I love the Basque Country for its many characters. These lands of Northern Spain, thanks to the moisture borne by the Atlantic draught, can boast the verdant mountains in stark contrast to the vast arid plains of Central Iberia. The inhabitants speak the perplexing tongue known as euskara in Basque or el vasco in Spanish. There is also the gastronomic delight of each pintxo — a bite-size savoury dish served on a piece of bread spiked with a toothpick or a skewer. And precisely because each pintxo is bite-sized, the myriads of flavour combinations to try leave the epicurean visitors besotted by the time their appetite is sated. If these were not sufficient still, art aficionados would find much to revel in at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao designed by architect Frank Gehry or in the city of Gernika-Lumo whose tragic war time inspired the namesake painting ‘Guernica’ by Pablo Picasso. Add to that the city of San Sebastián or Donostia in Basque, where La Concha Bay, Art Nouveau buildings, and the iconic Kursaal Congress Centre by architect Rafael Moneo charm us all, and I cannot ask for more of this beloved region.
Nevertheless, it was also in San Sebastián that I made yet another discovery: Perfumería Benegas. Had it not been for the traffic that stopped me at the junction between Peñaflorida Kalea and Garibai Kalea, I could have easily walked past without giving much thought beyond beautiful and simple façade.
But the inside of Perfumería Benegas was a treasure trove. There was a zone dedicated to grooming products, but I was immediately caught by the sight of ‘bookshelves’ before me. My eyes quickly darted to them — one was even equipped with a ladder, reminding me of old libraries. They contained many leading and niche brands such as Annick Goutal, Jean Patou, Caron, Amouage, Diptyque, Ormonde Jayne, Keiko Mecheri, Montale, The Different Company, and Parfum de Nicolaï amongst others. What struck me as different, however, were the two counters of Guerlain and Chanel; they looked rather exclusive.
Indeed, Perfumería Benegas carry the Les Exclusifs from Chanel and the Les Collections Exclusives from Guerlain. The Chanel counter, in particular, was equipped with a table with ceramic testers and the upholstery that is characteristically Chanel. At the back was the shelf with factices of Chanel N°5, some flacons, and other related paraphernalia.
Just as I was quite awe-struck by the offerings and designs, a poised bespectacled lady approached me to offer her assistance. Little did I know that she was Doña Asuncíon Benegas, the co-owner along with her sister Doña Charo Benegas and nephew Don Luis Gimeno. When inquired, she jokingly said that she had not been born in 1908, but Perfumería Benegas had been in business since and she was the third-generation.
Doña Asuncíon proceeded to introduce their own creations: Benegas Colonia and SSirimiri. Whereas Benegas Colonia is marked by a sunny disposition of citrus, SSirimiri seeks to capture the essence of San Sebastián with the freshness of bergamot and soft fluffy musks. A quick sniff assured that both were quality products. I was particularly enamoured of the story behind the latter. Doña Asuncíon explained that the composition had indeed been inspired by sirimiri — the Basque term for the drizzle on grey days that blankets the city and turns the water of the Urumea River in viridian shades.
Alas, it was a pity that time was not on our side that day and I must bid farewell. Yet, I left with the knowledge that someday I would return. I had been in some dedicated perfumeries that sport niche and high-end range of products and services, but rarely had I ever felt comfortable in such establishments. The warm welcome by Doña Asuncíon, however, made the difference. The hospitality I received from the Basque had already been more than generous, but it was this particular encounter that took the experience to another level.
The only regret I have now is that I did not grab either SSirimiri or Benegas Colonia. Their eau de cologne styles might seem simple, but the quality and character therein more than suffice to leave me with nostalgia.
Update (04/10/2017): As a kind gesture on their part, Perfumería Benegas has recently sent me a flacon each of Benegas Cologne and SSirimiri. The former espouses the freshness of citrus in the style of Eau d’Orange Verte (Hermès, 2009/1979). A string of citrusy notes, from lemon and bergamot to bitter-green petitgrain makes way to mossy musky woods in the manner of a classical eau de cologne. I have happily splashed Benegas Cologne liberally in the morning, for a good wake-up call. The latter, meanwhile, toys with the idea of the drizzles in Donostia. From the cold clarity of peppery bergamot to the metallic musk, SSirimiri is fresh and cold, just as the drizzles would be. Whether one likes it classical or modern, both eaux are a great way to remember this charming city by.
Sources: gipuzkoademoda.diariovasco.com, perfumeriabenegas.com