Portmeirion is part rural seaside resort, part working village (yes, people actually live here…and visitors stay here too!), but most of all it’s a whimsical, neo-classical folly, the surreal, decades-long pet project of the architect Clough Williams-Ellis.
Given that Northwest Wales is rugged in its beauty, I for one still find it bizarre that it actually exists here. Imagine if Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory was deposited right in to the middle of the lushest, greenest, hilly landscape you can imagine and you’ll get the general idea. So just what is this rainbow-hued, Italianate village actually doing in Wales, anyway?
It’s all down to Williams-Ellis’ bold and bonkers vision. He believed that an aesthetically-pleasing village could be built that would both lure in paying customers and at the same time blend in with, rather than spoiling, the surrounding countryside.
As I said earlier, the natural beauty of the surrounding geographical area is outstanding. Can the same be said of Portemeirion itself? Well, it’s a matter of personal taste, but somehow those watercolour-painting horizons are indeed framed very well by the collection of colourful buildings in the foreground, at least to my mind. They do indeed complement rather than detract from the overall North Wales coastline experience.
The village of Portmeirion is also, of course, where cult TV series The Prisoner was filmed. If you’re a big fan, like me, then ambling through the streets of Portmeirion is akin to immersing yourself into a living, breathing film set (albeit a weird one). It probably won’t surprise you to hear that there’s a Prisoner shop in the village. I just had to buy the ‘A still tongue makes a happy life’ t-shirt; what can I say, I’m a sucker for TV nostalgia.
The Prisoner was all about the struggles of a secret agent, known only as No.6, trapped in a strange and isolated place called ‘The Village’ with no obvious means of escape. As No.6 encountered many weird goings on – from giant sea-straddling bubbles that are sent to catch those who try to run away to brightly-coloured human chess matches – postmodern Portmeirion could hardly have been a more apt setting.
Fan of this TV series or not, Portmeirion is undoubtedly something of an oddball treat. The blending of religious and mythological symbolism – statues are in just about every direction you care to look – and the madman-let-loose-with-a-paintbox colours splashed along the walls, combine to form a compellingly bonkers mix. It does help that the village has the gorgeous Gwynedd coastline as its backdrop, of course, and the manicured lawns and flower arrangements give things a pastoral vibe.
This being a tourist-friendly place, there are plenty of outlets on top of the Prisoner store – a pottery shop, tea rooms, art studio – to help you part with your money. It’s worth emphasising that Portmeirion is a village in the truest sense of the word: with people living there, not every nook and cranny is accessible, which is undoubtedly more than a little disappointing.
In spite of this, Portmeirion is still a wonderfully weird slice of neo-classical village life on the North Wales coastline, and very much worth a visit. Whilst it’s an exaggeration to say it’s like visiting another country within a country, it’s definitely true to say that it walking its streets is an experience quite unlike any other.