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Wunderbar Wales

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Castle Square in the walled town of Caernarfon

Glorious as it was, Wales’ underdog victory over Belgium last night in the quarterfinals of the European Championship is not the subject of this post. But if that victory means Wales gets more attention in the international travel press, all the better. After our return visit to the northwest corner of the country last week, I can’t understand why Wales isn’t plastered on the pages of every glossy travel mag. It may not always have the weather, but it has the scenery in spades and charming, unspoilt villages.

We first tiptoed into exploring Wales in early May with an overnight visit to Portmeirion before heading up north to the familiar territory of the English Lake District for the rest of the weekend. Leaving Wales so quickly was a decision we soon regretted. A combination of heaving crowds and a ratty hotelier painted the Lakes in grim relief compared to the busy-but-not-overwhelming Portmeirion, which seemed to be staffed solely by men and women whose warmth made me wish they were family. Turns out I’m a sucker for lilting Welsh-accented English.

That taste of Wales—I wrote about it here—was enough to prompt us to book a return visit in June. We again based ourselves in Portmeirion, but this time we explored the surrounding area, starting with a drive along the northern coast on the A55. The sun was shining and the combination of the green-capped hills and ocean made it feel like the PCH. A surfeit of castles on the route shattered the illusion in the most delightful way possible. (Yes, we have Hearst Castle in California, but along a 20-odd mile stretch of this Welsh coastline I counted no fewer than three such edifices, each with considerably more heritage than William Randolph Hearst’s twentieth-century creation.)

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Porthmadog Station of Ffestiniog & Welsh Highland Railway

In Caernarfon we stopped to use the loo and were lured down to the waterside by the view across the Menai Strait to the island of Anglesey. We kept walking, each block more interesting than the other, until we entered the medieval walls of the town. Here Welsh flag bunting fluttered above narrow, lively lanes—including Hole in the Wall Street—crammed with shops, cafés, and pubs. Lording over the scene was, you guessed it, a massive stone castle. We vowed to return and spend a night.

The ideal way to reach Caernarfon on our next visit is by narrow gauge steam train, specifically the Ffestiniog & Welsh Highland Railway. It leaves from Porthmadog, which is less than a three-mile walk from Portmeirion, most of which is along a bike path with glorious views across Snowdonia. The train wasn’t running on the day we visited, much to the disappointment of my husband who is of a middle age where an obsession with steam trains and train stations is mandatory.

Instead we followed the port, which was developed in the 1800s to export slate, to a small stretch of the Wales Coast Path leading to the harbor of Borth y Gest. Here a row of candy-colored, double-fronted houses line the crescent-shaped coastline. The tide was out and we drank a glass of rosé underneath the striped awning of the Sea View Bistro. There was an ice cream parlour next door, but after a short walk out to the windswept beach we settled on the deck of Moorings, the other village café, for another glass of rosé. I could have done the same thing every day for a week. Next time we visit it will be for a week—I always seem to leave this corner of Wales wanting more. There’s the rest of the Llŷn Peninsula and more walking on that coastal path and always another glass of rosé.

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Low tide at the harbor village of Borth-y-Gest


Portmeirion: The Architecture of Happiness

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Earlier this month we visited Portmeirion, a coastal village in North Wales exclusively for the use and pleasure of holidaymakers. I can’t remember the last time I was so enchanted with a place. A passion project of architect Clough Williams-Ellis that first opened in the 1920s, Portmeirion remains true to the description Lewis Mumford gave it in a 1962 issue of The New Yorker: “…a gay, deliberately irresponsible reaction against the dull sterilities of so much that passes as modern architecture today.” It is also an entirely enjoyable place to spend at least one day and night, as we did, and I suspect a week would pass just as easily.

Employing the landscape to create a liminal state, Portmeirion ingeniously prepares you to experience it on your inbound journey. Located on a peninsula off Cardigan Bay, your arrival requires an hour’s drive through the stark Welsh countryside of Snowdonia National Park—the land for which was secured for public use by Williams-Ellis—which is just enough time for your mind to absorb the natural landscape and unravel itself from the day-to-day grind. You descend into the village via a private road, then on foot under the thresholds of a Gatehouse and a Bridge House. The sum total effect of this mode of arrival reminded me of an explanation I was once given for the tunnel-like entrance to a mosque in Cairo: to prepare the person for a transformation once he or she arrives in the inner sanctuary.

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The inner sanctuary of Portmeirion is a jolly cliff-side Italianate village populated by tasteful tat boutiques, a bookstore (I like to think this is because Williams-Ellis thought no village complete without one), an ice cream shop, and several cafés and restaurants arranged around a central square. There are cottages where guests can stay for the evening as well as a small art deco-style hotel and restaurant at the bottom of the village with a sweeping view over the tidal estuary. Buildings and follies are adorned with idiosyncratic details, many of which Williams-Ellis rescued from distressed, once-grand British homes and buildings. Staff are uniformed, plentiful, and extraordinarily friendly, all seeming to have undergone Disneyland-style hospitality training. The Welsh accent helps; Mumford aptly described it by saying “…in a country that still does homage to its bards and orators, where every countryman still speaks in a soft singsong, as if verse were more natural than prose.” Fittingly, the bookstore is well stocked with volumes by Dylan Thomas and other Welsh poets should you wish to heighten the mood.

The original impetus for our visit was my husband’s interest in the village that had been the set for the 1960s cult-classic television show, The Prisoner. For me, Portmeirion had vague associations with mid-century pottery made by Williams-Ellis’ daughter, the designer Susan Williams-Ellis, which was enough to rouse my interest. We weren’t sure what to expect and only booked a single night on the theory that if it was all kitsch and irony, 24 hours was about how long we could sustain the joke without growing weary. As Christopher Hussey wrote in a 1930 issue of Country Life, “a pastiche conglomeration such as the acroplois at Portmeirion might easily have been an architectural horror. Set down in words, the idea of dumping a bright Italian village on the Welsh coast is scarcely promising.”
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As it turned out, our fears were completely unwarranted. Perhaps helped by the generous appearance of the sun for what locals told us was the first time this spring, Portmeirion was a joy. It was just busy enough to have interesting people watching but not to be overrun. There were several well-situated watering holes to engage in such people watching and one Prisoner-themed shop to entertain my husband. Should you tire of the village, Deudraeth Castle is a five-minute walk that’s just uphill enough to make the garden an excellent vista point from which to enjoy an apertif (they also have a brasserie and hotel). We ate dinner at the hotel restaurant in the village, which was exceptional, and the next morning we walked one of several trails behind the village through a spectacular forest of rhododendron and camellias. The hydrangea weren’t yet in bloom, but I’m told they’re something to see.

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Despite tremendous competition from the various amusements on offer, my greatest discovery of the visit was Clough Williams-Ellis, with whom I’ve developed a minor obsession. I’m compelled by his singular vision and commitment to creating something for no other reason that pure aesthetic pleasure for the public. Unwittingly I’ve been tracing a thread of such pioneers on my recent visits to the UK. Three weeks before going to Portmeirion I visited the former country home of William Morris, the man most associated with the Arts and Crafts movement. His famous quotes include “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful,” and “I do not want art for a few any more than education for a few, or freedom for a few.” Both apply equally well to William-Ellis’ creation of Portmeirion. These days this same thread is being woven by people such as the philosopher and writer Alain de Botton, the creative director of Living Architecture, an organization that commissions exceptional modern architecture for the purpose of holiday rentals. The artist Grayson Perry designed one of their projects, and his House for Essex seems a logical next stop on my informal journey along the British trail of beautiful things. But first I want to go back and spend that week in Portmeirion.