Sphinx, Jardins d'AlbertasIt is a blistering summer's day and you just have to get out of the city. A short drive from the centre of Aix, the Jardins d'Albertas are the answer.

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These exquisite 18th century landscaped gardens are adorned with fountains, ornamental ponds and extravagant statuary and dotted with tranquil spots to relax and escape from the fray.

In 1751 Jean Baptiste d'Albertas, one of the most powerful men in Aix en Provence, drew up plans to develop a plot of land belonging to his family.

His scheme advanced apace until 14 July 1790. On that day, the first anniversary of the French Revolution, d'Albertas was assassinated at a formal banquet.

A desperately romantic story is attached to the gardens involving no less a personage than Casanova, who in 1763 stopped by the neighbouring village of Bouc Bel Air.

There he met a mysterious veiled lady. She was Marie-Anne d'Albertas, a relative of Jean-Baptiste with whom the legendary womaniser had had a passionate fling 14 years earlier. Alas, the two lovers did not recognise each other and parted, never to meet again.

Merman Fountain, Jardins d'AlbertasAfter the murder of Jean Baptiste, the gardens gradually fell into a state of abandon. But in 1949 one of d'Albertas' descendants undertook an ambitious programme of restoration, which continues. They are still owned today by the d'Albertas family.

Imposing wrought iron gates bearing the family crest open on to a long avenue of old horse chestnut trees leading to the Jardins d'Albertas themselves.

These consist of a theatrical series of ascending terraces, each with its own distinctive character.

Bizarrely, no château overlooks these lovely gardens. It is marked on the 1751 plans, but was never constructed.

On the right as you enter is a little faux grotto, a circular structure with seven niches (the statues occupying them have long since vanished).

Behind it, up a small hill, a belvedere surrounded by trees offers a stone table and seat and a sweeping overview of the whole park.

To your left, a greenhouse accommodates occasional exhibitions (at occasional opening times: it may be closed while the park itself remains open).

With its horse chestnuts, pines, oaks, box trees and holly, the greenery has a slight Northern European feel, but is very much adapted to Southern climes.

Statue, Jardins d'AlbertasThe landscaping blends elements of André Le Nôtre, the architect who designed the Palace of Versailles, and Italianate influences.

Four springs have been ingeniously channelled into an intricate, interlinked network of cisterns, ponds and fountains. They are both highly decorative and functional in that they supply the water to feed the gardens.

The first terrace is an area of plane trees set out around a long ornamental pond presided over by Neptune, a work by the local sculptor Jean-Pancrace Chastel (1726-1793), who left his elegant imprint on numerous fountains in Aix en Provence.

Above it is the gardens' spectacular centrepiece, a great fountain with 17 water jets guarded by a row of doughty Atlas figures and fed by, unusually, eight mermen (male mermaids) spouting water from stone horns.

In fact the statuary as a whole is strikingly macho, for on the next terrace up are four heroic (and faintly camp) free-standing statues of Biblical and Greco-Roman figures: Hercules, David, Mars and the Borghese Gladiator. Behind them formal flower beds flank yet another, modern, very simple octagonal fountain.

There's a small feminine touch at the steps leading to the very top terrace, pictured top left and below, which is protected by a row of pointed box trees and two sphinxes bearing the d'Albertas coat of arms.

This large, shaded area is a popular spot for private functions and may be closed to visitors. The gardens aren't huge, and could be easily visited in an hour or two.

The Jardins d'AlbertasThe Jardins d'Albertas are open every day from 3pm-7pm between June and August, and on weekends and public holidays from 2pm-6pm in May, September and October. At other times by appointment.

There are various special events throughout the summer, such as workshops and evening concerts. Check the Jardins d'Albertas website for details.

A particular attraction in late May is Les Journées des Plantes d'Albertas, when the gardens host a major fair of rare and Mediterranean plants featuring over 170 exhibitors.

The event is a must for gardeners, but it's not just about the plants: there is live music, children's workshops, sculpture displays, guided tours and more.

Where: D8N, Bouc Bel Air, 13320. Tel: (+33) 4 42 22 94 71.

The Jardins d'Albertas are officially attached to nearby Bouc Bel Air, an attractive but unremarkable small hilltop town. But they are, in fact, a good 10-15 minutes' walk from the centre.

To get the gardens by public transport, take bus 51, the Aix-Marseille shuttle (note: do not take bus 50, which also runs between Aix and Marseille but is a nonstop service).

Get off at the La Mule stop, from where it is a short walk. There are two or three buses an hour and the journey takes approximately 15 minutes from Aix and 30 minutes from Marseille.

Click here for the timetable from Aix to Marseille (choose timetable no.51 in the drop-down menu).

By car, take the D8N from either Aix or Marseille.

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Where to eat: The Jardins d'Albertas don't have a café. There are various bars and restaurants on the adjacent main road, but this is the obvious spot to bring your own picnic. If the gardens themselves are crowded, try the spacious fields all around the introductory avenue.

Photo credits: all images © SJ for Marvellous Provence


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