Knights at the Chateau de la BarbenNestled in lush countryside a half hour's drive from Aix, the village of La Barben offers an enticing package for children: a Château and a zoo.

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There's a fair bit to see at both these attractions, though, so you might want to visit them on separate trips to avoid an exhausting (and expensive) day out.

Rearing dramatically up out of the surrounding greenery, the large, rugged mediaeval Château de la Barben once belonged to Good King René and is reputed to be the most beautiful castle in Provence.

Privately owned by the Pons family, it's imposing architecturally (if much modified over the centuries), but also makes tremendous efforts to involve children, with a riddle game, a treasure hunt and a small gift at the end of the visit. Guides dressed as knights help bring history alive.

Special seasonal events including night tours by candlelight, a "Great Mediaeval Feast" and Halloween celebrations are organised at intervals throughout the year (check the Château de la Barben website for details). Those of a Gothic disposition will love the dungeons. It's suitable for children aged from four to 12.

The Chateau de la BarbenThe Château is also surrounded by a lovely park in the formal French style designed by André Le Nôtre, who created the gardens at Versailles.

These gardens are normally closed to the public but are opened up for special occasions such as the Easter weekend, during which there is also a giant Easter egg hunt, plus children's workshops and guided visits of the castle.

The nearby Zoo de la Barben, the largest in south-east France, has several hundred animal species from around the world on display, among them giraffes, elephants, lions, panthers, tigers, cheetahs, pumas and ostriches, as well as a reptile house, an aquarium and an aviary.

There are opportunities to meet the keepers and organised activities for children as well as a play area. A recent addition, demonstrations of falconry and birds of prey are held throughout the day (see the website, below, for details).

The zoo is set on a rather steep hill, but ramps enable families with push-chairs to avoid the long flight of steps. Alternatively you can take a little train up the slope (for a small extra charge in addition to the entrance fee); scooters are also available for hire to help you zip around.

You might well feel the need for them: the zoo at La Barben covers 33 hectares / 81.5 acres, with 9 km / 5.5 miles of paths. It would take a a minimum of two hours to tour it (a map is supplied at the entrance), but four hours would allow you to do it at leisure, including a lunch break.

Lions at the Zoo de la BarbenThe animals can get sluggish and sleepy in the provençal midday heat, and, if your own cubs are flagging, it's a good moment to chill out in a shady picnic area with benches and tables at the upper part of the zoo.

A small snack bar sells sandwiches, ice-creams and drinks and a restaurant, La Ferme du Château, is near the entrance at the bottom.

To splash out (perhaps without the kids in tow), you could stay in one of the Château's extravagantly appointed rooms, and dine there in the evening in the mediaeval kitchen. The most desirable, the Suite des Amours (Lovers' Suite), is in one of the towers and has a huge private terrace with superb views.

Where: Château de la Barben, 13330 La Barben. Tel: (+33) 4 90 55 25 41. Fax: (+33) 4 90 55 42 75. Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Château de la Barben website.

Zoo de la Barben, Route de Château, 13330 La Barben. Tel: (+33) 4 90 55 19 12. Fax: (+33) 4 90 55 27 75. Zoo de la Barben website.

Both the Château and the zoo have parking areas.

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