Last weekend I was transported to another land- one where stone rose and entwined to create the history of the world molded and meshed into a fantastic structure. Or as I less eloquently told my dad, “it was a clusterfuck of the world in stone, and concrete, and shells”. Bienvenue to the Palais Ideal du Facteur Cheval.
Building with stone is a common quality of the Drôme region. So it’s not surprising that an impressive stone structure could be built by a man from Drôme. But an entire palace built from a dream is something worth noting. Even artists like Picasso and Gaudi drew inspiration from this one man’s vision.
While I must admit that the palais was smaller than expected, it was no less impressive.
Especially when you have the history. The history of one lone man with a vision, a dream, (maybe even a slight unraveling of the mind) who dedicated thirty-three years to build his ideal palace..
According to wikipedia, while Ferdinand Cheval describes his inspiration as on going, it really came to fruition from simply stumbling upon a stone- literally:
“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. It was a stone of such a strange shape that I put it in my pocket to admire it at my ease. 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”
And for the next 33 years, Cheval spent 93 million hours constructing what once only existed in dreams. As an impoverished mailman, he didn’t have much. He lost his first wife and later his first child from his second marriage. Maybe in an effort to pick up the pieces, he started picking up stones. Each day during his mail rounds, he would search for rocks and carry them home. Soon his pockets could no longer carry his dreams, as he upgraded to a basket, and eventually to the infamous wheelbarrow. He worked at night and initially hid his project from his wife- out of shame or fear of ridicule, but not without determination and drive.
And out of that persistence, and the help of magazines, newspapers, and stories of the world, Cheval created a palais unlike any other.
Though small, the Palais Ideal is overwhelming to the senses- or at least the eyes, as they scan from top to bottom, taking the structure in as a whole, and explore the detailed nooks and crannies. What amazed me was the detail- the sculpting, the patterns, the carved words. As I entered the palais, the first thing my eyes fell upon were the bold stone words, “défense de rien touchér” (basically, it’s prohibited to not touch).
I personally was drawn the simple, but sweet faces and animals hidden throughout the structure. They were like a harbor of friendly focus in the stormy sea of pattern.
Antoine and I circled the structure a few times before entering. Partly to avoid the crowds, but mostly to take it all in. What personally struck me was the feeling of being transported- out of France and into another world where cultures and histories collided in stone. I loved how they fused together with no particular rhyme or reason- a mosque with seashells, the White House hidden beneath a spiky terrace, or stone swirled into something reminiscent of a hindu temple. I was Anna in Cheval’s Wonderland, and it felt good to get lost and explore.
So by all means if you’re ever in the south of France, experience Cheval’s dream for yourself.