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The allure of France is as storied as its history, and the allure of French travel is as magical today as it has been for centuries. From its sophisticated, iconic cities to its pristine, idyllic countryside, France offers endless cultural delights to the multitudes of travelers who have made the country the most visited in the world.

Unfortunately, many fail to experience the real France. They settle for hollow exploration of the same sights suggested by every guidebook or for mass-marketed vacation packages and commercialized “experiences”. Travelers are often robbed of what they truly seek: authenticity.

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From the clock tower — Lourmarin

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Spectator of bullfights during Feria de Nimes — Nimes

At Band of Light, we do French travel differently. We focus on getting to know the French people rather than just offering the experiences you’re “supposed” to have. Our team of art historians and photography mentors design immersive and intellectually stimulating photography tours featuring handpicked itineraries and activities of cultural and historical importance that help you explore in-depth the France locals love but few travelers ever experience.

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Public exhibition of photographs from the Paris Rebellion of May, 1968 — Paris

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Students at Parc de la Villette — Paris

How do we do it? We are long-time locals working tirelessly to keep our experiences fresh, unique and different from what you’d otherwise find online, in guidebooks or from other tour companies. We open your eyes to the “real” France with in-the-know access to your sought-after sights and experiences, all off the tourist radar.

Whether traveling privately or in a group (limited to eight people), our intimate, personalized tours avoid the “Rick Steves effect” – the tragedy of turning the authentic into the touristed.

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Along the shore — Marseilles

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Flamingo of the Rhône Delta — Camargue

What makes a Band of Light holiday one of the most rewarding travel experiences you’ll have is our focus on becoming cultural explorers “through the lens”. What do we mean? Call to mind the last time you flipped through a magazine or newspaper and came across an image that stopped you in your tracks. That image told a story, instantly communicating a sense of people, place and culture, and likely created within you a desire to know (or to do) more. If that photo could inspire you as a viewer, can you imagine what it meant to the photographer?

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Miroir d’eau des quais (reflecting pool) during the fog — Bordeaux

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Flamenco dancers during Feria de Nimes — Nimes

Rather than functioning as a barrier, as many assume, your camera and the images you create can serve as a profound tether to the experiences unfolding before you. This thoughtful and intentional approach to travel photography and cultural exploration is a skill that can be learned. We will show you how to become a storyteller, creating compelling works of art that you will want to return to again and again.  Even if you have been to France before, a Band of Light photo holiday will be an enlightening experience that will benefit you for a lifetime.

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Notre-Dame de la Garde from the MuCEM — Marseille

To learn more or to plan your dream photography holiday, visit us online at www.thebandoflight.com or call us at 1-888-708-3585.

 

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Montmarte, Paris

Paris attracts tourists from all over the world, many of whom visit the city looking for the artistic legacy for which the ‘City of Light’ is famous.  The picturesque neighborhood of Montmartre has long been the city’s artistic center, at one time home to Picasso, Utrillo, Toulouse-Lautrec and others. Towards the end of the 19th century, Montmartre was a village located outside the city, and painters, sculptors and craftsmen were attracted to the area because of its proximity to the city and cheap rents. Today, Montmartre has been swallowed up by Paris, although it retains much of its village like atmosphere.

Montmartre, Paris

Montmartre, Paris

Most visitors to Montmartre inevitably end up in the touristy but picturesque Place du Tertre. The square is surrounded by cafes and restaurants, and is also full of painters of varying levels of skill. You may have to firmly turn down the requests of the many portrait painters who are well known for being persistent, although a self-portrait or caricature makes an excellent souvenir. One of the most famous and historic eating places in the square is the restaurant ‘A la Mere Catherine’, once the haunt of Russian soldiers. While waiting to be served, they would often yell out ‘bistro!’ meaning ‘quickly!’ – and the word appears to have stuck.

Brassai - Les Escaliers de Montmartre

Brassai – Les Escaliers de Montmartre, 1936. Used with permission.

