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.
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?
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.
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.
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.