“Did she just coo?” I asked my guide as we entered the riverboat. “Yes, yes she did,” was the smirk-laden rejoinder and my first introduction to the eccentric but absolutely passionate Violet Lady of Toulouse, Hélène Vié.
In a city known for its unique obsession with the purple flower, Hélène has taken it to a new level. She’ll be the first to tell you that she has always had an obsession with violets, the color, the flower, the scent – everything. This love culminated in 2000 when she opened a shop to match her personality, the House of Violet, a barge permanently moored on the famous waterway the Canal du Midi near the main train station in Toulouse.
On the way out of town that bright, sunshiny summer’s day I couldn’t resist investigating the bright purple boat happily swaying with the gentle waters of the canal.
I had to duck my head to enter the barge, which has tables set up on its deck to cater to lunch-goers and afternoon aperitif-seekers. Once I entered the main salon of the boat my senses were almost immediately overwhelmed with the explosion of purple violets everywhere. The shop features every item made with or about violets that you could ever imagine. From the expected soaps and perfumes to syrups and candies and everything in between. In the middle of it all was the bright and bubbly Hélène Vié.
She is the force behind the shop and it’s her warm and electric personality that makes the visit an experience. Hélène isn’t just a local celebrity though, she’s traveled the world sharing not only her love of the violet, but serving as role model to women small business owners around the world. Her outgoing nature makes her the perfect ambassador and she is often called upon to serve in a number of outreach roles be it for agriculture, tourism or business.
But why the violet and why in Toulouse? As I learned that happy afternoon, Toulouse is known throughout France for its cultivation of this delicate flower. The legend goes that a young flower seller was sent to war and returned not only alive, but with a bed of violets. The flower seemed destined for the city and flourished. By the Middle Ages the violet was the emblem of the city and all castes of society, from the bourgeoisie to the poorest of the poor embraced the beauty and versatility of the purple flower. Later in was popular in the court of Napoleon III for its sophisticated scent and it was he who renamed it the Violet of Parma after a region given to his daughter by the Emperor of Austria. In the 19th century though the violet became an important commodity, added to the list of agricultural luck that made Toulouse both rich and famous.
None of this mattered though as I watched Hélène scurry around the boat, unable to sit still but always beaming a bright smile at new patrons. Maybe it was the color, the smells or just being in France on a sunny day, but as I left the boat and stepped back onto terra firma I couldn’t help but smile. I thought I was immune, and while the power of the violet may have certain infectious properties, I suspect it was Hélène’s personality that truly changed my mood that warm afternoon.