Stephen McGinty: France continues to seduce us Scots

Easy, short flights and breathtaking beauty have rekindled the old love affair with la belle France, writes Stephen McGinty

IF ONE was to choose a spot from which to view the relationship between Scotland and France, you could do worse than settle into a comfortable chair on the terrace of Castel Pierre Lisse, a villa of honey-coloured stone and white wooden shutters that sits high on the hill over looking Hyeres, the oldest resort on the French Riviera, and a town of which Robert Louis Stevenson wrote: "I was only happy once; that was at Hyeres."

For as the sun sets, burnishing the russet-coloured roofs and setting the Mediterranean all a-sparkle the visitor can understand why Stevenson wrote in 1883, while living in a chalet called Solitude, a few yards from the Castel Pierre Lisse, on the Rue Victor-Basch: "Our view are sub-celestial. I sing daily with Bunian, that great bard, I dwell next door to Heaven!" (In one way this was quite true, suffering from tuberculosis, Stevenson, at one point was almost at death's door.) Yet there is the hint of the divine. The cobbled streets offer cool and shade, the nearby beaches approached through scenic woodlands, are vast and empty and just off-shore, blue bumps on the horizon, are the golden islands of Porquerelles, Port-Cros and Levant, visited by Stevenson while correcting proofs of Treasure Island.

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From the late 18th century the French Riviera was a fashionable retreat for the winter among Brits (with guests such as the Prince of Wales and later Queen Victoria, who spent three weeks in Hyeres in March and April 1892) with high season running from November to the end of April, and the town then abandoned prior to the heat of high summer.

In fact, the Castel Pierre Lisse, now a charming bed and breakfast, was once a winter retreat for Edith Wharton, the American author of The Age of Innocence, a title entirely inapplicable to France. Yet Wharton like all visitors succumbed to this country whose allure she defined as: "le plaisir… is something so much more definite and more evocative than what we mean when we speak of pleasure… To the French it is part of the general fearless and joyful contact with life."

Yesterday the school bell rang for the last time for six weeks, ushering pupils and teachers into the sticky embrace of the summer holidays, with tens of thousands now bound for France.

In the last decade the "Auld Alliance" between Scotland and France has been replaced by the "new seduction" as the ease of new direct flights from Edinburgh and Glasgow to a host of French cities such as Toulouse, Marseille, Nice and La Rochelle has led to a re-kindled love affair between Ecosse and Francais. Each week there are now 6,500 seats on direct flights from Scotland to France.

We head to Nice, Marseille and La Rochelle for sun, sea and sand, to Bergerac and Bordeaux for wine and, come winter, Chambery to ski. Paris remains our favourite destination with 600,000 Scots visiting in 2008 alone. We now spend roughly 300 million per year in France, or roughly 400 per visit, which each averages one week.

Tobias Smollet would be proud of us, for it was he, a Dumbartonshire boy who exchanged the surgeon's scalpel for the writer's quill, who invented the very notion of French tourism, when, in 1766, he published a book, Travels Through France And Italy. Smollett and his wife had set off to France to put a distance between themselves and the grief of losing their daughter.

Upon each stop Smollett would settle down in whatever tavern or inn they had sought shelter and write a long letter home, in which he detailed everything from the food and drink to which innkeepers were untrustworthy. He painted pen portraits of Nimes and, his favourite, Nice and later the collected letters were published and became a popular guide for all those "Roast Beefs" who soon followed in his footsteps.

So what is it about France that draws not just Scotland, but the world to its table? (It remains the number one tourist destination.) For Scots, who are so sun-starved each summer, it is hard to see past the fiery ball, so absent from our own cloud-streaked sky. Then there is the convenience of a short flight, which even to France's farthest destinations rarely exceeds three hours. My own initial reaction is that it offers a combination of great food, fine wines (or so I'm told as I'm teetotal) and the novelty of a landscape so similar to ours but bathed in a golden light. It also has objects and entire towns suffused with beauty and grace. Last year I visited the caramel stone of Saint-Cirq Lapopie, described as "France's most beautiful village", clinging to a cliff on the Lot Valley and a sight so beautiful as to tug tears from your eyes. At a dinner, in which I sat next to the French Consul General, I spoke about my love of California: "Ah," he said, "you like young countries", which had the inverse effect of piquing my interest in his own very old nation.

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To better understand France's appeal to the world I this week read La Seduction: How the French Play The Game of Life by Elaine Sciolino, the Paris correspondent of The New York Times. She explains that the reason why French food is so delicious, the conversations in Parisian cafes so beguiling, the clothes so chic is that they all play a part in what is the great game of French life; that of seduction. For the word has a far broader definition than the merely erotic, not to say that is not an important part, but is also includes the ideas of alluring, charming and persuading.

Robert Louis Stevenson wrote that "it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive" and it is a sentiment shared by the French who prefer the chase, or the preparation, to the climax of an affair or the final meal.

As Moliere's Don Juan explained: "Once you are master, there is nothing more to say or wish for, the joy of passionate pursuit is over." As Scots we are seduced by the prospect of sun-dappled lakes, fresh pine forests, the finest meals and the greatest art in Paris.

Voltaire said: "It is not enough to conquer, one must also know how to seduce". Yet the fact remains that the days when France conquered ended with Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo and his exile to St Helena. It is, however, a nation that is still a virtuoso at seduction. Brilliantly exercising its "soft power" to convince the world that it remains the most desirable nation on earth.

If I wore a hat, I would take it off to the French government who attempted to seduce the world with a new logo for French tourism. In 2008 they unveiled a line drawing of Marianne, the beautiful maiden who remains the symbol of the French Republic and used the ‘R' and ‘a' to form her rather full breasts; unfortunately so as to avoid offending some potential visitors the letters were sadly reshaped to cover up her naughty nakedness. Not that it matters, so skilful are the French at seduction, that they had us at "bonjour".