It was Friday March 1st 2013 and a public holiday; after grabbing DD coffee Angel Disley and I left Chungju on the 8:05 bound for Gangnam Express. We were blessed and had the large seats for the 100 minute ride. As we approached Seoul the sun broke through Lei-Kung was sleeping and Hou-Yi was in the ascendency.
On arrival we charged our subway passes and headed up to Anguk to deposit our bags at Banana Backpackers. We were puzzled by the receptionist’s inability to sort our rooms as the booking was clearly evident on my iPhone confirmation. We suppressed our irritation and I showed her the booking number again, as I raised the phone my embarrassment grew, I’d booked for the last Friday in March NOT February and guess what? They were full!
I was confident of finding alternative accommodation even though the receptionist was more than useless at offering a suggestion. Banana is located in the same building as Lavinia Guest House so I asked her if they had any vacancies. She told me to go to the 6th floor. We were met by an extremely helpful young woman who offered us the desired digs for the weekend, with the addition of a simple breakfast. It turned out the rooms were identical in size and decoration to BB. We offloaded our bags and set off for a walk around the historic heart of central Jongno.
Lavinia Guesthouse sits at the crown of a very well preserved 500 metre square of traditional Korean Hanok houses. It’s a vibrant area and within the warren of alleys are drum makers, tailors, and hundreds of eateries and small bars. We walked south and then west emerging on Donhwamunro adjacent to the Art’s Cinema. Just to the South is Tapgol Park.
Here at the south end of Insadongs famous shopping street a performance was taking place. It seemed to be a celebration of the start of the movement that led to Korean independence from the Japanese. There were coach loads of young kids and women adorned with colourful traditional Hanbok finery. We crossed over to Tapgol Park where preparations were in full swing for another Independence celebration. Further south is Pimatgol alley, a 2.5 km side alley developed allowing Seoul’s working people to avoid horse-drawn vehicles on the main Jongno thoroughfare. Bars and eateries sprang up along the cramped alley, later student democracy activists slipped into the alley to avoid police crackdowns and many restaurant owners gave them shelter to avoid persecution. Nowadays the alley is in dangers of falling victim to developers and some sections are now defunct. The sections that remain come alive at night and have been re-discovered by many young Seoulites who flock on weekend to sample the plates of grilled mackerel, pork and vegetable pancake, bindaetteok, and the pork rib and potato soup called gamjatang.
We followed the chilly alley towards Donghoro and the traditional cloth market of Gwangjang. Established in 1905, it’s warren of streets radiate from central atriums and contain some 5,000 independent shops and an upper tier dedicated to high quality silk, satin and linen vendors. It’s one of the best places to buy goods ranging from bed sheets to traditional custom tailored Korean hanbok.
This Siberian wind affected day called for bindaetteok, the very thick crispy Korean pancakes, so Angel D and I sat down at a pojangmachasnack to sample them for the first time. The happy industrious vendors form their mung bean batter seasoned with meat and vegetables into the sizzling rustic delicacy. We were presented with a very hot pancake accompanied by an onion and soy dip, not healthy but extremely tasty and better than those I’d sampled at Namdaemun. $4 a shot! Around us, steam rose as the scores of Koreans gorged themselves on red bean porridge called patjuk, jokbal pigs’ feet and sundae, blood sausage.
