04 May 2013

A Riot Of Color On The Welsh Shore

Traeth Mawr means "Big Sands" in Welsh; it's the name given to the wide estuary between Portmadog and a blank hillside of trees and rock.  Or, a mostly blank hillside.
Portmeirion is a fabricated, storybook "village" that is unlike anything else we've seen.  It is literally a patch of Italian baroque set down in Wales, like a spill of paint on a concrete slab.  Nobody knew how to explain it to us, and I'm not sure I can explain it here.  Imagine two postcards set side by side; the first is of wintry Britain, the second is of summery Portofino.  Portmeirion is like two distant vacations, remembered in a dream, thrown together and piled atop itself on the rocks.  Some people actually live here.  The rest of us pay an entrance fee and walk around, bemused and surprised.
The emblem of Portmeirion is a naked woman, calf-deep in waves, a hint of mermaid tail rising behind her.  When we walked those rocky shores, it was hard to imagine swimming or sunbathing.  The beaches of North Wales are empty expanses of sand and rock; the sounds of gulls and waves only made the loneliness more vast.  November there is a time of frosted fields and rattling, leaf-bare forests.  The fish and chip shops are closed for the season, the ice-cream stands boarded up.  This isn't a season when the rough coast - barnacled rock, concrete wharf, frozen sand - could seem hospitable to bare flesh.
But the pale citizens of this grassy land do emerge in the summers to venture into cold waves and lie in tepid sunshine.  North Wales, like the whole of North Europe, is home to hardy people who tire of winter. People are always drawn to the sea, aren't they?
A man named Sir Clough Williams-Ellis built this place in the half century between 1925 and 1975, using Italian seaside villages as a model, and bits of other buildings as his material.  Many of the architectural pieces already existed, and were moved and reassembled at Portmeirion.  Ornate clock towers jostle against wrought-iron porticos. Hard angles take surprising turns, statues peer from unexpected windows. The whole thing has a postmodern, collage-like air of disorder and order.  It feels a little like a town made from children's toys, where disparate parts are thrown together in a pile and expected to play out a fantasy.
Though some of the buildings are semi-inhabited (there are "private" signs everywhere, so that we tramping tourists don't stumble into an actual Welsh living room), the majority of the structures really serve their own purpose.  William-Ellis was building a piece of art, not planned-housing in the mold of Le Corbusier.  Room is needed for a cafeteria, of course, and for souvenir shops and ice cream, a hotel and restaurant.  Tens of thousands of people visit Portmeirion every year.  It might as well be a called a museum.
The small touches are some of the most poignant.  Little copper fixtures, wooden statues of sea-captains, painted rocks, a sermonizing Jesus on a balcony.  The town isn't actually town-sized, but the few acres of buildings are so intricate that they feel like a much bigger place.
While William-Ellis used Italy as a rough template, the buildings and architectural features are from every corner of the globe. A colonnade from Bristol, England, is set against statues from Myanmar and Greek gods.  It's meant to be surprising and confusing, and some of it isn't even real - one whole facade is done completely in trompe-l'œil.  If there is one commonality, it's the influence of the sea on all these surfaces.  Everything is salt-touched and vaguely nautical.
I remember wondering, in the November darkness of two years ago, how the cold Lithuanian coast could ever attract hollidaymakers and sun seekers.  Cold light, beach-walkers in parkas, the threat of overnight snow.  We turn towards the sea for half the year, and away from it the rest of the time.
Something that remains is the smell of the ocean, especially in the still waters of the Big Sands.  That odor of kelp, salt and something indescribable emanating from the deep - it's the same all year.
Portmeirion was originally called "Aber Iâ," which Williams-Ellis took to mean "frozen mouth."  He changed the name to make it seem more pleasant, but he couldn't erase the actual image of a cold estuary.  As colorful and tropical as the village is, it will always look out over a big slick of Welsh, northern sand.  It's beautiful, but it could never be confused with Le Marche.
Near the estuary, on a rocky hillock, the Portmeirion "lighthouse" stands duty over nothingness.  The tiny, metal figure in the scrub is something like a playhouse feature - we ducked inside and peered out through the empty porthole. It's only about ten or twelve feet tall, and doesn't have a light (as far as we could tell).  The design suggests moorish rocketship more than naval signal.  The view from inside is empty except for glistening sand, reeds, wheeling birds.  Maybe it's the sea that projects to this lighthouse, not the other way around.
If I haven't really explained this place, forgive me.  Portmeirion isn't so much a defined space as it is a funny concept.  It isn't the right season, or the right texture, or the right temperature, color or height - not just for Wales, but for anywhere. In a children's book, the zaniness might make better sense.  In a architectural textbook, the ideas might be better ordered.  On a rock beside the water, it's just a pile of buildings.  Which is to say, it's fun.  It made us laugh, which is something a town usually doesn't.  It made us want to open every door we could find.

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