Le Palais Idéal in Hauterives
It was a hot day in the Drôme department, one hour south of Lyon, as we drove through a rural landscape, stone houses placed here and there along the road, getting closer to the day’s destination: Le palais idéal du facteur Cheval (the Postman Cheval’s Ideal Palace). I had read about this eccentric structure for years and I was curious to finally see it in person.
Lyon to Hauterives – Google Map
We arrived in the village of Hauterives. While we looked for a place to have some lunch, I spotted this charming house. This type of stonework is more common in this area of France.
Stonework Pattern in Drôme, France
We found Logis Hôtel le Relais and decided to sit outside where there was some much-needed shade and a view. And what a cute place to stay. There is the choice of staying in one of the lovely individually decorated rooms inside the hotel or staying in one of the “gypsy caravans” outside. The interior of each caravan really looks like a “Tiny House”, complete with a bed, kitchenette, bathroom, and couch. Très adorable!
After a pleasant lunch, we meandered toward the location of the “palace”. We happened upon the tail-end of a little outdoor market.
We bought some gluten-free macarons. We’re not gluten-intolerant, but why not?
I also bought a round bar of donkey milk soap. Yes, you read that right. Beautiful handmade soap is plentiful at various markets around France and I could hardly resist. This soap was so unique and with many scents to choose from, but I finally settled on verveine, or in English, verbena.
THE PATHWAY TO THE PALACE
I had seen photos and read about the Palais Idéal that the postman built in the 1800s, but I couldn’t imagine where it would be placed in the village. We walked down a more narrow path, passing a wonderful little Maison des insectes (insect house), which must have been a primary school project for attracting pollinators to the plants in the area. I thought it was quite charming!
We passed by several little shops selling hats, handbags, postcards, etc. until we came to the entrance building to the Ideal Palace of Postman Cheval. It was a cool, clean and modern building to purchase the entry tickets.
LE PALAIS IDÉAL
Tickets purchased, we left the back of the building and found ourselves in the shade of tall trees. Through the trees, I finally laid eyes on this “ideal palace”, which took 33 years for Ferdinand Cheval to build, from 1879 to 1912. I didn’t expect it, but I was overcome with emotion. Here was a simple man living in a rural village in 19th century France. How did he create such a large structure, reminiscent of a Hindu temple but also in keeping with the growing surrealist movement of the time?
In the year 1836, Ferdinand Cheval was born into a poor farming family living in Charmes, a small village near Hauterives. At the age of 12, he apprenticed as a baker in Valence but later became a postman, covering over 30 km a day. Recalling the day in April 1879 that the seed of his creation began, Cheval said:
“I was walking very fast when my foot caught on something that sent me stumbling a few meters away, I wanted to know the cause. In a dream I had built a palace, a castle or caves, I cannot express it well… I told no one about it for fear of being ridiculed and I felt ridiculous myself. Then fifteen years later, when I had almost forgotten my dream, when I wasn’t thinking of it at all, my foot reminded me of it. My foot tripped on a stone that almost made me fall. I wanted to know what it was… It was a stone of such a strange shape that I put it in my pocket to admire it at my ease. The next day, I went back to the same place. I found more stones, even more beautiful, I gathered them together on the spot and was overcome with delight… It’s a sandstone shaped by water and hardened by the power of time. It becomes as hard as pebbles. It represents a sculpture so strange that it is impossible for man to imitate, it represents any kind of animal, any kind of caricature. I said to myself: since Nature is willing to do the sculpture, I will do the masonry and the architecture.”
Cheval was 43 when he first started building his vision. He had no prior experience with architecture and his creation was born out of his own incredible dream, determination, and hard work. Cheval would collect rocks and pile them on roadsides and later return in the evening with a basket and a wheelbarrow full of the stones he had amassed during the day.
The palace that Ferdinand Cheval built consists of a variety of rocks: ball stones, black quartz, tuff rock, sandstone, sponge-like stone, and stones like monoliths. He combined them through hand moldings using thousands of lime and cement bags. What resulted is a structure that has the appearance of a magical, barnacle-encrusted Hindu palace, and it’s not just for gazing at – people can actually walk through it. Every square inch of the inner caves and upper terraces is filled with their own little piece of art, from sculptures to poetry.
Translation: “Remember man, that you are only dust, your soul alone is immortal.”
The poet from Grenoble, Emile Roux-Parassac, visited the palace and dedicated a poem to the magic and creativity of Ferdinand Cheval. It was the words of this poem that Ferdinand Cheval would transcribe into the stone on his palace:
C’est de l’art, c’est du rêve et c’est de l’énergie
L’extase d’un beau songe et le prix de l’effort.
Dans la réalité, tu gravas la magie,
Et tu montras comment seul on peut être fort,
Les siècles béniront ce Temple de ta vie
Et ton geste vainqueur saura braver la mort
Tu laisses bien heureux ta noble âme assouvie
Loin de la basse faim de la gloire et de l’or
Lorsque nous reviendrons dans ce palais étrange
Bercé par le passé, nous lirons ta louange,
Sur chacun des cailloux que cisela ta main
Et, devant ton labeur à l’idéal superbe
Tous, en te bénissant, t’offriront une gerbe
Oú vivra la beauté de ton rirant chemin.
It’s art, it’s a dream, and it’s energy
The ecstasy of a beautiful dream and the price of the effort.
In reality, you burn the magic,
And you will show how alone we can be strong
The centuries will bless this Temple of your life
And your winning gesture will brave death
You leave your noble soul satisfied
Far from the low hunger of fame and gold
When we return to this strange palace
Cradled in the past, we will read your praise,
On each of the stones that your hand carved
And, in front of your labor at the superb ideal
All, blessing you, will offer you a wreath
Where will live the beauty of your laughing way.
Not only was the vision of this simple, hardworking man realized, but he was also recognized by great artists, photographers, and writers:
Writer and poet, André Breton, referred to the Postman Cheval as the precursor of Surrealistic architecture. He first came to visit the Ideal Palace in 1931, while on vacation in the south of France. It would haunt his memories for years to come. Breton wrote that “the postman Cheval remains the undisputed master of mediumistic sculpture and architecture” and in 1932 paid tribute to him through a poem called “Le Revolver à cheveux blancs”, or in English, “The White Haired Revolver”.
Artist Léonora Carrington, who was also Max Ernst’s partner, visited le Palais Idéal several times.
Poet John Ashbery and artist Niki de Saint Phalle went together in the 1950s; she called it “a memory which is also a dream,” and she later made a collage in Cheval’s honor, l’Hommage au Facteur Cheval. Le Palais Idéal also inspired her to create the esoteric sculptures in Florence’s Garden of Tarot.
The surrealist artists of the early 20th century saw in Postman Cheval the power of dreams and the unconscious. Indeed, he was not working from an academic background or from carefully drawn plans, but from the eye of his subconscious mind.
The postman Cheval opened the palace to the public in 1905. He installed a bench so that visitors could admire the building as a whole. He even gave interviews to the press. However, like so many artists, he remained penniless until the end of his days.
“Son of a peasant, I want to live and die to prove that in my category there are also men of genius and energy. Twenty-nine years I was a rural postman. Work is my glory and honor my only happiness; now here is my strange story. Where the dream has become, forty years later, a reality. ”
He put aside the criticism of his fellow villagers, the jeering, and the gossip, and set forth to create something that people from far and wide would come to view. He died on 19 August 1924 and he is still remembered today.