The full Cheval Palace

Cheval Palace: A Full Guide To This Magical Monument

What To Expect On A Visit To The Cheval Palace

On a recent river cruise down the Rhône from Lyon to Avignon, we had an opportunity to take an excursion to a monument called the Cheval Palace in the charming little town of Hauterives. 

Hauterives

Highlights of the Cheval Palace

Having never heard of the Cheval Palace (or Hauterives for that matter) we decided to do some research to determine if it would be worth spending half a day just to look at a monument.  We were amazed by what we found out.

First of all, the Cheval Palace is not just any monument.  It is one man’s lifelong dream and endless toil to build a special place for his loving daughter.  The Cheval Palace, more commonly known as the Ideal Palace, is a journey of 33 years through the amazing imagination and mind of a simple postman turned sculptor.

Carvings on the Cheval Palace

Who Built The Cheval Palace?

You can’t talk about the Cheval Palace without talking about the person who built it.  There is just no way to separate the man from his work in this instance.

The Cheval Palace was built by Ferdinand Cheval, a postman who lived in the town of Hauterives.  Cheval was born in the village of Charmes (not far from Hauterives) in April of 1836.  His parents were poor farmers and he ended up leaving school at 13 to work as an apprentice in a bakery. 

Cheval's family

At 31 years old he took on the job of postman in Hauterives and would walk up to 40 kilometers (25 miles) each day delivering mail to the local residents. 

Statue of Ferdinand Cheval

Ferdinand Cheval was married twice.  He was initially married to Rosalie Revol with whom he had 2 sons.  Tragically, their first son died at 1 year of age and Rosalie passed away at the early age of 32.  His second marriage a few years later was to Claire-Philomène Richard with whom he had one daughter – Alice.  

Ferdinand was 42 when Alice was born.  Alice was his only daughter, and she held a very special place in his heart.  And it was for her that he built his “Ideal Palace”.

Why Was The Cheval Palace Built?

Shortly after Alice was born, Ferdinand, on his daily postal route through the rural area around Hauterives, stumbled on a rock and fell.  Apparently stunned by the fall, he inspected the rock that he had tripped over and became fascinated by its unusual shape.  It is said that the strange shape of the rock re-ignited a dream that he had once had about building a palace.

front view of the Cheval Palace

So, he did what any of us would do – he decided to bring the rock home with him to use as part of a palace that he would build for his little girl.  Each day after that, on his way home from work he would seek out unusual pebbles or rocks and put them in his pocket to take home.

Eventually, he would make little piles of the unique stones he found and return for them later with his wheelbarrow.  And each night he would mix together some mortar to bind the rocks together.  And he did this every day for 33 years!

The Cheval Palace

It’s important to remember that Ferdinand was an uneducated postal worker.  He hadn’t been schooled in masonry, or in architectural design or in fine arts for that matter.  His daily life consisted of delivering mail to the people of his village. 

But he had a vivid imagination and he loved to look at the illustrated magazines and postcards that he delivered every day.  He was also fascinated by nature which is why he loved to walk his route in the rural area around Hauterives.   And it was these 3 things that inspired him to build his Ideal Palace.

Ferdinand didn’t have a final design in mind when he started to build his palace.  Instead, he built it in sections based on the stones he had collected and his boundless imagination.  And as he built it, Alice would play in the sections that were finished. 

Nooks of the Cheval Palace

The palace only served to strengthen the bond between father and daughter.  And even though Alice died at just 15, Ferdinand continued working on the palace for nearly 20 more years!

“1879 – 1912, 10,000 days, 93,000 hours, 33 years of trials: let anyone more stubborn than me set to work”

Ferdinand Cheval issued a challenge to the world after finishing his work in 1912

What Is The Cheval Palace?

When we first saw the Cheval Palace we were stunned by its intricate detail.  Even though it has the appearance of a fantasyland castle, you can’t actually live in it, although you can walk through parts of it, or climb onto its upper level.

It is a marvellous sculpture that is 26 metres (85 feet) long, 14 metres (46 feet) wide and averages 10 metres (33 feet) high that was built in Ferdinand Cheval’s vegetable garden behind his house.  The Cheval Palace has 4 facades, a terrace, and a gallery, each representing different themes and telling stories from around the world.

East Facade

Cheval built his palace starting with the East Façade. This baroque style façade which took him nearly 20 years to build has a wide mix of themes.  At one end is a Hindu temple with a niche for his wheelbarrow, followed by 3 giants and above them the Tower of Barbarism. 

East Facade
East facade three giants
A niche for his wheelbarrow

In the middle of the East Façade, he built the two fountains (the Source of Life).  To the right of the fountains are Amadeus’ Cave, Socrates, the Egyptian Temple, and a tomb where he planned to be buried.  Unfortunately, he couldn’t get a permit for the tomb because of French health laws.

South Facade

After completing the East Façade, Cheval began work on the South Façade.  This façade consists of a pre-biblical museum which he used to store his favourite stones.  He also built a mineral tree with various strange birds and animals.