This hilly neighborhood is also famous for its stone staircases, or escaliers and the nearest staircase is often the shortest distance between two points here. The photographer Brassai captured the stone stairways in some of his photographs of the 1920s and 30s, as well as various other aspects of the seedier side of the city. Montmartre is also one of the best places in the city to enjoy spectacular views over Paris, and on a clear day views extend almost 30 miles. People often meet on the stairs immediately in front of the Sacré-Cœur cathedral, and this is also a good spot to enjoy some impromptu street entertainment.

A good place to get an overview of the area’s artistic legacy is by visiting the small but fascinating Museum of Montmartre, located a few hundred yards from the Place du Tertre. The museum is housed in a 17th century house, where Renoir once had a modest studio, and produced some of his most famous paintings. The lower floor of the museum captures the history and artistic legacy of the area in rooms of old photos, paintings and drawings. The museum’s upper floors contain exhibits relating to the artists who occupied the house at one time or another. The museum is usually uncrowded and can be seen in less than an hour. Visiting the museum is a bit like looking through a particularly well-stocked attic.

A few minutes stroll from the museum will take you to the Place Emile-Goudeau, one of the delightful and charming smaller squares of the neighborhood. At no. 13 is the Bateau-Lavoir, a small art studio that many artists, including Picasso and Modigliani once called home. Picasso painted one of his most famous and controversial paintings, Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon here, a painting widely considered to be one of the first Cubist paintings. The original building was burnt down but replaced in 1978 and still has about 25 artists and sculptors working here. You can see – and purchase – their work which is displayed in the large showroom. Another building of artistic interest close to here is the building in Rue Gabrielle where Picasso had his first studio in Paris.

Towards the top of the butte, not far from the Montmartre vineyard, you can still find the ‘Pink House’ the subject of one of Utrillo’s most well-known paintings, at 2 Rue de l’Abreuvoir and something of a local landmark. Windmills are another unique feature of the area and have been immortalized on canvas many times. On the corner of Rue Lepic and Avenue Junot you can still see the picturesque windmill, Moulin de la Galette, now part of a restaurant. The windmill was the subject of one of Renoir’s most famous paintings, which can be seen in the Musee d’Orsay.

Perhaps the most famous Montmartre artist of them all was Toulouse-Lautrec. He managed to accurately capture the twilight world of the prostitutes, artists and of course the famous dancing girls at the Moulin Rouge. The show is not as scandalous as it once was but a visit to the spectacular floor show at the Moulin Rouge is still a unique- if expensive – Parisian experience. The distinctive red windmill sails still turn on top of the building, making this perhaps the world’s most famous nightclub

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Place de la Bourse, Bordeaux, France

Bordeaux is one of France’s most stylish cities, stretching elegantly beside the River Garonne. The broad boulevards, spacious squares and parks, and magnificent mansions are Parisian in feel. But Bordeaux has its own distinct character and charm. It enjoys a pleasant climate, is easy to travel to, and provides access to exciting cultural and gourmet experiences. And, of course, it’s the gateway to one of the world’s greatest wine regions.

This southwestern city is easily accessible from Paris. It’s a little more than three hours by comfortable TGV (high speed train) or just over an hour’s flying time from Paris airports.

Bordeaux, France

Bordeaux, France

Known as the ‘Pearl of Aquitaine’, central Bordeaux became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007, preserving its unique urban character and historic architecture. More than 350 buildings are listed Historic Monuments. Some of them date back to Roman times. A recent major restoration has burnished the pearly facades, while a new tramway system makes getting about even easier. The Bordelais are proud of their city and celebrate it with zest.

Bordeaux, France

Place de la Comedie, Bordeaux, France

Visitors are spoilt for choice in this center of history and culture. Much of the city is built on a grand scale, wealthy merchants having swept away some of the older medieval buildings in the 18th  century. A must-see sight is the Place de la Comédie, which houses the Grand Theatre with its sumptuous neo-classical façade. Nearby, the Esplanade des Quinconces, established in 1820, is the biggest square in Europe. A massive monument decorated with ornate sculptures honors the Girondins who were victims of the Revolutionary Reign of Terror.

Le miroir d'eau, Bordeaux, France

Le miroir d’eau, Bordeaux, France

The previously rundown riverfront has benefited most from Bordeaux’s makeover. The old warehouses have been transformed into hip shops and cafés, where it’s fun to sit and people watch over a glass of the local nectar. The splendid Place de la Bourse is not to miss. This former business exchange was built as the backdrop to a statue of Louis XV. The best time to see it is at night, when its floodlit exterior is reflected from the expanse of shallow water in front of it, le miroir d’eau.

