The nights were tough for the resident painters and writers during the early days of the Heyri Art Village, a collection of futuristic homes, expensive cafes and upmarket galleries built within mortar range of the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) between South and North Korea. No man's land, the newly arrived artists quickly realised, never slept. 'The propaganda announcements from the armies of the North and South kept me awake,' says Kim Eoun-ho, a founding member of the village who arrived in the 1990s. A former newspaper journalist - he was fired in the 1970s after his work upset the government - Kim runs a gallery, bookstore, cafe and Italian restaurant that are all located in the Hangil Book House, one of many culture venues in the village, an hour north of Seoul in the lush valleys of Gyeonggi province. A few years ago the DMZ's loudspeakers fell silent and the artists could rest easier, although the village's proximity to North Korea was intentional from the outset. 'We wanted to try to reduce tension between the two Koreas through art and culture,' says Kim. The cross-border propaganda machine may be less noisy now but the trappings of the cold war are still apparent on the drive up from Seoul. Glinting razor wire tops the tall security fences lining the Jayu Expressway and conscripts sit slumped in military posts overlooking the Imjin River, a scene of carnage during the Korean War, a conflict that's technically ongoing. But once inside the Heyri compound the landscape gives way to an architect's fantasy world. It's as if a professor of design ordered his graduate students to devise the buildings of their dreams. All the structures within this purpose-built artists' colony, which was partly inspired by Hay-on-Wye, a town in Britain that is famed for its bookshops and literary events, have to conform to strict regulations. Building materials must be environmentally friendly and building owners have to devote at least 60 per cent of their property to cultural activities such as workshops, bookstores, performance space and exhibitions with an accent on the outlandish and extraordinary. About 370 photographers, filmmakers (including Park Chan-wook and Kim Ki-duk), sculptors, architects, potters and designers live in Heyri, which might lack Hay-on-Wye's charm but makes up for it through the visual impact of its structures and location. South Korea's urban landscapes are typically uniform and unexciting, the suburbs planted with anonymous high rises and mega malls. But Heyri has much more variety. A favourite with visitors is the Hanhyanglim Gallery overlooking the valley. Coffee is served in elegant pottery cups and pots for storing kimchi decorate the outside deck. Another interesting place is the asymmetrical Perspective, which looks like the architect might have knocked back one too many glasses of soju as he drew up the blueprints. On other buildings, all of which are restricted to three storeys, unruly creepers slither up rough stone walls and secluded gardens seem to offer the perfect spot for an impressionist painter to set up an easel. Most of the buildings are finished in earthy colours with wooden strips to match the scrub pine sprouting on the dark granite hills and the maple trees with maroon leafs in cafe gardens. If it wasn't for the minefields, missiles and commandoes hidden in the hills beyond, you could imagine yourself to be in Provence, in France. At the Green Frog Fountain cafe, the owner, Kim Yo-ok, an architect, has decked out the place with antique reproduction furniture and on the patio there's a small fountain and several potted plants. It's a typical Heyri home: cafe downstairs, gallery on the first floor and office/living space on the second. All these places feel homey because, well, they're homes, not just art spaces. In fact, it's not always clear what is a private residence and what is public space. Visitors often stroll into a garden to take pictures of what they think is an installation only to bump into a resident brushing his teeth. And it's not always clear who the artists are. I watch a man sporting a thick white ponytail working some pipes outside a gravity-defying building, only to realise later he was unblocking a drain. After coffee, Kim shows me how to get to Motif No 1, a guest house run by photographer Lee An-soo. On the way she talks of her five years studying in Milan, her time at an art school in Seoul and her aunt and uncle who are opera singers in Italy. A friend had spoken fondly of crickets lulling her to sleep when she stayed at Motif No 1 a few summers earlier. Lee, an excellent host, serves green tea - from plantations deep in the south of the country - out of an exquisite ceramic pot and is happy to let guests wander around his studio. He is just back from an assignment in southern Africa. 'I'd like to travel all the time but it's so expensive,' he says, stroking his long grey whiskers. 'But we get lots of nationalities staying with us and hearing about their countries is like travel for me.' He gives me a guided tour of the lodging facilities and when I tell him a patterned quilt hanging in the top bedroom looks like a stylised map of Heyri, he leaps downstairs to get his camera. 'That gives me an idea,' he says, returning to snap away. At the Hangil Gallery in the Hangil Book House there is a new exhibition by Lee Na-kyoung. I'd met her a few weeks earlier and she'd invited me to the opening, which was attended by luminaries from the Korean art world. Lee says opening a show so far from Seoul is risky but Heyri has the space she needs for her vast canvases and a quiet, contemplative atmosphere that can't be found in urban galleries. She has a point. I find most art created in the past two decades or so unfathomable but Lee's works cast a spell in the airy gallery rooms. Waiting for the bus back to the capital, I can't help but think what the North Koreans would make of avant-garde Heyri. Defectors usually react to Seoul as if it were another planet but if they landed in Heyri, they'd probably imagine they'd travelled to another universe. Getting There: Asiana ( www.flyasiana.com ) has regular flights from Hong Kong to Seoul. From there, take the No 200 or the No2200 train from Hapjeong subway station, line No 2, exit two, to Heyri. The journey takes about 50 minutes. For more information, visit www.heyri.net .