Getting there & away
Fares to Provence fluctuate wildly: tickets are usually cheapest in early spring and late autumn, but shop around. International airport departure taxes are included in the price of your ticket. Several ‘no-frills’ airlines (such as easyJet, Flybe, jet2.com and Ryanair) serve Avignon, Marseille, Nice, Nîmes and Toulon from European destinations. Some online ticket agencies will compare prices for you.
Provence has two major airports: Marseille-Provence and Nice-Côte d’Azur. Avignon-Caumont, Nîmes-Garons and Toulon-Hyères also serve some international destinations. Cannes and St-Tropez airports mainly serve private planes.
Avignon-Caumont (AVN; 04 90 81 51 51; www.avignon.aeroport.fr), 8km southeast of Avignon, has flights to/from Paris. From March, April and May to late September, there are regular weekly flights from the UK from Exeter and Southampton (Flybe); and from Edinburgh and Leeds-Bradford (jet2.com).Marseille-Provence (MRS; 04 42 14 14 14; www.marseille.aeroport.fr), located 25km northeast of Marseille, is one of the region’s two major airports and has year-round flights to 45 destinations, including a number in the UK and Ireland. There are frequent flights to 20 French airports and two or three flights daily between Marseille and most other European cities. Marseille is also hub for flights to and from North Africa, with regular flights to destinations in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia.
Nice-Côte d’Azur (NCE; 08 20 42 33 33; www.nice.aeroport.fr), located 6km west of Nice, is France’s second-largest airport, with year-round flights to 29 international and 30 French destinations, including many in UK and Ireland. There are flights two or three times daily between Nice and most other European cities, including a handful of interesting no-frills routes: easyJet offers year-round daily flights between Geneva, Berlin, Paris and Nice. From April to October, Swiss carrier Fly Baboo flies to Nice from Athens, Bucharest, Geneva, Naples, Valencia and Venice.
Nîmes-Garons (FNI; www.nimes-aeroport.fr), 15km south of Nîmes, is served solely by low-fare operator Ryanair. The company has daily flights to London Luton and four flights weekly to Liverpool in the UK. It also has four flights weekly to Brussels.
Toulon-Hyères (TLN; www.toulon-hyeres.aeroport.fr), a small airport 25km east of Toulon, serves up to nine European cities depending on the season. There are daily flights to Paris year-round (Air France) and seasonal flights to the UK (Ryanair).
Eurolines (08 92 89 90 91; www.eurolines.com) is an association of companies forming Europe’s largest international bus network. It links Provençal cities such as Nice, Marseille and Avignon with points all over western and central Europe, Scandinavia and Morocco. Most buses operate daily in summer and several times a week in winter; advance ticket purchases are necessary. Eurolines’ website lists representatives in Europe. The Eurolines Pass (15-/30-day high-season pass €340/410, under 26 €260/310, cheaper mid-Sep-Jun) allows unlimited travel to 45 cities across Europe.
Linebùs (Avignon 04 90 86 88 67; Nîmes 04 66 29 50 62; Barcelona 932 65 07 00, www.linebus.com, in Spanish) links Avignon (6½ hours, €45 one-way) and Nîmes (6¼ hours, €41 one-way) with Barcelona and other cities in Spain. Children aged four to 12 receive a 50% discount.
French transport policy favours its state-owned rail system: inter-regional bus services are an alien concept. When travelling to Provence from other regions of France, it’s easiest to take the train.
Thomas Cook’s European Rail Timetable, updated monthly, has a complete listing of train schedules. It’s available from Thomas Cook offices worldwide and online (www.thomascookpublishing.com) for around UK£14. Another helpful resource is the info-packed website The Man in Seat 61 (www.seat61.com), which lists train timetables and travel tips for France and beyond.
From the rest of France
France’s efficient national rail network is run by the state-owned Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer Français (SNCF; www.sncf.fr, also www.raileurope.co.uk in the UK). SNCF’s pride and joy is the Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV; www.tgv.com, also www.tgv-europe.com for overseas travellers) high-speed train service.
TGV Sud-Est links Paris with Dijon and Lyon, from where the TGV Rhône–Alpes continues southeast to Valence. Here, the TGV Méditerranée zips at 310km/h to Avignon, where the superfast track splits east to Marseille and west to Nîmes. Avignon and Aix-en-Provence have out-of-town TGV train stations, separate from the town-centre stations used by regional trains. Sample 1st-/2nd-class single TGV fares between Paris and Provence destinations: Avignon (€147/100, 3½ hours), Marseille (€145/100, three hours), Nice (€170/120, six hours) and Orange (€145/100, 4½ hours).
SNCF also operates cheaper, slower rail services. Both grande ligne (main line) trains and those operated by Transport Express Régional (TER; www.ter-sncf.com) link smaller cities and towns with the TGV network. Many towns not on the SNCF network are linked with nearby railheads by buses.
From the UK
The highly civilised Eurostar (France 08 92 35 35 39, www.voyages-sncf.com; UK 08705 186 186, www.eurostar.com) whisks you between London and Paris in just 2¼ hours. There are direct daily services from London St Pancras and Ashford (Kent) to Paris, Brussels, Lille, Parc Disneyland Paris and Calais-Fréthun. A direct seasonal service operates on Saturdays from early July to early September from London (six hours) and Ashford (five hours) to Avignon.
Eurostar fares vary enormously. A standard 2nd-class one-way ticket from London to Paris costs UK£179; from Paris, the standard fare to London is €245. You’ll get better deals if you book nonflexible tickets, book a return journey, stay over a Saturday night, book 14 or seven days ahead, if you’re under 25 or if you’re a student. Student travel agencies may have youth fares not available directly from Eurostar. Eurail pass holders receive discounts. For information about train travel from northern France destinations to Provence and the Côte d’Azur.
Travellers from the UK might consider changing trains in Lille rather than Paris, before heading south to Provence (which avoids schlepping across Paris city centre from Gare du Nord to Gare du Lyon).
From Italy & Spain
Within the region, Nice is the major hub, sitting on the busy Barcelona–Rome train line. Day and overnight trains run in both directions. A single 1st-/2nd-class fare from Nice to Rome costs around €120/70 (plus from €30 for a couchette) for the 9½-hour journey. The 10-hour journey from Nice to Barcelona costs around €160/110 for a single 1st-/2nd-class fare. There are direct train services between Nice and Milan (€45/30, five hours).