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Discover Portmeirion, a slice of Italy in Snowdonia

Discover Portmeirion, a slice of Italy in Snowdonia

On first glance, Portmeirion might appear to be a picturesque town in Italy, but it's actually in Wales! Jade Braham shares a guide to enjoying this lovely destination

Endless views of amphitheatre-like mountains with peaks disappearing into cloud cover, and sweeps of beaches, lakes, and an ocean that changes personality daily is what most have come to expect from north Wales.  

But Portmeirion is nothing like this. In fact, it’s the complete opposite, where Italianate and pastel-hued buildings sporting terracotta roofs blanket hillsides. Pockets of windswept palm trees, spires, and domes (added after the owner thought there was a “dome deficiency”) also add to the Italian aesthetic.  

"Portmeirion feels like you’ve gone down an Italian-style rabbit hole"

Moreover, when you walk down the hill’s winding cobblestone streets, there are porticoes, verandas, a colonnade, a piazza, and a fantastical life-size chess board. This is way bigger than necessary! 

Put simply, Portmeirion feels like you’ve gone down an Italian-style rabbit hole, typical of Alice in Wonderland, featuring a quirkiness not out of place in Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory. Beyond this, the multi-award-winning tourist attraction has no “typical” village features, like a school, and certainly no long-term tenants. And unlike normal villages, cars are not permitted. 

So, if you want to experience little Italy, welcome to Portmeirion!

Portmeirion’s history and its sustainable future

Ornate arcs, intricate entryways, fountains, and statues of Burmese dancers delight onlookers. But the bronze figure of Hercules bearing the world on his shoulders reminds me of Portmeirion’s origin story.  

Much like Hercules, architect Clough Williams-Ellis from Northamptonshire carried an idea of Portmeirion from thought to reality. Once securing a loan of around £5,000 in 1925, he created a village where architecture is in absolute harmony with nature, using Portofino in Northern Italy as his muse.

Hercules statue in Portmeirion - a guide to Portmeirion, Wales

Hercules statue in Portmeirion © Hawlfraint y Goron / Crown copyright (2023) Cymru Wales

A primary goal of Clough’s was to create a “home for fallen buildings”, salvaging structures, materials and design features from decay and demolition. The result is remarkable and a testament to Clough’s desire to build a site without spoiling the view.  

No wonder Portmeirion is known as a green-thinking tourist attraction, starting with Clough’s diligent efforts to campaign for the protection of the environment, to Portmeirion’s energy and heating coming from a biomass system. 

Walk around the “happy” architecture

Much has already been said about Portmeirion’s architecture. I title it “happy” because its vibrant colourings are uplifting and unfailingly evoke images of the Mediterranean and its slow-paced, romantic lifestyle. There are a few highlights not to be missed, especially by photographers and day visitors (who do have to pay to enter). 

Portmeirion Colonnade - a guide to Portmeirion, Wales

Portmeirion Colonnade © Hawlfraint y Goron / Crown copyright (2023) Cymru Wales

First up is Amis Reunis, meaning “Friends Reunited”, an old trading ketch and houseboat overlooking the quayside and Dwyryd Estuary. And Hercules Hall is one for historians. Today it’s a function room with a white barrel-vaulted interior, with mullioned windows and a plaster ceiling depicting the labours of Hercules. Lastly, Battery Square has a cafe with outdoor tables and turquoise chairs on a cobblestone flooring.  

The Prisoner TV film set 

In the 1960s, a TV show called The Prisoner was filmed at Portmeirion, starring Patrick McGoohan who played a British intelligence agent, referred to as Number Six. He was kidnapped and later imprisoned in a coastal village. As you might have guessed, the wacky exterior of Portmeirion acted as the village, and in Battery Square, there is The Round House, which is the house where Number Six lived.

"There is a Prisoner TV show shop, which is the only one of its kind in the world"

There is a Prisoner TV show shop, which is the only one of its kind in the world, selling a variety of memorabilia like maps, the "Rover balloon" and badges. 

Explore the grounds  

It’s not just the architecture that makes Portmeirion so unusual. Within its grounds, a 70-acre subtropical forest called The Gwyllt, Welsh for wildwood, features 19 miles of walking paths. The Gwyllt boasts a dilapidated castle, some of Britain’s tallest trees, as well as unusual species, including monkey puzzle trees, enormous redwoods, camellias and around 70 varieties of rhododendrons (planted by tenants pre-dating Clough Williams-Ellis).  

The gardens in Portmeirion - a guide to Portmeirion, Wales

The Gardens in Portmeirion © Hawlfraint y Goron / Crown copyright (2023) Cymru Wales

But what’s more impressive is the Japanese Garden with a lake bursting with lilies and a nearby pagoda, the Ghost Garden, and the Dog Cemetery. The latter was created by Mrs Adelaide Haig, a woman who preferred dogs to humans! 

Dine and stay at Portmeirion

With an Italian backdrop comes gelato and lots of it. Caffi’r Angel is a retro-style cafe serving gelato made on-site, and its flavours, like bara brith, add a wonderful Welsh twist to an Italian classic! And that’s not all, there are several more cafes, and a 1950s-style diner in The Town Hall, serving classics like sandwiches, baguettes, and cakes. 

"Thirteen self-catering cottages are open to guests who want Portmeirion all to themselves"

The Dining Room is an award-winning, two AA Rosettes Art Deco restaurant with a reputation for an “innovative flare”. It serves ingredients foraged at Portmeirion combined with the Head Chef’s taste for Welsh cuisine paired with Japanese flavours and French techniques.  

Portmeirion Hotel, a 4-star property offering 14 luxurious rooms, overlooks the Dwyryd Estuary, while 13 self-catering cottages within the village are open to guests who want Portmeirion all to themselves.  

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