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Buffy The Vampire Slayer

John Flinn : Fantasy travel with Princess Bride, Buffy

Monday 29 October 2007, by Webmaster

We apologize if we ruined breakfast for some of you a few Sundays ago when we published our guide to fictional destinations and specifically excluded places from science fiction and fantasy.

What?! No Planet Vulcan?! No Hogwarts?! No Rivendell?! No Tatooine?!

"This list just stinks," wrote one reader, speaking for the militant wing of the Middle Earth Boosters Club and Bake Sale Committee.

Esteemed readers, you missed the point of the exercise. We sought to illuminate fictional places that were based on real-life destinations we could direct you to. As much as we yearn to hang with the Ewoks on the forest moon of Endor, there’s sadly no equivalent here on planet Earth. Trust us: If we discover such a place, you’ll be the first to know.

There are, however, a few fantasy settings that just might qualify for our little game ("Wish We Were There," Sept. 30 Travel; see sfgate.com/travel). And judging by the comments we received, the fantastic place you long to visit most is Florin.

We’re assuming you’re not talking about the smallish Central Valley town near Sacramento. You mean the setting for "The Princess Bride," right?

Not having read William Goldman’s book or seen the 1987 film - sorry! - we had to scuttle off to our vast and ample research library (read: Wikipedia) to corral some background information.

"Florin," as I’m sure some of you have discovered, is actually the name of a pre-euro Dutch coin. (The name of Florin’s neighbor in the story, Guilder, is the Anglicized spelling of another old Dutch coin.) Variants of these names have been used in the coinage of other European countries, and the florin is currently the currency unit of the Caribbean nation of Aruba.

Where would you look for the real-life equivalent of Florin? It’s a generic European medieval fairytale world, so you could go just about anywhere on the Continent with castles and forests. But if your mental picture of the place comes from the movie, by all means head for the places where it was filmed: England and Ireland.

Among the filming sites were Haddon Hall, in Derbyshire, England, which served as Prince Humperdinck’s castle (and shows up regularly in remakes of "Jane Eyre" and "Pride and Prejudice"), and Ireland’s Cliffs of Moher, which stood in for the Cliffs of Insanity.

In a rather bizarre coincidence, a few weeks ago I happened to be at Haddon Hall on the very same day my wife was peering over the Cliffs of Moher - both of us unaware of the Princess Bride connections. I guess the point is that even without the story tie-in, these are breathtaking places well worth visiting.

Several of you campaigned for Shangri-La, that magical mountain hideaway where people - and travel cliches - live forever, even though we specifically excluded it in the story’s introduction as seriously overexposed. But since I’ve done some research on the topic, I’ll mention that while lots of Himalayan places claim to be the inspiration for "Lost Horizon," my money is on Rongbuk, a lonely Buddhist monastery at the foot of Mount Everest in Tibet. (For more, see "On a trip to Shangri-La" in the Feb. 11 Travel Section.)

One reader nominates the Welsh village of Llareggub, from "Under Milk Wood" by Dylan Thomas: "Cobblestone streets, salty air, blind sea captains and gossipy locals - sounds dreamy to me."

Llareggub - it gratifies my inner Beavis and Butt-head to report that the name is "bugger all" spelled backward - was loosely based on two places: Dylan is thought to have modeled the characters on the people of Laugharne, the Welsh village where he had lived on and off since the 1930s. He called it "the strangest town in Wales." The physical layout and landscape of Llareggub are believed to be based on New Quay, a fishing village and seaside resort on Cardigan Bay in Wales where the poet wrote much of the play.

Also in Wales is a very different place from a very different work of fiction: The community that served as the "Village," idyllic but inescapable home for former spies in "The Prisoner," the 1960s cult TV show starring Patrick McGoohan.

The Village "was always portrayed as being isolated in an unknown corner of the world," wrote one reader. "That corner is in fact Portmeirion (also known as ’the Italian Village’) in northwest Wales. Portmeirion is indeed idyllic, fascinating in its own right, and has a history, separate from ’The Prisoner’ that is also compelling. A highly recommended (and indispensable if you’re a ’Prisoner’ fan) destination."

It’s an odd but entrancing place: a Disneyesque re-creation of an Italian resort village (think Portofino) on the damp and chilly coast of Wales, built over a 50-year span starting in 1926. Today it’s a big tourist attraction - you have to pay a fee to get in - and the building that served as McGoohan’s home is now a "Prisoner"-themed gift shop. Fans of the series still gather there occasionally for conventions.

Much closer to home, a couple of readers suggested Sunnydale, Calif., the hometown of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s a make-believe place, but the series creators didn’t leave much doubt about its inspiration. Let’s see: A mid-sized town on a sharp bend in the California coast a couple of hours’ drive north of Los Angeles, with a University of California campus? We’re going to go out on a limb and guess Santa Barbara.

Exterior shots for the series were actually filmed in Torrance and Northridge, but we urge Buffyphiles to make their pilgrimages to the centerpiece of the "American Riviera," as Santa Barbara likes to call itself. (And unlike every other self-styled "Riviera," it actually has a pretty good claim to the title.) Just stay clear of its underground suburb, the Hellmouth.

Finally, one reader questioned our assertion that Arthur Conan Doyle’s "Lost World" was based on a mesa-like mountain in Venezuela, suggesting instead that it was the tablelands of what is now called Noel Kempff National Park in southeastern Bolivia.

This set us scuttling back to our cavernous and well-staffed research library. The results were inconclusive: Outside magazine and the United Nations Environmental Programme Web site say Bolivia. National Geographic, the PBS Web site, Geographical magazine and, for what it’s worth, "The Real Lost World" documentary that appeared last year on Animal Planet all go with Venezuela.

This won’t settle any bar bets, but my guess is that it could have been a little of both.

John Flinn is executive editor of Travel. To comment, go to sfgate.com/travel and follow the links.