Basilica of St. Seurin, Bordeaux, France

Interior, Basilica of St. Seurin, Bordeaux, France

Bordeaux boasts churches aplenty in styles from Romanesque through Gothic to Baroque. The Basilica of St. Seurin is the oldest, founded in the 6th  century with 11 th -century features remaining. The Cathedral of St. André is a comparative newcomer, consecrated in 1096. Here, the charismatic 13-year old heiress Eleanor of Aquitaine married her first husband, Louis VII of France in 1137. Worth a look, too, are the churches of St. Croix, a 12th -century gem, and the Gothic St. Michel. Its separate soaring spire provides breathtaking views of the city and its setting.

For museums, the Musée des Beaux Arts tops the list with its stunning collection of paintings by Rubens, Van Dyck, Renoir, Matisse and Picasso, to name just a few. For aficionados of the avant-garde, CAPC Museum of Contemporary Art housed in a former warehouse is the place to go. The Musée d’Aquitaine follows the history of the region from the earliest times in lively fashion, with the accent on commerce and the wine trade.

Market pastries, Bordeaux, France

Market pastries, Bordeaux, France

Bordeaux is above all a gourmet and wine lover’s paradise. One of the most colorful food markets is held on Sundays along the waterfront in the old wine merchants’ district of Chartrons. This is the ideal place to stroll around and discover the best produce from the abundant region surrounding the city. Keen shoppers can refresh themselves with Arcachon Bay oysters and a glass of white Bordeaux in situ.

And, once the appetite is whetted, there’s no shortage of excellent restaurants and wine-bars to suit all pockets, offering inventive combinations of food and wine. On the menu are Pauillac lamb, Bazas beef, and fish and seafood from the river and the Atlantic nearby. Crisply-fried baby eels are a Bordeaux delicacy as are oysters served with spicy sausages.

As you would expect of a city that founded its fortunes on wine, Bordeaux celebrates its major product in countless ways. The Musée du Vin et du Negoce (wine trade museum), set in a former merchant’s house, relates the history of wine. At the Vinorama Museum, wine lovers can sip famous vintages in the company of wax figurines.

Pont de Pierre, Bordeaux, France

Pont de Pierre, Bordeaux, France

Wine festivals take place throughout the year, both in and around Bordeaux. The biggest is the biennial Bordeaux Wine Festival in June. Its ‘wine road’ stretches along the quays in the Chartrons district, providing plenty of opportunities for tasting famous appellations. The program features live music, a son-et-lumière show and fireworks. And there are wine tours galore throughout the year for those who fancy savoring the vintages of the Médoc, St. Emilion or Sauternes at the legendary vineyards.

After all the sightseeing, a little retail therapy is in order. The luxury boutiques are in the so-called Triangle d’Or in the center of Bordeaux. More affordable shops are located in the Rue Sainte-Cathérine. This is the longest pedestrian street in France, running through the medieval St. Pierre district. It offers more than a mile of shops, cafés and restaurants. Even the pickiest shopper will find something here to take home. Art and antiques hunters should head to the Chartrons quays or the Rue Notre Dame. And there’s a great Sunday flea market around the Church of St. Michel.

Place de la Bourse, Bordeaux, France

Along the riverfront, Bordeaux, France

There’s something to suit every taste in Bordeaux. A single visit won’t be enough.

 

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Aix-en-Provence

Aix-en-Provence is a most impressive city. Located north of Marseilles, about fifteen miles from the Mediterranean coast, it has a population of just over 140,000. It was founded in 123 BC by the Roman consul Sextius Calvinus, who established baths there. The Romans named the place Aquae Sextiae, which means the waters of Sextius. Now, it is simply called Aix.

Streets, Aix-en-Provence, France

Streets, Aix-en-Provence, France

In an ongoing homage to water, Aix is festooned with fountains. It is sometimes referred to as the city of a thousand fountains. They adorn the city like enormous jewels randomly deposited by some benevolent giant. There are fountains commemorating kings, some celebrating dolphins, ornate little drinking fountains set into ancient walls, huge fountains on city boulevards dominating the streetscape with intricately sculpted stonework and loud watery din.

