Traveler: The Welsh Way

Eight decades after it was built, Portmeirion still delights and enlightens.

Near the top left-hand corner of Wales, where the Llyn Peninsula protrudes into the Irish Sea, a curious sort of village stands all alone above a river estuary. In a region of somber mountains, gray stone buildings, often relentless seas and lowering skies, it looks decidedly exotic—domed, pinnacled, tumbling down toward the water in a jumble of pinks, yellows, and ochers, with a campanile like something out of Italy and splashes of bright green garden.

Is it real, you may ask if you first glimpse it from the coast road out of the south. Is it true or fake? Is it old or new? Is it a folly or a commercial development, an aesthetic absurdity or an object lesson? In fact, the village, called Portmeirion, is every one of these things. It is a hotel village, built to make profits, founded from scratch in 1925 but containing many older buildings. It is thought by some to be a rather ridiculous kind of pastiche, by others to be a vastly entertaining folly, by others again to be a genuine architectural delight.

But its underlying purpose is dogged. It was conceived by a Welsh architect and landowner, Clough Williams-Ellis (later Sir Clough), to demonstrate that tourist development need not debase a landscape but could actually enhance even so majestic a scene as the Atlantic coast of Wales, where the legendary mountains of Eryri (Snowdonia to the English) march down to the sea. If there is a slight element of tongue-in-cheek to Portmeirion, if it sometimes goes over the top, if it cocks a snook even at those stormy seas, those slate-gray skies, those towering mountains beyond, then it is because, for all its profound intentions, it was undeniably built partly for fun.

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