With a sense of wonder I approached Le Palais Idéal du Facteur Cheval (The Ideal Palace of the Postman Cheval). 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 Drôme Department in the sleepy village of Hauterives, it’s easy to miss. In fact, there were few posted signs, and we had to ask where it was located. You enter a building that includes a ticket counter and gift shop, having no idea what you will see when you exit into the tree-covered grounds. The ornate structure grew almost organically over thirty-three years as Ferdinand Cheval slowly and painstakingly orchestrated his dream.
In April 1879, while Cheval was making his daily rounds as village postman, he stumbled on a strange looking rock that he picked up and took home. This rock was a reminder of a long-time dream to create a magical palace, and it became the catalyst- at the age of 43, to start working to make it reality. At the age of 43, with this first rock, Cheval finally began his palace. He diligently continued his nightly construction until he retired at age 60, when he was able to devote his daytime hours, as well, to his intricate structure. When the village denied his request to be buried there, he deemed the palace complete at age 76 and spent the last eight years of his life creating an equally unusual tomb to appropriately contain his remains in the local cemetery.
What’s so startling about this? The man had a vision and acted on it. He never gave up though others criticized him. He had no formal training in engineering, masonry or art, but the structure has endured…in excellent condition! 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There are sculpted turrets, whimsical animals, mythological figures, forms from nature, embedded shells, religious and historical references…all incorporated into the richly textured décor. 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. As the 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 fortunate enough to visit this remarkable site. Le Palais Idéal was classified as an Historical Monument in 1969.
The Palais Idéal is open all year-round, Sundays and holidays included, with the exception of the following dates: Christmas Day, December 31, and January 15-January 31. 8, rue du Palais, 26390 Hauterives – Drôme. Tel +33 (0)4 75 68 81 19. For more information, visit the website: www.facteurcheval.com
Jo Anne Marquardt is the author of My Trip Around the Hexagon: Meandering in France and Falling in Love with France, both available at Amazon.com. Her first published book, Falling in Love with France, offers responses to the various questions friends and family have asked her over the years about why she visits France so often. The second book includes illustrations and descriptive notes from her travel journals.
Visit Jo Anne’s website to check out her art: www.joannemarquardt.com.