La Rotonde, Aix-en-Provence, France

La Rotonde, Aix-en-Provence, France

A most striking fountain for its size and splendor, La Rotonde is located at the end of the city’s main boulevard, Le Cours Mirabeau. This fountain dates from 1860. It is an elaborate structure surrounded by a series of protecting lions seated in pairs. Towering over it are three semi-clothed statues representing Art, Justice and Agriculture. Halfway up Le Cours Mirabeau is a moss covered natural hot spring fountain, dating back to the time of the Romans. The fountain at the top the boulevard commemorates King René of Anjou and features a tall statue of the king on a column at its centre.

Even in the midsummer sun, it’s pleasant to saunter around this city. The buildings on the narrower streets screen the sun’s rays and a canopy of plane trees provide mottled shade on the wide boulevards. It is a stroller’s dream city; most sights are a short walk from the centre. There could hardly be a more pleasant way to get to know such a beautiful city.

Backstreet, Aix-en-Provence, France

Backstreet, Aix-en-Provence, France

If strolling gets too tiring, taking a break is easy. There are bars, cafes, restaurants and brasseries around every corner. A favorite spot on Le Cours Mirabeau is Les Deux Garçons brasserie. Visitors and locals, young and old, relax on the terrace and watch the world go by.

Les Deux Garçons

Les Deux Garçons
Photo courtesy of Hally Chen.

Les Deux Garçons is the most celebrated brasserie in Aix. Since it was built in 1792, it has been a favorite haunt of many famous artists who lived in or passed through the city. Paul Cézanne (who was born in Aix in 1839), Émile Zola (who spent his childhood in Aix) and Ernest Hemingway were regular patrons. Many of Cézanne’s most famous works depict landmarks of the region; Mont Sainte-Victoire, the iconic mountain to the northeast of Aix, was painted numerous times by him from different angles.

Vegetable stand, Aix-en-Provence, France

Vegetable stand, Aix-en-Provence, France

There’s more to Aix than fountains. The city offers an abundance of places well worth visiting, such as Atelier Paul Cézanne, which merits a short note because people might expect to see some of his paintings there; they would be disappointed. This was the artist’s last studio. His tools are strewn all around, as if he had briefly stopped painting and popped out to borrow something from a neighbor.  Of course, the markets of Aix are so spectacular that it’s worth visiting the city for them alone. Every day, some city square or boulevard is transformed into a buzzing, multi-coloured bazaar displaying a huge selection of goods and foodstuffs. Vendors sell antiques, ornaments, pottery, books, tools, clothes, furniture, fish, fruit and flowers. Much of the produce is distinctly Provençal so the markets are great places to turn up unique gifts and mementos.

 

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Marseille France

The city of Marseilles, second largest in France after its famed capital, Paris, lies on the Mediterranean sea. It’s strategic location was historically advantageous and contributed to its current status as a melting pot of cultures. As a port city, it attracted waves of migration from the Mediterranean and beyond: North Africans, Armenians and Italians, among others, populated the city and although many of the descendants from these migratory movements now proudly identify themselves as French (some going as far as calling themselves Marseillaise first, French second), traces of their cultural heritage impregnate the city: from the sounds of the bustling market in Noailles strongly reminiscent of the chaotic medinas in Morocco, to the taste of hearty spaghetti alle vongole from a seaside restaurant, best savoured alongside a glass of a fragrant and ice-cold rosé.

As the oldest city in France, founded around 600 BC, Marseilles’ rich history contributes to its charm. Among the fortifications enclosing the Vieux Port lie centuries of history that have forged the landscape of Marseilles and the character of its denizens. Fort Saint Jean, in particular, has borne witness to the feisty personality which is to this very day, characteristic of the Marseillaise people. The fort was built by Louis XIV to ensure that the the city’s rebellious spirits were kept in check. This, as we now know, cost him his head since his foolish move only served to fire up the Marseillaise people, who didn’t just march into Paris and start a revolution, but also composed a very well-known song on their way there, La Marseillaise.

