Discover Portmeirion: Wales' Little Italy in the heart of Gwynedd. Learn the history of Sir Clough Williams-Ellis its architect, a rural visionary and conservationist.
Journeying into wild and woolly mountainous North Wales, visitors are quick to discover Portmeirion, Wales' Little Italy. It is a strange 'paradise lost' and the only would be Italians in sight are the visitors and guests, local and foreign. They travel to see its superb architecture, peaceful gardens and woodlands, and to learn the history of one man's dream come true.
Portmeirion is the vision of distinguished architect and Wales' first conservationist, Sir Clough Williams-Ellis. Ellis dreamt of combining his love of architecture, Italy and landscape design while protecting the rural splendor of his ancestral home. Then, after a long search, he was given the Aber la Peninsula on the Snowdonia coast, 145 acres of woodlands and farmlands. It is on the edge of this site in a tiny enclave of hills and cliffs, between the Glaslyn and Dwyrad estuaries that he built his village.
Work began in 1925. Soon the village took shape. Ellis used his original designs alongside buildings he rescued from elsewhere. By 1939, only half of the village was finished. It was a slow process, but the dream unfolded as and when funds became available. Then, in 1973 it was complete. However even before this Ellis' tiny Portmeirion was famous. Britain's 1960's t.v. series, 'The Prisoner', had used it as its setting, putting Portmeirion into the hearts and minds of millions.
Portmeirion is a short and scenic drive from Porthmadog along the Dolgellau Road. The vegetation changes. It's almost another country, almost sunny southern Italy. Then Castell Deudraeth appears through the trees, a 19th century castle. Its cold gray stone walls and blue slate roof seem austere up against its bright green surroundings.
Arriving at the entrance, the castle is left behind. Walking through an archway with a Michel Angelo-style painting on the ceiling, the village springs out in a glorious blaze of color. It sits on a steep rocky hill and idles down to a watery edge and miles of sandy beaches. Renaissance Italy blends naturally with 18th century English architecture.
Entering the center of the village, the Campanile, a magnificent bell tower, dominates, sitting atop Battery Rock. Nearby a cottage, the Watch House rests calmly on a high cliff. The Chantry, a small home, sits further along on the highest outcrop.
Portmeirion is magical. Steep stone steps lead to nowhere. Narrow passages and tiny alcoves meander through and around the pastel colored buildings and small shops. Every corner reveals a 'Romeo and Juliet'-style setting and 1950's Hollywood-style Italian facades.
The Gloriette, a half-building, near the central piazza has painted fake windows, but it fits in harmoniously. Its four columns are reminiscent of Ancient Rome. Its balcony is a great vantage point for viewing the nearby Town Hall with its 17th century ceiling.
Walking down stone steps in front of the Gloriette to the gardens and piazza the Pantheon Dome reaches skyward from its hilltop setting. In its shadow a statue of Hercules bears the world on his muscular shoulders.
Wandering passed the shops to the harbor wall a path leads to a tiny tower and beyond to a permanently moored, life-size concrete ship. Ellis' vision of the Welsh wilderness is further accentuated by the Gwyllt (wild) gardens. The miles of footpaths guide visitors and guests alike through its finery - hydrangeas, rhododendrons, azaleas and eucalyptus and date trees.
Portmeirion is too beautiful and full of wonder to see in one day. The best bet is to rent one of the cottages or stay at the on-site Portmeirion Hotel. However, no matter how long the visit, it's unusual architecture, location and mix of rural Wales and Renaissance Italy draws people back again and again.