We will be in Barcelona in May and want to spend three days in Provence before heading to Holland to visit relatives. What is the best way to get to Provence from Barcelona? How would we get to Holland from there? Must we take a train or plane to Paris? The closest airport to our relatives is Eindhoven with Brussels as a second choice. While in Provence, would there be train or bus transportation to visit various towns as an alternative to driving, which we really don't want to do? Not sure which town to use as our home base.
Barbara, Vueling Airlines fly direct from Barcelona to Marseille in a bit over an hour.
If you prefer the train, after 31 March there will be two direct Spanish high speed 'AVE' trains per day from Barcelona to Marseille, with stops in Avignon and Aix-en-Provence. These leave Barcelona at 10.28 and 18.32, with a journey time of around 4 hours. See this page on the RENFE website, and note that only the 18.32 is running at the moment, the additional 10.28 departure starts at the end of March
There are daily direct French high speed 'TGV' trains from Aix to Brussels, departing at 09.26 and 13.29 and taking just under 5 hours. You will have a wider choice of trains if you travel via Paris and change there. Take a look at the journey planner on this page, and enter France as your ticket collection country.
You will always save money by booking in advance, with tickets generally going on sale 90 days before the date of travel.
"While in Provence, would there be train or bus transportation to visit various towns as an alternative to driving, which we really don't want to do?"
That depends on what you want to see. Without a car, you can easily see Marseille, Arles, Avignon, Nimes, Orange, Aix, and a few other places. However, if by "Provence" you mean lavender fields, small villages, rural beauty, etc, you will need a car.
"Not sure which town to use as our home base."
Without a car Avignon is probably the best base, with the most connections to the other places on my list, although Arles also works (and I liked Arles better, but of course that's a matter of individual taste). With a car, you'd want to base in a smaller village with easier driving (Arles and Avignon would not be fun with a car).
For more information, get Rick Steves Provence And The French Riviera. Note that his general France book has MUCH less information on this region.
Barbara, flying Vueling to Marseille is a great idea but it does take time to get to the airport, go through security, take the flight and then catch a train from Marseille to Avignon or Arles (1hr10min). The 18:32 train does stop at the Avignon TGV station on it's way to Aix. Please note that the Avignon TGV station is not in the center of Avignon. You will need a 15-minute bus ride from the TGV train station to the town center. Plus, it will be close to midnight when you finally arrive.
From the Barcelona Sants train station, you can take the first train out at 9:20 to Nimes or Avignon Centre. It's 4hrs27min to Avignon Centre with one train change at Nimes. I looked at the Renfe website and every time I put in Barcelona/Avignon, every routing tries to send you to Madrid to pick up the AVE high-speed that becomes the 18:32 at Barcelona. I'm not good on the Renfe website.
All that being said, we have traveled by train from Barcelona to Avignon. We purchased our tickets in the Barcelona Sants train station. One big hint that I think may still exist. Agents in the Barcelona train station will not accept credit cards for travel beyond the Spanish border. We could use our credit card to travel to the Figueres-Vilifant train station but no further. We ended up paying cash for the entire ticket.
If Avignon becomes your base, I recommend the Hotel Colbert. It's in the RS book and is #1 on Tripadvisor. We have stayed there. It's a very reasonable 2-star hotel with very nice owners. The hotel is a 5-minute walk from the Avignon Centre train station. ATMs and nice restaurants nearby.