Parc Alexis Gross entranceIn winter the renowned Alexis Gruss circus tours France with its latest show. But in May the company moves to its own park in Provence to offer a unique, full-day, behind-the-scenes family experience. logoClick here to book a hotel in Avignon

Pass through the high wrought-iron gates and you immediately enter a different world.

A trip to the huge, 13 hectare / 32 acre Alexis Gruss Park, with its 18th century château, will take in rehearsals of the company's 60-odd horses and band of clowns.

It's followed by workshops at which children can learn how to juggle and walk a tightrope or meet the animal trainers, acrobats, clowns and high-wire and trapeze artists at circus workshops.

They can visit the stables (the magnificent horses are the main attraction) or tour the circus' own small museum. Bouncy castles and similar games are available for smaller kids.

In the late morning or early afternoon the elephant gets to take its bath, another of the more popular tourist draws.

Alexis Gross Elephant showerThere follows a show lasting around 90 minutes in the 600-seat big top. During the day you can also watch the company preparing its new spectacle for the winter season. On certain days there's a show in the evening too.

The Gruss dynasty has been in the business since 1854 when (according to romantic legend) one André-Charles Gruss, a stonemason in Alsace, fell in love with a horse-rider in an Italian circus and ran away with her, using his previous skills to become a circus strongman.

The family passion for the circus continued down the generations. André-Charles' great-grandson, Alexis, founded his own company in Paris in 1974, along with the actress Silvia Monfort, and established the first circus school in the country.

He was in the vanguard of the revival and reinvention of the circus in France, helping earn respect for it as an artform and moving it away from a reliance on wild animals.

The Cirque National Alexis Gruss, as it's now officially called, features only horses and elephants. More recently the entire region of Provence itself has become an important centre of circus and street theatre arts.

Alexis Gross circus horsesAlexis' wife, Gipsy, is a high-wire and trapeze performer while their children, grandchildren and extended family work with the horses, among other things (in fact, most family members have a range of skills).

The Parc Alexis Gruss is a sort of circus conservatoire dedicated to passing on skills to audiences and involving them in a more intimate and emotional experience rather than having them along as passive consumers.

The Parc first opened its doors in 1994. The story goes that, while working at the nearby Avignon Theatre Festival, Alexis Gruss discovered the then-derelict Château. Hopping over the wall to explore the ruined pile, he immediately fell in love with it.

Nowadays its mission is to convey a sense of magic. A day here is not cheap, but it does include a packed day's entertainment.

Snacks are available to buy, or you can bring your own picnic (there are two picnic areas in the grounds). The Parc Alexis Gross is open from May to early September.

Where: Parc Alexis Gross, route d'Orange, 84420 Piolenc. Tel. (+33) 4 90 29 49 49 Website for the Cirque National Alexis Gruss

How to get there: The Parc Alexis Gross is 37.4 km / 23 miles north of Avignon and 5 km / 3 miles north of Orange. From Avignon, take the A7 motorway and exit at Orange Centre, then follow the N7 towards Montélimar.

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