Having visited many of the most loved and stunning French attractions over the years, my husband and I are always on the lookout for undiscovered, out of the way places, depending on our route. By renting a car, navigating small roads and having a flexible itinerary, we allow for an easier access to unknown places.
Le Palais Idéal du Facteur Cheval
With a sense of wonder, I approached Le Palais Idéal du Facteur Cheval (The Ideal Palace of the Postman Cheval). I was enticed by a short article I had read in a magazine and had no idea of what to expect on arrival. It’s not your typical tourist Mecca but well worth the drive to search it out.
Located off Autoroute 7, southeast of Lyon in the Drome Department, in the sleepy village of Hauterives, it’s easy to miss. In fact, there were few posted signs, and we had to stop and ask several people before we found someone who knew where it was. We entered a nondescript building that included a ticket counter and a gift shop, having no idea what we would see after paying the entry fee and exiting the far door into the park-like setting. I was transfixed. There in front of me stood an immense, haunting and magical construction that I could never have imagined. This strange embellished palace, or temple, had grown almost organically over thirty-three years as Ferdinand Cheval slowly and painstakingly orchestrated his compelling dream.
History of Le Palais Ideal
In April 1879, while Cheval was making his daily rounds as the village postman, he stumbled upon a strange looking rock. He picked it up and took it home. This rock triggered an old dream of his to create a fantastical palace. And, at the age of forty-three, with this first rock, he was inspired to begin building. Each day he collected stones as he delivered the mail. As he began to collect more stones than his pockets could hold, he carried a basket, and finally, he pushed a wheel barrow. These were sandstone rocks, hardened by the passage of time. He diligently continued his nightly construction until retirement at age sixty when he was finally able to devote all his time to his intricate habitat. When the village denied his request to be buried there, he deemed his palace complete at the age of seventy-six. He spent the last eight years of his life creating an equally unusual and ornate tomb to contain his remains in the local cemetery.
A dream castle come true
Cheval had a dream. He never gave up on it despite criticism. He had no formal training in engineering, masonry or art, but the structure has endured and remains in excellent condition, bound together with lime, mortar and cement. You can walk into it, climb the staircases, wander through the interior labyrinth and read philosophical quotations etched into the cement walls and door frames. There are sculpted turrets, whimsical animals, mythological figures, forms from nature, embedded shells, religious and historical references from Christianity to Hinduism, all incorporated into the richly textured decor. Each of the four Baroque like facades tells its own compelling story.
Was the man a genius or a lunatic? Art Brut and Outsider Art come to mind. He was certainly a man outside of his times. As Le Palais continues to inspire us today, it also influenced artists and innovators of the past such as Pablo Picasso, Max Ernst and André Breton. With courage, focus and will, Cheval created a lasting monument for those of us fortunate enough to visit this remarkable site. He had a long, focused and productive life from April 19, 1836 to August 19, 1924. Le Palais Idéal was classified as an Historical Monument in 1969.
Outside the grounds, the Galaure River flows by and creates a scenic park like area for picnicking or walking. The hike to the cemetery is rather long. I was told it was about a kilometer away, it felt much further. I walked for thirty minutes, but with the afternoon heat, I never found it and gave up. Maybe next time. Ferdinand Cheval has inspired me to hold on to my dreams and to believe in the impossible.
Joanne Marquardt is a Francophile, artist and writer living in the US