Tucked away in deepest, darkest Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, one of the region’s best-kept secrets hides behind a stone wall, with only the smallest of plaques hinting at its existence. Le Palais Idéal – known in English as The Ideal Palace – is a remarkable creation, a childlike fantasy of epic proportions and, perhaps most surprisingly, the labour of love of a humble postman.
Ferdinand Cheval (1836-1924) dedicated thirty-three years of his life to building his palace, and a further eight to building his tomb which lies in the nearby cemetery. Initially, he carried stones home in his pockets; he subsequently switched to a basket and, later, a wheelbarrow. Having had no formal training, his creation is considered to be a noteworthy example of naïve art. Held together by lime, mortar and cement, this two-storey palace, complete with sweeping staircases, balustrades and archways, defies conventions and exceeds expectations. Gargoyles loom from above, stones and shells adorn the façades and small quotes and poems are etched into the stonework.
Completed in 1912, it’s incredible that this gem still stands today, given the primitive construction methods that were used. (Although taking into account the rise of ’Elf and Safety in recent years, perhaps what’s more incredible is the fact that, bar a couple of roped off passages, visitors can explore every nook and cranny of it.) Le Palais Idéal had been on my to-visit list from the off, and it was everything I hoped it would be (and more).
The east façade, where the first stone of Le Palais Idéal was laid, is arguably the most impressive, featuring numerous grottos, sculptures (including three giants: Caesar, Archimedes and Vercingetorix) and the exotic Tour de Barbarie.
Cheval wanted visitors to be able to admire the pièce de résistance of his creation from afar, so he constructed a small viewing platform from which visitors can take in the entire east façade. As the morning wore on, more visitors arrived – so head here first if you want a people-less snap.
Along the south façade, Cheval laid a collection of his favourite stones and fossils. This aspect has been described as a “musée antidéluvien” – meaning the sculptural work and features found here depict the era before the biblical flood. It’s a little austere when compared to the eye-popping east façade, but still has some nice touches.
At this point, it’s onwards and upwards – to the first floor. (There are also staircases at both the north-western and north-eastern corners of the palace.) I really enjoyed wandering along the terrace and wriggling through the smaller side passages for close-up views of Cheval’s masterpiece.
Cheval drew inspiration from a number of religions and mythologies throughout the construction of his palace, and as such it is as much a homage to the natural environment as it is to the various civilisations which inhabit it. Supported by pillars bearing the creator’s surname, the west façade unites cultures – both occidental and oriental – and religions, bringing them together under one roof. (Or along one wall, if you want to be pedantic.)
Inside the palace is a gallery – accessible from both the east and west façades – featuring numerous sculptures and philosophical quotes, alongside an inscription of Émile Roux-Parassac’s poem Ton Idéal, Ton Palais, which gave Cheval’s creation its name.
From Genesis and the Garden of Eden’s deceitful serpent to questions of heaven and hell, the north façade is one of contrasts and mortality. This is where, after 93,000 hours, 10,000 days and 33 years of work, Cheval’s dream finally came to fruition. One man’s flight of fancy is admired – and visited – by many today.
- If, like me, you don’t have access to a car (or a friend’s car), Le Palais Idéal can be accessed by public transport. Catch a train to Saint-Vallier-sur-Rhône, then the line 3 bus to Hauterives. Prepare for an early start, as the bus service is extremely limited and in all probability you don’t want to be stranded in Hauterives. (For reference, I caught the 06:20 train from Lyon Part-Dieu, which arrived in Saint-Vallier-sur-Rhône at 07:09. I then caught the 07:45 bus to Hauterives, arriving there at 08:25. I returned to Saint-Vallier-sur-Rhône on the 11:50 bus, and caught the next connecting train back to Lyon Part-Dieu.)
- Le Palais Idéal opens at 09:30; closing times vary depending on the season. I whiled away the time until the attraction opened reading my book in the sun, but in hindsight I wish I’d visited his tomb then. (Still not quite sure why I didn’t think of that at the time.) I didn’t see it in the end, as I didn’t fancy waiting six hours for the next bus.