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.