Bizarre? Beautiful? Surreal? How to describe the village of Portmeirion, tucked away on the coast in Gwynedd? It is perhaps the most un-Welsh place in all of North Wales and yet also one of the region’s most recognisable hallmarks. But then Portmeirion is a smattering of contradictions.
It’s not a proper town but rather one man’s fanciful re-imagining of the Italian village of Portofino. (And there’s an entrance fee to take it all in.) Constructed over nearly 50 years under Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, Portmeirion is now a resort and tourist destination, popular among photographers, Instagrammers, and fans of the 1960s television series, The Prisoner.
Portmeirion’s location is ancient; it sits along the tidal bed of the River Dwyryd. Walks on the high banks afford a glimpse of the tide washing in and out, fresh sea on the air. The village offers fantastic views of the landscape of North Wales, but most people who visit this holiday resort are here for one thing: the colourful architecture.
The village was Williams-Ellis’s ode to the Italian Riviera, and he imbued that fun sense of playfulness and whimsy into every building in Portmeirion. These include the main hotel as well as several cottages (with fetching names like “The Mermaid”), shops and boutiques, a spa, and a cafe. (Fun fact: In 2001, Welsh opera singer Bryn Terfel opened the hotel and restaurant in the main building, Castell Deudraeth.)
Portmeirion was meant to demonstrate a symbiotic relationship between the natural and the man-made, with each playing off elements of the other to enhance the beauty of both. Not everyone will agree that Williams-Ellis achieved this vision, but the buildings certainly are unique among the Welsh landscape.
The scenery of Portmeirion, if not the town name itself, will be familiar to fans of The Prisoner, starring Patrick McGoohan in the mid 1960s. Many of the exterior shots for this surreal drama were completed in Portmeirion; you can even visit the “home” of the prisoners, today an appropriately-themed gift shop dedicated to the show.
Nowadays there’s less dystopianism but still plenty of surrealism. Visitors to North Wales, possibly having hiked through Snowdonia National Park in all its rugged wonder, are sometimes startled by the dreamlike fantasy of Portmeirion. It feels like an architect’s playground, complete with all the extravagant details you would expect in an idealised Italian village.
At any rate, Portmeirion is screaming to be photographed and explored, from its fanciful gates to its historic seaside hotel to the walking trails through the woods and rhododendron groves. And if you need some R&R by the sea, this Italianate village just might be the place to find it.
More photos coming soon in a “Postcards from…” post!
Would you visit Portmeirion? Have you seen The Prisoner? I’d love to hear from you!