The south facade

West Facade

The West Façade is Cheval’s universalist vision. This façade represents the different religion’s of the world cohabitating.  This façade includes an Arab Mosque, Hindu Temple, Swiss Chalet, Square House of Algiers, and a Medieval Castle.  It also provides access to the Primitive Sculpture Gallery.

West Facade of the Cheval Palace

North Facade

Cheval finished his monument with the North Façade and this represents his most significant work.  This façade is teeming with life, imagery, and allegory.  On this façade can be found snakes, a deer, an alligator, a pelican, a frog, a Phoenix and the Minataur – all living under the watchful eyes of Adam and Eve.  This façade represents heaven, hell, life, and death.

North facade of the Cheval Palace

Terrace

The Terrace is accessed from the West Façade and provides a great view of the top of the monument with its pilgrims, birds, and turrets. 

Turrets on the terrace

It is also on the Terrace that you will find “the stumbling block”.  The very stone that Cheval tripped over which was the beginning of this fantastic adventure into sculpture.

The original stone that Cheval tripped on

Gallery

One other area that you need to have a look through is the Primitive Sculpture Gallery which is decorated with a frieze of shells, chandeliers, and other dreamlike sculptures. 

Inside the gallery of the Cheval Palace

There are inscriptions, quotes and poems engraved on the walls by Cheval, including a poem that was sent to him in 1904 by a Grenoble poet titled “Ton Idéal, ton Palais” (Your Ideal, your Palace).  It is from this poem that the Ideal Palace gets its name.

Gallery

The Cheval Palace, with its four facades, terrace and gallery took Ferdinand Cheval 33 years to build.  He started it in 1879 and finished it in 1912 at the ripe old age of 76.  And he did it all by hand and completely by himself.  Quite an accomplishment!

Touring The Cheval Palace

The entire property where Cheval lived with his wife and daughter is available to see with your purchased ticket. On the property is their original home and also a building that was constructed as a Museum.

Cheval's original home

In the Museum you can see a biography of his life including pictures of him and his family. Also in this area you can also see the original drawings, some of his tools and materials that were used along with rare photos of Cheval at work.

The Museum displays

Many artists over the years have been inspired by Cheval and in a dedicated room of the Museum are tributes that have been created to honour Cheval and his work. Here you can see pieces from famous artists such as Max Ernst, Andre Breton and Pablo Picasso.

The artists tributes to Ferdinand Cheval

Your entrance ticket includes an audio guide that gives an excellent description of the different facades. We found the commentary to be a great insight into the work overall and helped to highlight some of the fascinating areas of the monument.

Insider Tip

Be sure to also climb to the top of the Belvedere – a stone structure across from the east facade for a great view point of the entire monument.

The monument is open year round except on Christmas, New Years Day and for a two week period in the second half of January. Be sure to check the website for details of special exhibitions and a concert series that is held onsite during the summer months.

Where Is Ferdinand Cheval Buried?

Even though Ferdinand Cheval had built a tomb in his Ideal Palace where he had intended to be buried, he wasn’t able to get a permit because of French health laws.  So, where is he buried then?

Ferdinand Cheval's tomb

Well, 2 years after he finished his Ideal Palace, he decided to build a tomb for himself and his family in the local Hauterives cemetery.  And in true Ferdinand style, it is not just an ordinary tomb.

The front of the Cheval burial tomb

He spent the next 8 years of his life, from 1914 to 1922 building a magnificent mausoleum in the local cemetery.  And just over a year later, on August 19, 1924 the remarkable Ferdinand Cheval passed away at the age of 88!

Is The Cheval Palace Worth Visiting?

Absolutely!  This is a remarkable monument that is rich on so many levels.  Not only is it a great work of art, but it represents the toil and tenacity of one human being to fulfill a lifelong dream and never give up. 

Whether you are an art lover, a historian or you want to bring your kids to play in a fantasyland castle, then it is definitely worth visiting.

The Final Word On The Cheval Palace

As we mentioned, when we booked our Rhône River cruise, we knew nothing about the Cheval Palace.  It was only after we found out it was one of our excursions from the medieval town of Viviers, that we researched it to see if we wanted to spend a day looking at a monument.

Well, we were so fascinated by what we learned that we not only booked the excursion, but we watched a film about the story of Ferdinand Cheval and his Ideal Palace.  The movie is called “The Ideal Palace” (2018) and while may stretch the truth a little at times, it is a good story that covers the life of Cheval and the building of his palace. 

Without a doubt, this is one of the most remarkable and fascinating monuments that we have ever seen.  And it’s one of those works of art that can’t be described in words.  You really must see it to experience just how much of an impact it has.

But don’t just take our word for it.  The Ideal Palace was visited by many of the impressionist and surreal artists of the 19th and 20th centuries.  He inspired the works of many of the world’s great artists including Picasso.  And in 1969, the Cheval Palace was designated a historical monument by the French Minister of Culture.

In 2020, the Cheval Palace was voted the 2nd most favourite monument to visit by the people of France.  It definitely needs to be on your bucket list!

Our photo in front of the Cheval Palace