Siberian weather suggested to AD that she should have brought her hat so we ventured upstairs. AD had visited before with AH but struggled with her built-in Sat Nav. We looked for, but couldn’t find, a cheap hat and so walked back towards Jongmyo Park as we headed north for Bukchon. Jongmyo was as I’d expected a male dominated, makgeolli fuelled gaming den. Ladies were conspicuously absent as the World Badok Championship appeared to be taking place in the shadow of Jongmyo shrine. After a hearty and gorgeous ox-tail soup lunch at Yeongchunok (Donui-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul 131) we cut through Nagwon-dong and Donui-dong meeting some phallic artworks on the way. Emerging north of the Arts Cinema we’d completed a circular route to complete stage one of our afternoon stroll. Heading North along Samildaero we crossed Yulgoglo and followed Bugchonro to the Hanok village. Cutting right past a nursery we passed through to Gyedong-gil passing a shop of vintage toys including some Thunderbirds figureines, I spotted the Jungang Middle School in the distance. Pottering along we passed numerous handmade jewelry stores, coffee shops, a photographers and leather goods shops before heading up and over back down to Bugchonro. Turning right and then swiftly left we headed back up another hill towards the Asian Arts Museum. Further along Buchonro 11 gil is one of Seoul’s most famous views across Jogno towards Seoul Tower. Time for AD to get down with the locals.
A group of tourists were posing for souvenir snaps and I was asked to include the photographer in a group shot. AD sprang up and joined them for an impromptu bonding session, it has to be said her infectious giggle prompted euphoric smiles and group adulation. We doubled back to Buchchonro 5 gil taking the vertigo inducing steps down to Sancheongro passing some simple artworks and a cat feasting on its lunch. Crossing over AD spotted her first purchase of the day, a $10 dollar handmade necklace, in a small jewelers that drowned us in lavender. Further along she succumbed to the allure of luxury truffles from a chocolatier before we crossed over for coffee opposite the new Seoul Museum of Modern Art (under construction).
After this we followed the road that circumnavigates Gyeongbokgung towards the presidents Blue house before entering the palace grounds for a stroll down to the plaza. We were meeting FOBY around 4:30pm. The palace grounds were busy inhabited by the usual array of screaming kids, ninjas and colourfully clad Seoul citizens and more demurely clad tourists. Emerging at the deserted plaza we headed South using the subway underpass to emerge at City Hall, AD was as I was impressed more by the internal fittings of City Hall than the rather “in yer face” external architecture. We crossed over to Deoksugung to take ginger and honey tea at the lovely little tea shop, unfortunately there were no seats so we left and waited for FOBY in DD prior to a swift tube journey back to Lavinia. The evening was devoted to a rather splendid grilled beef rib and steak meal, followed by Mohito’s and an evening of good humoured banter.
Saturday saw a simple Lavinia breakfast of coffee, juice, cereal, toast, jam and banana before we headed south on Line 5 from Jongno 3 to the Olympic Park. It was a beautiful sunny, if cold morning. On arrival we supplemented the Lavina feed with more coffee and cream cheese bagel before wandering around the sculpture park. The web site uses bull shit to describe thus:
“it is with great enthusiasm for International Open-Air Sculpture Symposium and Exhibition of many people including International Modern Art Fair committee and unsparing effort of top-notch international artists that this magnificent art space which is unparalleled in the world to be born.”
Strewn indiscriminately like shotgun shells are over 200 sculptures of various scales, some larger than a house. Designed and constructed by sculptors from around the world; most of the artwork is perplexing even after reading the artists’ descriptions of their work. I won’t dwell on this as it’s still a fabulous place to visit in the summer but for me the exhibits are not a significant draw, I believe in quality rather than quantity. I believe the curators of Leeum should be brought in to re-invent this Olympic Sculpture Park with some relevance and dyanamism.
The Baekje museum came next; it presents Seoul’s history and culture with a focus on the Hanseong period. This was the time when the area of present-day Seoul became the Baekje capital city. The museum building is intended to resemble a vessel evoking the importance of the Baekje kingdom as a maritime powerhouse. The exhibits include various aspects of media as well as models, replica’s and original artifacts; it’s extremely well done.
