Le Facteur Cheval (1836–1924), who collected stones during his 32-kilometre daily postal round and spent thirty-two years building a unique, fantastic palace which I rate as one of the few really must-see places in the world. OK, I've not visited Ayers Rock in Australia or the pyramids of Egypt, etc, but then I've never had the faintest interest in visiting either country. In fact I've been to Paris far more times than I can hazard to guess and never had the least desire to ascend the Tour Eiffel or the Arc de Triomphe, but then regular tourism just isn't me.
One of the streets leading to the palace is dedicated to André Malraux, the Ministre de la Culture who classified the monument as of important significance. His detractors had argued that the Palais Idéal is the hideous work of an insane yokel, but mercifully Malraux had the intelligence and the knowledge to say that it would be infantile not to list the Palais: France had the privilege of possessing such a unique example of outsider art. It makes me depressed to think that France's recent former Ministre de Culture Fleur Pellerin (who, to my joy, was sacked) had a wonderful lunch with Patrick Modiano, the winner of the Nobel prize for Literature, and couldn't name a single novel of his, hadn't read any of his work: is that willful ignorance, or what? I think Modiano is far from being the best living French writer to receive such a prize, but all the same...
The bizarre pierre d'achoppement, or stumbling block, which Cheval encountered on his round one day and which reminded him of a dream he'd had of a palace and which he set about creating from that moment. This object has pride of place in his Terrasse, which is up the steps inside the Palais.
The Belvedere was created to view the east elevation of the Palais.
On the Belvedere is one of the many inscriptions that Cheval included in his masterpiece, this one commenting on the passing of time.
THE EAST ELEVATION
And from the top of the Belvedere, a terrific view of the east side of the Palais.
The three giants: César, Vercingétorix, and Archimède.
A close-up shot shows an otter and a leopard between the giants.
La Source de vie, in the middle of the façade, is the point at which Cheval began building.
The superb Temple de la Nature, providing access to the Terrasse at the side.
A little niche inside a tiny passageway accessible via the east side shows where Cheval tucked his trusty wheelbarrow which gathered all the stones.
'Nul n'échappe a sa destinée pas plus que son corps appartient a la terre et l'âme a l'éternitée' [sic]. There are indications that some missing accents have been added, and l'éternité given a redundant 'e', but I've just transcribed it as it reads. Translation: 'No one escapes his destiny any more that his body escapes the earth and his soul eternity.'
Cheval's original intention was for he and his wife to be buried in the Palais, hence the two sarcophagi: local authorities smelt a health hazard though.
THE SOUTH ELEVATION
And a detail from it.
'Ce que Dieu écrivit sur ton front arivera' [sic]. Another rare example of Cheval misspelling. Lit: 'What God has written on your forehead will happen', presumably meaning that your future's mapped out for you in the eternal plan.
THE WEST ELEVATION
The mosque, with another entrance into the Palais itself.
Château au Moyen-Âge.
Maison Carrée d'Alger.
Cheval inscribed his date of birth here: 12 April 1836.
THE NORTH ELEVATION
There are a number of interpretations attached to the upper part of this side, with its Adam and Eve, its sinuous snake-like shapes, and its many phallic symbols.
There are also several animals in the lower part, such as this doe.
With justification, the pride burns: 'Travail d'un seul homme': 'Work of one man'.
A number of Cheval's inscriptions are in the Galerie.
In this one he speaks of all the hard work he has done, even at the risk of his life. He tells of working through the night while others slept.
'En créant ce rocher j'ai voulu prouver ce que peut la volonté: 'By creating this rock I wanted to prove what will is capable of.'
But this is surely by far the most interesting piece of literature. In 1904, after visiting the Palais, Émile Roux Parassac, the poet from Grenoble, wrote a poem in great praise of Cheval's selfless task. Cheval had intended to call the Palais 'Le Temple de la nature', but on reading this he changed it to its present name. He incorporated the poem into the Palais itself, forbidding anyone to write on it.
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.
Le barde alpin. E. Roux
Villa Alicius a few paces from the Palais, and which Cheval also built.
At the side of the villa is a museum dedicated to the Palais Idéal, which of course gives information on its history and the history of the remarkable man responsible for it. This is a small replica in the musée, the photo showing the west side.
Perhaps it's needless to say that Ferdinand Cheval built the Cheval family grave in Hautesrives's cemetery about a mile from his Palais, the style of which is is in keeping with his Palais. I've visited many cemeteries, and the grave(s) I've been looking for have frequently come into view a few seconds before I entered, but this is the only grave that I was looking for which I actually noticed before the cemetery itself!
Hauterives is Le Facteur cheval and Le Palais Idéal. What few shops there are tend to milk interest in the place to the full, with all kinds of related tourist tat. However, the local hypermarket sells a very useful item: a shopping bag used for the local clientele which is not actually a tourist souvenir. And a snip at 1 euro 50 centimes.