 Frog first discovers the scent of perfumes. He is forced to follow the smell to its source and decides to create perfumes as a profession. This is the exact moment when the murderer in him comes to life.

Anniqua and I just look out the window because it’s closed. The interior is tiny but there is a marble fountain surmounted by the bust of an important character. Anniqua immediately pulls out her phone and begins to search.

“It’s the head of a Swedish biologist, Carl Von Linné. He introduced the modern system of naming organisms.

Flowers, perfumes and incense

“Interesting, but why the fountain?

“He says they kept leeches there. It’s always been a health store, not a real one perfumery. It 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, foreheads against the glass, admiring all the details, the murals on the walls, the hand-painted ceramic apothecary jars and the glass flasks holding liquids of every color imaginable.

“Let’s get our azahar flower perfume before forgetting. Annina reminds me.

“There is a real perfumery on Passeig de Gracia. Let’s go. They have a mini perfume museum in the back.

We continue to Plaza de Cataluña. It’s a short walk to La Rambla where florists have packed their stalls with fresh spring flowers. Floral scents mingle with the smell of coffee and fresh bread from the cafes, a treat for the senses.

Flowers, perfumes and incense

The museum at perfumery has a collection of perfume bottles from ancient and modern cultures, Egyptian, Greek, Roman and Arabic and many more.

“I’m curious about the tradition of the 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 I once visited the house of an Emirati student, Arwa. After we 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 scent they liked and put it on. By the time it was my turn, the living room smelled like the halls of the university where I was teaching. Arwa told me that they use spices, plant and animal essences for boukoor, oudh, and oil-based fragrances, primarily rose petals, saffron, musk, jasmine and orange blossom. She said her mother mixed her own perfume and gave it as gifts on special occasions. Perfumes are clearly a big thing in the Arab world.

The museum agrees with me. He credits the Arabs with perfecting the art of mixing perfumes using new techniques to enhance existing traditions. Muslim alchemists designed the still for the purpose of extracting finer essences for flavors like musk and rose water. He also says that Arabia was known as “the land of perfumes” and that the Arabs used to send incense and perfumes across the Mediterranean to the western world.

Anniqua and I head back to the store counter to try out their testers. In the end, we find what we came for, an olfactory memory of this perfect vacation, and we leave the perfumery luxuriously enveloped in the scent of fresh orange blossoms.


The writer is the author of CON YANCI When chickens fly and blogs at Tillism.com

Sarah C. Figueiredo