We strolled across the ‘praire” with its monumentally awful concrete behemoth at its centre and more subtle pieces on the periphery. Passing the statue of two inclined heads we climbed the stairs to the top of the Mongchon fortress. The earthen Fortress is the remains of a once important area in the Baekje Kingdom (18 B.C. – 660 A.D.). The fortress was built on raised land and used the protection of the river on one side with a fence built on the other side. The fortress totals 2.7 km in length. Once again it’s probably not the best time to visit this area of Seoul, but the brisk walk is worth the effort and I’m looking forward to visiting in warmer and greener times. Completing the walk we passed some construction work for the Seoul subway and crossed the main road for lunch at one of the Pho Vietnamese chain of restaurants.
We then took the subway to Yeouido as AD wanted to visit the 63 building and perhaps the viewing platform at the top, I was also interested in the Sky Gallery. We walked from Yeouido across the business district to the 63. It’s hard to imagine some 30 years ago this area was an uninhabited swamp! The name means “you can have it” and at one time no-one wanted a piece of this uninviting real estate. Now of course its 8.4 square km’s are home to Korea’s largest banks and financial services. Previously every time the Han river rose the area flooded and in the past centuries was merely used as pastureland and peanut fields.
The 63 building (1985) was formerly Asia’s tallest now it sits around #200, it has shops, galleries, restaurants, a wax works and an aquarium and sits opposite the Hangang River park. The development of the park and the arrival 4 years ago of subway line 9 prompted even more rapid development for this Canary Wharf of Seoul. Starting along the 63 building is the Saetgang ecological park. It’s possible to circumnavigate the whole of Yeouido by hired bicycle gain another summer or spring activity I intend to pursue. At the far end of Yeouido is Seoul Marina and another attraction is the Seoul assembly Building as well as the beautiful Yeouido Park. Another good reason to visit in spring is the Hangang Yeouido Spring Flower Festival. The island is the habitat to azaleas, forsythia and cherry blossoms. The latter is by far the biggest draw and up to 4 million visitors walk along Yoonjung-ro to enjoy the cherry blossom. During the festivals 2 week period many performing arts events take place on the island.
Saturday evening saw us devouring Fried chicken at Atari and a short walk to Lovestar for a couple of beers. Both Jongno venues were busy, Atari had benefitted from a winter makeover with a new paint job, tables and seating. Lovestar hosted some arty types who sipped (too slowly) Moet in the shadow of Madonna vids. We retired around 11.30pm with the intention of walking the Joseon wall from Hyehwamun Gate to Dondaemun.
After breakfast Angel D realized she’d thrown the bus tickets way, so two mental breakdowns in one weekend, one to me and one to AD. FOBY translated the Korean website and we managed to book two new seats on the same bus, hallelujah! We then left our luggage and headed to Hansung University Station , Line 4, Exit 4 and walked along the main road to the steps leading up to the fortress walk, across the road; the relocated and reconstructed Hyehwamun Gate sat opposite. The pathway takes you up to the summit of Mt Naksan and is probably the easiest part of the wall for those still to be baptized in its pleasures. The weather was amazingly mild and we landed upon a number of sun traps during our walk. A few weeks ago I’d completed this accessible walk click here to follow the details. It was good to complete the walk with friends stopping to chat and point out the views of Seoul, the mountains and line of the wall to the North around Buam-dong and to the East over Seondaemun Prison, another walk I completed during summer vacation (Click here).
After reaching the apex of Naksam we headed downhill past the badminton club and AD posed for some glamour shots on the wall. Further along we stopped for drinks at the 508 shop by a modern mural depicting Seoul. We descended the steps as I wanted to show FOBY and AD the colourful murals of Iwha-dong. We managed to be stalked by a hyperactive photographer on the circular route round. Passing the “things to do before I die” mural we returned to the meniscus of the wall and headed downhill towards Dondaemun. After a hearty Andong chicken lunchy FOBY headed back to his sisters to pick up his mum. AD and I did a little shopping and she purchased an Eel skin purse after which we walked back from Dondaemun along the north side of the Cheonggyecheon stream to Jongmyo, the Lavinia and finally the Terminal for our journey back to Chungju.
I slept well Sunday evening after a great weekend in fabulous company!