I love a folly, and Palais Ideal du Facteur Cheval (Postman Cheval’s Ideal Palace) is more special than the usual folly because it was the result of an artistic vision and pure determination, rather than excessive wealth. It was built between 1879 and 1912, by, as you might have guessed, a postman named Ferdinand Cheval. As the story goes, he was out on his mail route one day when he saw a stone that was so interesting it inspired him to build this entire palace (damn, it must have been some stone!). Cheval had rather a difficult life, struggling with poverty and the deaths of his first wife, first born son, and his daughter, so the attention the palace generated was probably a rather welcome respite from his daily life, but this palace was definitely primarily a labour of love. Even after stopping construction on the palace (which Cheval worked on well into his 70s), he went on to spend eight years building a family tomb in the nearest graveyard after being told by the local authorities that he couldn’t interred in his palace (he died in 1924, aged 88).
I’m not quite sure what the commune of Hauterives was like back in Cheval’s day (it is just described as being a “rural village” in the 19th century) but nowadays it is quite a thriving tourist village, thanks entirely to the palais (people have been visiting the palace since around 1905, so it’s been a tourist attraction for a while). There is a large parking lot in the centre of Hauterives (which sure came in handy) and the village itself seems to consist mainly of cafes and tourist shops selling Palais Ideal tat. Despite the palace being THE attraction here, we somehow managed to miss the (small) sign pointing to it, and wandered around aimlessly for a bit until we found the way (it’s really not that hard though, we were probably just being dumb).
Admission to the palace is €7.50, which I thought was a bit on the expensive side for an attraction of this size, but it’s not as though we’re likely to be in the area again any time soon, and after all, it’s not every day you get to see a palace built by a postman (actually, it’s a little weird to me that they emphasise the postman angle so much. Is a mailman not supposed to be capable of being creative? Or is it just that they’re meant to be so hard at work they shouldn’t have time to build a palace?). We were given a brochure in English that had some information about the palace, and there was more in the small museum in the form of laminated fact sheets that translated the French captions (they had fact sheets in a variety of other languages as well) which was much appreciated. The only things we couldn’t read were Cheval’s little poems, quotes, and sayings, which were hidden in and around the palace.
The palace itself, whilst not quite as big as we were expecting (it is 26 metres long and 14 metres high, which is really big for something with this many intricate carvings that was made by one man, but not very big as far as palaces go), is incredible, as you can probably see. Each facade has a different theme; Cheval began with the east facade, which took him twenty years to build. The carvings on this side include the Source of Life, an Egyptian temple, a tomb that he wanted to be buried in (until permission was refused), three giants, and a niche for his wheelbarrow. The south facade is where his favourite stones live, and the west facade has elements from different cultures coexisting, like a mosque, a Swiss chalet, a medieval castle, and a Hindu temple. The north facade was the last part of the palace to be built, and is the story of the Garden of Eden, with Adam and Eve and loads of animals. Actually, there are weird little animals, both real and fantastic, throughout the whole of his palace, which were of course my favourite part.
Though the palace doesn’t really have rooms as such, you can go in and around it. There were entranceways that led to little tunnels that were lovely and cool and contained some of the best animals, and several staircases that let us explore the upper level of the palace, which was quite nice because sometimes you’re not allowed to touch things of this nature at all, but here you could be as tactile as you wanted. So it perhaps won’t come as a surprise that Cheval’s palace is in regular need of restoration, which makes me feel a little better about the entrance fee. There is also a small lookout point, also constructed by Cheval specifically so people could have a better view of his palace (he seemed like a thoughtful guy).
The palace was great, but it was, yet again, about a million degrees and horribly sunny outside, so I was glad to step into the small museum, which in addition to containing information about Cheval’s life, also contained a series of photographs of famous people visiting the palace (Picasso was a fan), early postcards available at the palace (I wish you could still buy those designs, because they were great), and art inspired by the palace, which was mostly amazing. (There is also a clean set of non-squat toilets by the museum, which I highly recommend using before you leave if you’re driving around all day like we were, because decent toilets in this part of France are few and far between.)
The shop was also surprisingly good, with loads of (modern) postcards and prints of some of the palais-inspired paintings inside the museum (of course I bought the one with all the animals in it shown above (the trumpet turtle sold me on it), even though I’m running out of space to hang things). We did successfully resist the allure of the other tourist spots in town (they all seemed to be selling ravioli gratin, which actually sounds delicious if available in a non-meat version and not made by a tourist cafe) except for the place with a case full of cold drinks, which are oddly hard to find in France (I don’t mean in restaurants, like the classic American tourist complaint about the lack of ice, I’m talking in the supermarkets. Even the hypermarches (possibly my favourite French word to say) seemed to only have fridges for Coke products, which isn’t really want you want on a hot day, except for the small Carrefour by our hotel in Lyon that had 1.5 litre bottles of iced tea in the fridge (I gratefully chugged down a whole one of those by myself after spending an afternoon walking around in the heat and sun, but then paid the price by having to pee every five minutes or so for the rest of the night. My tiny bladder is not really my friend, especially when travelling)). We then headed slightly out of town to Cheval’s tomb, which is well sign-posted and also has a parking lot (though you can walk if you wish, which I would have been fine with if it hadn’t been in the 100s). The tomb is also great, especially the intertwined snakes on one side, though it did seem to end rather abruptly on the side with a plain wall.
I can definitely relate to Cheval and his love of slightly derpy animals, even though I don’t share his talent for palace building. He clearly must have been a very interesting and talented man, despite all the hardships in his life, and I’m really glad I got to experience his palace. 4/5 for Postman Cheval’s Ideal Palace (Jessica’s ideal palace would have a lot more shade and ice cream, but I still respect Cheval’s vision and the limitations of 19th century technology).