Walk into an apothecary on the Faubourg-St.-Honoré or Via della Scala or Grosvenor Square and you enter a field study in cultural anthropology. As you look at the shelves—even if you don't speak the lingua franca—you can immediately establish the collective national neurosis: the French are nuts about cellulite, Italians fret about digestion, and the British obsess over their complexions. When you detour from a simple quest for toothpaste you'll discover old-world curiosities like olive oil shampoo and salted licorice in a museum setting of marble floors, mahogany vitrines, and Latin-inscribed porcelain jars.
Over-the-counter remedies are available at any corner kiosk, certainly, but many Europeans are dedicated to family-owned apothecaries, farmacie, chemists' shops, and drogisterij for the personal care they dispense. Mega-chains simply don't offer the same level of service, let alone a knowledgeable staff that can wax poetic about the historical uses of fenugreek and Queen of Hungary water. Nor do they have a pharmacist center stage, clad in a crisp white lab coat, ready to dole out advice and cures for everything from head colds to corns. At these centuries-old drugstores, a warm greeting, a comforting hand, and genuine sympathy for your health issues, in the wise words of Mary Poppins, "help the medicine go down." Here are six of Europe's best:
Up the street from London's St. James's Palace, D. R. Harris & Co. Ltd. (29 St. James's St.; 44-207/930-3915; www.drharris.co.uk) has been supplying remedies to Britain's royalty since 1790. (Prince Charles is a loyal customer.) Along with lime-scented cologne, Cucumber & Roses cleansing milk, and triple-milled almond oil soap, this shop is famous for its Pick-Me-Up: chemist Daniel Rotely Harris's original "hair of the dog" cure-all for the clubland swells who stagger in from the adjacent Boodle's or White's after a night of tippling. A slug of the fizzy gentian, cardamom, and clove concoction, mixed on the spot in a special jigger, works surprisingly well for jet lag, too. You can also request the same handmade cattle-bone and boar-bristle toothbrush favored by the Queen Mum (another patron) and sniff the brand of hair tonic that loyal customer and certified dandy Oscar Wilde likely used.
In Paris, set aside some time for Pharmacie LeClerc (10 Rue Vignon; 33-1/47-42-04-59), near Place Madeleine. Pharmacist Théophile LeClerc's dazzling line of pure rice face powders, beloved by Belle Époque beauties, still fills the shop's oak cabinets (they're now sold at Barneys). LeClerc also displays potent over-the-counter migraine treatments, natural herbal remedies for insomnia, Vichy D-Stock body contouring cellulite gel cream, and its own silky rice-and-milk protein crème protection extrême moisturizer.
One of Amsterdam's oldest drugstores, Jacob Hooy (12 Kloveniersburgwal; 31-20/624-3041), possesses an ancient aura that would make an alchemist or a mage feel at home. On the Nieuwmarkt square, the wall-to-wall wooden drawers, barrels, and metal tins have a battered-but-beautiful patina that could only be acquired in 250 years. Note the jars labeled BELLADONNA and OPIUM (they're empty now). The specialty is tisanes, which the staff blend from an encyclopedic supply of dried flowers and medicinal herbs to relieve anemia, bronchitis, constipation, and other maladies. After sampling Durance eau de toilette from Provence, natural Dr. Hauschka remedies, and a glossy house-brand hand cream, zero in on the large selection of salted drop, or molded Dutch licorice. Traditionally, licorice root was used to counter skin inflammations and sore throats, and that's reason enough to snack on these chewy sweets today.
Italy's fascination with elixirs and tonics, as well as early pharmacies' ties with holy healing orders, are evident at Antica Farmacia Santa Maria della Scala (23 Piazza della Scala, Rome; 39-06/580-6217). On a tiny cobbled square in Trastevere, attached to a church of the same name, this elegant marble space has murals of medicinal herbs (gentian, aloe, chamomile) painted on archways above the dispensary. The resident Carmelite monks used to distill acqua antipestilenziale, a tonic water meant to repel the bubonic plague. With the disease no longer a major threat, the ground-floor pharmacy has discontinued the brew; but it still makes cipria di fra' Silvestro, talcum powder sweetly infused with melissa and calendula oils, which doubles as a deodorant. Across the Tiber, look for Ai Monasteri (72 Corso Rinascimento, Rome; 39-06/6880-2783; www.monasteri.it), a 19th-century pharmacy near Piazza Navona that stocks ointments, honey, salves, and tonics produced in monasteries throughout Italy. Favorites include a rare, 30-proof elixir dell'amore and crema alla trigonella, or fenugreek cream, to firm the bust.
You can smell Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella (16 Via della Scala, Florence; 39-055/216-276; www.smnovella.it) long before you locate its massive wood doors. Centuries of perfume making have infused the walls with a heady blend of lavender, clove, and sandalwood. This Florentine farmacia was established in 1612 by Dominican friars but actually has medieval origins--some of the recipes have been in use since the 13th century. It once catered to the Medicis: Caterina brought the monks' toilet water to France (her perfumer later sold the formula surreptitiously); Lorenzo commissioned a golden, syrupy digestif that now bears the family name. Currently, Santa Maria Novella's incredibly fragrant potpourri, orrisroot powder, hand-molded soaps, and potent elixirs are sold in New York City, at Lafco (200 Hudson St.; 800/362-3677 or 212/925-0001). But go to the original farmacia just to see the spectacular walnut cabinetry, frescoes, and vaulted Gothic ceilings of this former chapel. While there, buy a bottle of aceto dei sette ladri (seven thieves' vinegar), an aromatic used in the 17th century to revive a swoon. (According to legend, each of the seven thieves held the secret to a single ingredient.) It's worth the price of admission—and you'll never have to worry about those pesky fainting spells again.
WHAT'S UP DOC?
The apothecary tradition has inspired a recent wave of New Age pharmacies that merge homeopathic remedies with the latest small-batch beauty products. At the Cure in New York (324 E. 34th St.; 212/545-9393), hypo-allergenic brands appear to float on glass shelves; consultations with pharmacist David Lerman are held behind a curved maple partition. Drop in for Kusco-Murphy Beach Hair, Longcil cake mascara, and Uhma Nagri Amazon Espresso body smoother. London's Farmacia (169 Drury Lane; 44-207/404-8808; www.farmacia123.com) dispenses holistic treatments, aromatherapy, and tonics. (British Airways tucks Farmacia products in its first-class cabin goody bag.) Visit this one-stop chemist for organic lavender hand cream and diagnostic screenings with a licensed herbalist.