An Italian fresco graces the ceiling of the bubble-gum-pink Gate House. A nearby path leads to a gilded Chinese Buddha in a blue turret. The shopkeepers are speaking . . . Welsh?
Welcome to Portmeirion, the most charming Italian fantasy village in Wales. Of course, it's also the only Italian fantasy village in Wales. Tucked away in the mountainous region of Gwynedd, the compact village lies between a tangled forest and a sandy estuary near the coastal town of Porthmadog. Staying at Portmeirion is prohibitively expensive, and like most utopias, it's not exactly on the way to anything else (it's about a 6 1/2-hour train ride from London). But who said the antidote to a century of ugly architecture had to be affordable or easy to reach? Sir Clough Williams-Ellis's masterpiece of idealism is rightly tucked away in the mountains, safe from the contamination of postmodernity.
A colorful architectural jumble of Romanesque, Baroque, Gothic and other styles--officially dubbed "Italianate"--Portmeirion is best remembered as the setting of the trippy 1967 British television series "The Prisoner." The show told the story of No. 6, a secret agent taken for interrogation to a place known only as "the Village" when his superiors fail to comprehend his sudden and inexplicable resignation from the world of espionage. As No. 6, the cool, enigmatic Patrick McGoohan unsuccessfully strove to escape the dehumanizing effects of the Village, a sinister place where the candy-colored whimsy of the architecture hides dark, unknowable secrets.
In truth, it's just the opposite; at Portmeirion, whimsy is the secret, and it's out in the open for all to enjoy--towering campanile, bright facades, twisting steps, curious statuary, trompe l'oeil windows and all.
From 1925 until 1976, designer Williams-Ellis (who died in 1978 at age 95) created new buildings with salvaged bits and pieces from all over Britain, wandering the grounds in his mustard-yellow stockings and watching his dream--his obsession--take form. He was aware of his own reputation as an eccentric and the perception of his village among fellow architects as (in his own words) "insufferably unscholarly, chaotic, contrived and whimsical."
Strolling through Portmeirion is like wandering through Williams-Ellis's mind: a delightful, colorful and inventive confection freed from the inhibitions of modern design. He sought to "experiment in sympathetic development," meaning that the village was built in conformity with the rugged Welsh landscape in a planned confusion of every premodern architectural style imaginable.
Buildings are painted in delightfully complementary shades of terra cotta, bubble gum pink, a sunny yellow, a pastoral hue known only as "Portmeirion green" and a deep, icy blue that makes you thirsty just looking at it.
Small windows in some buildings make single-story cottages look like much larger structures, and arches and entryways are experiments in faked perspective. The village even has a Pantheon, built (the handy visitors map makes clear) to "cure the village's 'dome deficiency.' "
Even Frank Lloyd Wright seems to have understood Portmeirion. Touring the village in 1956 with his friend Sir Clough, Wright pointed out its delights and told Williams-Ellis's wife: "Why, I do believe you married an architect."
So what does one do here? Scattered tastefully throughout the village are an ice cream parlor, two restaurants and several shops, including one selling the charmingly gaudy "Portmeirion pottery." And there's the requisite "Prisoner" shop, in the cottage occupied by McGoohan's character in the show, where fans browse merchandise related to the cult classic.
And that's about it. Portmeirion offers no rides, no shows, no multimedia attractions. But kids love to climb on the stone boat forever beached outside the hotel, and families tromp along several miles of paths that surround the village and discover some of Portmeirion's charming secrets, including a false lighthouse, an Oriental Pavilion and the Victorian dog cemetery of the recluse who owned this property before Sir Clough acquired it.
Back in the village, visitors admire the rich colors and quirky styles of the buildings, the peculiar statues, the flourishing ferns and hydrangeas or the tide rolling over the beach. If the village has a theme, it's gentle defiance of the idea of a theme park. Portmeirion is simply meant to be looked at, explored, appreciated--and implicitly understood.
Jeff Sypeck is a Washington writer.
GETTING THERE: Portmeirion is about 6 1/2 hours from London by train. British Rail (1-800-677-8585) runs from London's Euston Station to Machynlleth in North Wales, where you change to the Cambrian Coast line to Minffordd. From the Minffordd train station, it's a 15-minute walk to Portmeirion (if you're a Portmeirion Hotel guest, transportation is provided). National Express coaches run from London's Victoria Station to Caernarfon or Porthmadog--about a nine-hour ride.
WHERE TO STAY: Rooms at the Hotel Portmeirion start at around $200 per night, slightly less in winter. Self-catering cottages in the village start at around $700 per week; there is a seven-night minimum stay during the summer and over the Christmas holidays.
The towns surrounding Portmeirion offer more affordable accommodations. For more information, browse the Web sites of Porthmadog (www.porthmadog.com), Caernarfon (www.caernarfon.com) or Beddgelert (www.snowdonia.org). The Plas Gwyn Bed and Breakfast in Beddgelert (011-44-1766-890-215, web.ukonline.co.uk /beddgelert.village /plasgwyn.htm), for example, has rooms at about $25 per person per night.
WHAT ELSE TO DO: North Wales is rich in sights and activities for the traveler. Nearby Snowdonia National Park is a haven for walkers and hikers, and Mount Snowdon and Moel Hebog are popular climbs. The charming Ffestinog Railway in Gwynedd is one of the oldest independent railway companies in the world, several former slate mines in the region are open for tours, and four of the area's castles-- Beaumaris, Harlech, Caernarfon and Conwy--are UNESCO World Heritage sites and should not be missed.
INFORMATION: Portmeirion (telephone 011-44-1766-770-228, fax 011-44-1755-771-331, www.portmeirion.wales.com) is open year-round. Admission is about $7.