The Palais Idéal in Hauterives

What can you do, if not dream


Where visions are larger than reality, perhaps the most absurd building in the world is created. An excursion into four walls that touch one's heart.

You pass through a wine-covered archway and do not know where to look first. Stairs, inscriptions, columns, battlements, animals, patterns, words, symbols - a jumble of different motives welcomes the visitor. The rock seems to proliferate, always searching for new paths, new forms, curling up, writhing and melting in the moment you look at the building, only to freeze again elsewhere. The Palais Idéal is a challenge for the beholder. Confused, enchanted, dumbfounded, you are standing in front of it, overwhelmed with the question, from which side you should approach first, whether you should climb or stoop and look into it, whether you want to look from a distance, the big picture, or rather in lose the details.

However, there are far too many of them to be perceived by all. Stones are framed in cement, shells stick out. Animal grimaces stare at the visitor, stone branches hang down, or are they antlers? There does not seem to be a single piece of wall that has not been worked to its utmost. Walking around the Palais Idéal takes you through hundreds of architectural styles and epochs, and especially across the continents of the world. Roman vases are set in a corner, palm trees rise above it. Fairies seem to flutter over the battlements, miniature castles stand out from the chaos, small houses can be seen, minarets and Arabic script next to giant figures guarding the palace. Nothing is perfect, but everything is there.

"In my dreams I built a fairytale castle."

The Palais Idéal looks like a huge jewelry box from a distance. He has no sense and no purpose. It is only possible to go in, but from the terrace you can only see the trees that fence in the property.

But the palace does not need a sense - it is first and foremost a dream cast in reality, the dream of Ferdinand Cheval.

Born in 1836 in a neighboring village of Hauterives, he goes to school only very briefly to help his father in the field. After becoming an orphan at the age of 17, he does a bakery apprenticeship. He marries and has two children, one of whom dies, shortly afterwards dies his wife. At the age of 42, he, who has been working as a postman for some time, gets the route around Hauterives and returns to his home country. Every day he walks over thirty kilometers on foot, always the same distance, in any weather. A job that seems to fit the loner: He leafs through magazines, marvels at postcards and lets thoughts wander.

A year later, Cheval is now married again and expecting a daughter, the moment to start with the dream and reality: he stumbles over a stone, stops - and is thrilled. The rock that made him stagger has such an unusual and wonderful shape that he ticks it in to continue watching it at home. It does not stay with the one stone - he comes back to the same place and realizes that he can find even more beautiful stones.

"I decided: Since nature wants to do the sculpting, I take care of the bricklaying and the architecture."

His daydreams, magazine images and postcards mingled with the spontaneous beauty of nature and grew into unique visions. First, the postman built a pond with animal figures, then a grotto, a waterfall. But the more he created, the more enthusiasm he felt for his work. And the plans became bigger. He had to pile up the stones, which he initially collected during his daily journey in bags and baskets, and pick them up at night with a wheelbarrow.

The plan, which he gradually took, may well be described as megalomaniac: He wanted to build a tomb for himself, after the Egyptian model, which should outlive him for a long time. From then on he built day and night, at every free minute, at his palace. In the light of the moon he touched mortar, during the day he carried heavy stones for miles on his back.

Understandably, the postman in his village is quickly regarded as a nerd, but does not even give much attention to gossip and taunts. Around his property he builds a high wall to shield his works from view. In 1894, his daughter dies, a tragedy for Cheval, who continues to rush feverishly on stones and mortar. Two years later, he retires and can finally spend every minute of the construction.

And now comes the welcome support: During the construction, international visitors arrive to watch Cheval, as he brings even more figures to the walls on his windy, self-made scaffolding. Even as he leads visitors around personally, he can not resist scratching at his work with one hand. The wondrous palace is featured in newspapers and magazines. In 1907 Cheval has to hire a maid for the visitors.

The construction itself, however, he pursues without any help. "Work of a single man" stands proudly carved into the palace. It is important to him that he has built his work all by himself, without outside help. Just like the fact that such a building exists only once in the world.

Ferdinand Cheval wanted to create not only his dream palace, but above all something that outlasts him, which is greater than himself.

"1879-1912: 10,000 days, 93,000 hours, 33 years of the test"

In 1912 it is done, the Palais Idéal is finished. 26 meters long, 14 meters wide, 10 meters high. Ferdinand Cheval is 77 years old when he sets the last stone.

When he realizes that he is not allowed to be buried in his palace, according to French law, two years later he begins to build a mausoleum in the cemetery of Hauterives. In 1922 he is finished, two years later he dies.

What wide circles would draw his dream, Cheval has been in his life only marginally. The surrealists celebrated him in the twenties as one of their role models, Picasso visited the place several times, photos of the palace hung in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Declared a national cultural monument in 1969, the Palais Idéal attracts over 150,000 visitors every year.

I stand in front of the building, walk around it, down through it and up onto the terrace. And wonder how to muster such strength, such energy and determination to complete such work against all odds. The more I hear about Ferdinand Cheval, the more unhappy and lonely his life seems to me. Did he let the many tragedies he suffered get into work? Was it about proving something to the rest of the world, who first ridiculed him? And why was he never interested in seeing the many places he transferred from magazine pages and postcards to the palace walls? Since the beginning of the work Cheval had not left the area around Hauterives - too busy. The mussels brought his children from school trips to the sea.

Visions bigger than the reality

Cheval was born in an interesting time of upheaval: with the beginning of the Republic came strong changes across the country. The territories colonized by France in Africa and other parts of the world became more visible. With photographs, magazines and the first postcards, they were also present in the rural areas around Hauterives. People began to be interested in the world, the first world exhibitions took place. Ferdinand Cheval was excited about all this, but he stayed home and let his imagination play. His visions seemed to have been greater than the reality he never tried to measure.

"Nothing is impossible for a brave heart," Cheval wrote in one of the palace walls. And that too is the Palais Idéal: a monument to the fact that nothing in the world is impossible, that every dream can be realized. The only question is, at what price. Not only was Cheval not able to take care of his family and not travel, he described the 33 years of construction as épreuve , as a test or hard time. The construction did not seem to have made him any fun, even if he filled him with pride. The palace received real recognition only after Cheval's death.

He is today many times larger than the 26 by 14 meters. It is a monument to eternity, from which every visitor reads out something else. This stone-made example of the human being leaves nobody cold. Whether someone is enthusiastic, shaking their heads or thinking of their own dreams, which he has never pursued in life - the Palais Idéal can not help but touch people deep inside.

The Palais Idéal
The Palais Idéal is located in the village of Hauterives in the Drôme department, approximately halfway between Lyon and Valence. From Lyon you need a little more than an hour by car - but at least there is at least one stopover in beautiful Vienne. Hauterives can also be reached by public transport: Lyon can be reached in about an hour by train in Saint Vallier, from there you can take a bus to Hauterives. Admission to the Palais Idéal costs € 6.50 for adults and € 5.50 for students. More information can be found here .
The Drôme
The Département Drôme is quite unfair, even in France quite unknown. Old villages with thick stone walls, wide meadows with poppies and the first lavender fields characterize the area. Time seems to slow down here, and in a very good way. In addition to the Palais Idéal, you can for example taste chocolate , tour the vineyards and stroll through the streets in the capital Valence or visit the remarkable Musée de Visit Valence.
  1. It is wonderful to realize dreams, whether as a traveler and a sightseer or as a builder
    Beautifully written, great discovered

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