The Ideal Palace

Dave and I arrived in Paris at 8:45 France time, 12:45 a.m. Edmonton time, on Monday, May 26. We boarded the TGV (the super-fast train) to Lyon, where our friend (and Dave’s colleague) Augustin Scalbert met us at the Lyon Part Dieu train station and brought us to the apartment where he and his family live on the Quai Claude Bernard, on the Rhone River.

Augustin’s wife, Pamela, had a lovely lunch waiting for us. Dave managed to sit up through the entire meal but by dessert my head was falling onto the table, and I gratefully accepted Pamela’s invitation for a nap.

After my power nap, Augustin, Dave and I climbed into the Scalbert’s car and drove 80 km south to Hauterives, to visit what Augustin described as “a palace.” Remembering the last impressive chateau Augustin showed us – the Cormatin Castle in Burgundy – I was quite excited.

Then Augustin made it clear that this was not a castle, but rather a palace built by a postman.

A palace? Built by a postman? It did not sound promising, Would it look like one of those sprawling edifices taking over south Edmonton? Or one of the monster show-off homes we saw when our friends Bridget and Townsend did  drive-by for us in the Hamptons last summer?

When we arrived at our destination, we followed Augustin into a welcome centre, where he paid our admission, and then we followed him through the centre and out a back door, where we were greeted by this sight:

Our first view of Le Palais Ideal

Our first view of Le Palais Ideal

“My goodness,” I thought to myself, “this is quite the garden decoration. It makes my plastic bird bath look like, well, a plastic birdbath.”

I also wondered what the palace looked like, if this was the sort of thing the postman plonked down in the middle of his back yard. I wandered around the structure. It was massive, and the detail was astonishing.

small person and giants at palace

goot goat


Here are a few ways to describe it:

1. A sandcastle built by a giant who was tripping on LSD

2. A child’s arts-and-crafts project on steroids

3. A temple at Angkor Wat, as seen by someone with very bad eyesight who left her corrective lenses at the youth hostel

I wandered around the structure, not really stopping to look closely at things because I did not want to spend all my time looking at garden art when there was a palace to see. So you can imagine (or perhaps you cannot imagine) my confusion when I saw that Augustin and Dave were strolling around the grounds as if they had all the time in the world.

Did they not want to see the palace? Did they not realize there was a palace to see? Did they not wonder what the palace would look like, given that the postman had such a creative pile of stone in his backyard?

If, indeed, this was his backyard. Where, I wondered, was this mythical palace? I did not see a palace anywhere. I did not even see a house. I went and asked Augustin where the palace was. He pointed to the oversized garden decoration.

“This is it,” he said.

East face of the palace

East face of the palace

The Three Giants (Caesar, Vercingetorix* and Archimedes) and the Barbary Tower

The Three Giants (Caesar, Vercingetorix* and Archimedes) and the Barbary Tower

Here I should point out that Augustin is a scientist, not a professional tour guide, although he has now taken us to two of the most astounding edifices in his particular region of France.

Le Palais Ideal was built by Ferdinand Cheval, a postman in Hauterives in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Cheval’s  job required that he walk 32 km a day.

“What can we do while perpetually walking in the same surroundings, except think?” he reasoned. “To distract myself, I built a fairy palace in my dreams.”

Beginning in 18979, Cheval began building his fairy palace in reality. It took him 43 years. It is a testament to imagination, determination, and the power of long walks. It has inspired me tremendously.

I am grateful to Augustin for introducing me to the palace and to Ferdinand Cheval. When I return to Edmonton, I will resume my long walks with Chip with a new mission:  to build my version of a fairy palace in my dreams (i.e., another book) (one that will not, I hope, take 43 years).

Some background about the palace

Some background about the palace

*According to Wikipedia,** Vercingetorix was a chieftain of the Arverni tribe; he united the Gauls in a revolt against Roman forces during the last phase of Julius Caesar‘s Gallic Wars.

**Apologies to my librarian friends but it is late and I am too tired to do more extensive research.

Stay tuned for my next installment: In which I buy contemplate buying a dress for my niece’s wedding, and explore the motivation behind vegetarianism (but not at the same time).

Will she or won't she?

Will she or won’t she?

Why people become vegetarians

Why people become vegetarians



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