Bouillabaisse

Bouillabaisse

Yet a walk across the Vieux Port is a must not just for history buffs: some of the Provençal capital’s famed sights and internationally renowned restaurants attract visitors hungry for a good picture or a mouth-watering bouillabaisse, the star of Marseillaise gastronomy. Originally a seafood stew only preferred by sailors and now a local delicacy elaborated from different varieties of fresh fish, vegetables, broth and Provençal spices, slowly stewed to perfection for hours, which explains its average hefty price tag of 40 Euro.

Chateau d'If, Marseille , France

Chateau d’If, Marseille , France

A quick ferry ride across the turquoise waters caressing the centuries-old Vieux Port leads visitors to a small rocky island upon which sits the Château d’If, made famous by Alexandre Dumas’s character, the Count of Monte Cristo, who was this ancient jail’s most renowned,  albeit fictional, prisoner.

Sports lovers can also easily indulge themselves while in Marseilles: the city’s stadium, known as the Velodrome, is the proud home-base of the local soccer team, l’Olympique Marseille (OM). Its supporters are reputed for their passion and fervour, which is exhibited at each match that their team plays, be it on their home turf or abroad. Enjoying a French football match is easy for visitors and depending on the match and how well the team is doing that season, tickets can range from 20 Euro up to the hundreds. If a visit to the stadium is out of your league, then the next best thing is to watch the match live at any local bar. It’s the perfect way to soak in the passion and fervour of true OM football fans and perhaps learn a few French swear words in the process. This would also be a good opportunity to try the local drink of choice: pastis, a green anise-flavoured liquor traditionally from Marseilles. Outdoors lovers can also profit immensely from a visit to this bustling city: magnificent hiking trails fit for every level are just minutes away from its sometimes chaotic centre. Most of these can be found surrounding the calanques, breath-taking natural coastal rock formations precipitously dipping into the sea and can be enjoyed by amateur hikers and professional climbers alike. For those who prefer a more relaxed setting to enjoy the natural wonders nestled near Marseilles, there are boat tours available with regular departures from the Vieux Port.

Notre-Dame de la Garde, Marseille, France

Notre-Dame de la Garde, Marseille, France

No visit to Marseilles could be finished without a visit to its crowning jewel, the basilica of Notre-Dame de la Garde, which stretches into the heavens atop a hill overlooking the city. Lovingly nicknamed la bonne mère by locals, this basilica is an impressive example of neo-byzantine architecture and it’s a landmark that represents very much the same as the Eiffel tower does to Parisians: local pride. Its strategic location on top of a hill was meant to inspire and call out to the faithful below, although given its prominence in the city’s landscape it also suffered some heavy bombing by the Germans during WWII. To this day, a US tank that defended the Marseilles’ beloved basilica is on display on the road leading up to Notre-Dame de la Garde as a sign of gratitude.

MuCEM, Marseille, France

At MuCEM, Marseille, France

Marseilles has been undergoing an overwhelming amount of change. Along with a rich cultural history, it has held a reputation as a dirty crime-ridden city for some time. As a result of its nomination for European Capital of Culture in 2013 as well as its preparation to host the European Football Championship in 2016, it has been given an extreme lift, far beyond its façade. Visitors will be glad to know that Marseilles is now not only as safe a city as any other in France, but also that its infrastructure  has greatly improved. The city now boasts a tram linking the central neighborhoods, besides its regular metro and bus lines, making it easier to get around town. A tourist mini-train is also available to easily access all major tourist sites in the city. It has regular departures scheduled from the Vieux Port. The city’s traffic still leaves a lot to desire, but locals are proud of their fame as the most daring drivers of the country. Test this claim at your own risk. Marseilles St. Charles, the main train station, is centrally located: just atop a hill that leads straight into the Vieux Port by one of the city’s main arteries, La Canebière. The train station provides easy access to and from the local airport and is well-linked to the French capital (just over 3 hours by high-speed train), as well as to other major cities in France and abroad (mainly Italy and Switzerland) and, of course, to smaller, quaint locations throughout Provence. Marseilles shares an international airport with Aix-en-Provence which has just been expanded and now offers a wide array of national and international flights.

 

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