What’s That Smell?

Speaker's Corner: Paul Lynch explores the intersection of travel and the nose

01.07.10 | 4:48 PM ET

Marrakech spicesMarrakesh spices (iStockPhoto)

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single sniff.

Not exactly the famous Lao Tzu quote, but it’s close enough. Point being, do cities and countries possess a unique odor?

Travel should broaden the mind but more often dilates the nostrils, depending on the destination. You don’t have to possess the prominent nose of Cyrano de Bergerac to catch a whiff of the Guinness factory in Dublin, nor do you require a GPS to let you know that you have reached Faridabad, a sprawling industrial city north of New Delhi. The schnoz will let you know you have arrived.

However, in a blindfold test, could you sniff the difference between Marrakesh and Hong Kong? If you have ever visited these places, chances are you would instantly recall the aroma. Marrakesh with its wood-smoke, spices and aromatic resin combined with the tanneries of the Medina—a pungent mixture that stays with you long after you depart—and the dried fish, over-cooked noodle-infused fragrance of Hong Kong.

Cairo has the unfortunate claim of having the highest levels of aromatic hydrocarbons of any similar sized city—a flowery scientific term which, translated, means the air stinks and it’s polluted, but you know where you are.

Smells come from the molecules of objects, everything from the cheese of Stilton (which is actually made in Melton Mowbray) to a dead possum in 100-degree heat on the road to Alice Springs (which by all accounts beats a dead skunk any day). All these aromas help make up the scent of a region.

Some cities are proud of their pungent reputations. Rotorua, New Zealand, for example, is the self-proclaimed most noxious city on the planet—volcanic sulfur fumes can choke a horse at 100 meters. No mistaking where you are here, just watch for the wheezing gelding at the Air New Zealand counter.

Fortunately, not all aromas leave you reaching for a gas mask. A warm summer breeze kicks up the scent of evening primrose in the Jardin des Tuileries in Paris, or on an afternoon stroll though the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen.

We all have photographs and videos to remind us of places visited, but what about an aroma souvenir? Perhaps one day a scratch-and-sniff system will allow travelers to pre-sample the air of the city they are about to visit. Some will come with a warning: “Care should be taken when about to scratch the cover off Vientiane, Laos, as it is the home of Cha om, the world’s smelliest vegetable.”

Regardless of whether that ever comes to pass, remember to breathe deeply when you travel, and let the molecules tell you where you are.

Born in Dublin, Ireland, Paul Lynch now lives and writes in Ottawa, Canada.

19 Comments for What’s That Smell?

Travel Blogs 01.07.10 | 7:11 PM ET

You’re so right, The smell of lemon grass takes me straight to Thailand!

Ahimsa 01.07.10 | 7:34 PM ET

My favorite city scent-wise is Edinburgh.  You can smell the beer brewing and it is amazing.

Ryan 01.08.10 | 9:28 AM ET

The entire city of Hangzhou, China smells like osmanthus flowers in the fall, interspersed with wafts of sewage and rotting vegetables if you stray too far from the lake.

Bill Tuffin 01.08.10 | 11:47 AM ET

Acacia Pennata is called Pak Ka in Vientiane. Cha-om is not a Lao word. Cha-om is the name that the Thai give to the vegetable.

Brian Whelan 01.09.10 | 5:54 AM ET

Hi Paul,
As you probably well know smelling Guinness from Dublin is only the start of a wonderful Dublin experience!

Anne Davey 01.09.10 | 10:59 AM ET

Don’t forget the smell of the Liffey.  Dublin’s river not only divides the northsiders from the southsiders but its unique aroma when the tide is low is very distinctive and instantly recognisable to Dubliners and regular visitors. Its hard to describe, a heady mixture of belches, farts and other bodily functions which leads you to think the city is constantly suffering from a large hangover!

Simone Gorrindo 01.09.10 | 6:12 PM ET

The specific scent of a place is perhaps my favorite thing about travel. Well, one of my favorite.

Kathlyn Clore 01.09.10 | 6:26 PM ET

In less glamorous locales, the smell of agriculture often welcomes travelers. Decatur, Illinois, is famous in the Midwest for reeking of the stench of soybean production. A summertime road trip through Iowa will often include the stench of manure.

Ms Who 01.10.10 | 6:06 PM ET

Actually, you can buy a bottled aroma souvenir of Vilnius, Lithuania. Scary accurate, too!

Terry 01.11.10 | 11:11 PM ET

Outside of Rotorua, with its sulfuric stench, New Zealand has this honeyish scent. In the cities, in the countryside, by the sea. It hits me the minute I step out of the airport terminal. I even anticipate it. Does anyone else know what I am talking about?

Madrugada Mistral 01.13.10 | 2:30 PM ET

My memories of Tokyo in the 1970s include the smell of green tea growing, burning garbage, smoke from noxious Japanese cigarettes, and the cooking aromas of the dashi fish broth which is used in just about everything.  A more recent trip found a lot less cigarette smoke, and no burning garbage.

Brian Whelan 01.13.10 | 2:59 PM ET

What happened to the nice smell reports?
Another nice Irish smell is of freshly cut grass.
Brian (see profile)

David in New York City 01.13.10 | 6:25 PM ET

Years after having moved to New York City from the pastoral state of Vermont, some fumes wafting from a municipal grate in my own neighborhood jolted my brain. Apparently that particular combination of gases, from some similar grate no doubt, had lodged in my memory a quarter of a century earlier, when I was just a child visiting his Brooklyn grandmother. For a moment, New York again became a strange and gritty city, completely other.

Ayrdale 01.14.10 | 12:29 AM ET

Rotorua has an odour of hydrogen sulfide, rotten eggs, but really not too bad. In fact after 10 minutes you don’t notice it at all, and it’s got antiseptic properties apparently if you have a slight sinus infection. Years ago people flocked to the thermal spas to bathe, and of course got the benefit of the stink too.

Nearby coastal Mt Maunganui has the beach and the thermal pools, but no smell. The most beautiful place in NZ…no kidding, but come and see for yourselves.

dinidear 01.14.10 | 12:11 PM ET

My smell is a more local one.  Here in Maine on a wood road on a summer day.  The heat releases the scent from the fir trees and the smell is heady.

Fran Saban 01.14.10 | 1:39 PM ET

I’ve noticed that, in particular, the underground railways of different cities have their own smell - New York’ subway is nothing like the Paris Metro which is nothing like Glagow’s ‘Clockwork Orange’ which is nothing like the London tube…

Jenny 01.14.10 | 6:41 PM ET

My hometown of Sonoma - on a warm autumn evening - the beautiful aroma of just crushed grapes on their way to fermenting for all of our enjoyment!

h hilborn 01.15.10 | 1:14 AM ET

Smell, and music, have the rare ability to instantly take you back in time.
Anything else?

Anne Davey 01.16.10 | 11:51 AM ET

Yes there are Good Dublin smells and they can include a mixture of home cooked stew, bacon and cabbage, and the smell of the sea in Dublin Bay. I should also mention the smell of a turf fire in Donegal.  You can tell immediately you arrive in the county.

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