When we went on our City Tour yesterday, we caught glimpses of four of Seoul’s “Five Grand Palaces”: Deoksugung, Changgyunggung, Changdeokgung and Gyeongbukgung. While it would’ve been cool to be able to say that we went to all of them, it just wasn’t practical given the limited time that we had. In the end, we decided on visiting Changdeokgung–according to our City Tour Bus guide, it’s the most well preserved palace of the Joseon dynasty and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
We started the day off with breakfast at Cafe Nescafe, mainly because that was the nearest place to the palace that we could see. It wasn’t full at all; in fact, it was just us and another family who–surprise–turned out to be Filipinos as well. No matter where I go, I get a kick out of randomly hearing people speaking in my native Filipino tongue.
From there, we walked to the admissions booth for the palace and purchased our tickets. We got the one for both the Palace and the Secret Garden for a total of 8,000 won (entry to the palace is 3,000 won, while the garden goes for 5,000 won), and that’s inclusive of guided tours for both areas. You can actually buy a combination ticket for 10,000 won, which will admit you to four of the Grand Palaces along with the Royal Ancestral Shrine (Jongmyo). I’m just not sure if that includes the Secret Garden. The combi ticket’s valid for a month, so it’s good to get if you’re planning to stay in Seoul for more than a few weeks.
The English palace tour was scheduled to start at 10:30 AM, so we killed some time taking pictures of the few plants and trees in bloom. I’ll say this now–it’s really best to visit Korea in the spring. We were unfortunate that spring came a bit too late: most of the trees were still barren, only a few were starting to blossom. Naturally, we pounced at the first sighting of cherry blossoms, no matter how sparse they were. We were so enthusiastic about taking pictures both OF them and WITH them, that soon, other tourists were posing with the flowers as well.
We started the tour at the Donhwamun, which is the main gate of the palace. Our tour guide, a local woman who spoke pretty good English, gave us a brief history about Changdeokgung. It was built in 1405 as a secondary palace to Gyeongbokgung, and was initially just designated as the residence for the kings. During the Japanese invasion, all of the palaces were destroyed, most especially Gyeongbokgung. Thanks to reconstruction efforts in 1610, Changdeokgung was able to function as the main palace until 1868, and was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997.
What makes this palace unique is that it wasn’t designed to be symmetrical in plan; rather, it gained harmony and balance by following the natural landscape. It’s actually built on the base of a mountain, a fact that was made clear to me when we went on our garden tour later on.
Walking around the complex, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the buildings–particularly the roofs. The form alone is distinctive, with each of the corners tilting upward and weirdly enough, reminding me of a hat. Beneath the tiled roof is a wealth of color and ornamentation, with patterns and symbolic designs that fuse together perfectly. One curious feature of the roofs is the array of miniature creatures poised on the slopes of the corners. Our tour guide explained that these are animal guardians, and that the greater the number of guardians, the greater the importance of the building. If I remember correctly, only the buildings designated for “public” use have these guardians; those used as residences basically have plain roofs.
The palace tour was pretty quick, then we ran off to join the tour of the Secret Garden which had already started. Oh, did I mention that the garden route was uphill? Man, was I out of breath when we finally caught up with the other group!
The Secret Garden is located at the rear of the palace, with pavilions and ponds integrated with the natural forests and landscaping of the mountain. This is where the royals would go to relax and unwind, to study and write poetry, to entertain and to fish.
I can only imagine how glorious the whole place is in spring, when everything’s in bloom and ALIVE. As spring came late this year, everything looked to be in the neutrals palette–all brown trees, tan ground, green bushes (and not even VIBRANT green, at that!). Quite disappointing.
At the end of the tour, we were greeted by–what else–a hunk-a-load of steps up. Why was I surprised? Thankfully, we made it all the way up and back to the main palace grounds.
By then, it was way past lunch time so we were pretty much starved. We took the subway to Gwanghwamun station, where we met Haechi, Seoul’s mascot. Upon exiting the station, we found ourselves in the middle of the Gwanghwamun Square–not exactly where we meant to go. But since we were already there, we decided to take a quick look around. It’s a nice spot to visit as it showcases some key figures of Korea’s history and, well, the view alone of the Gwanghwamun Gate and the Bukaksan Mountain beyond beyond it is pretty darn cool.
Lunch was–to my brother’s dismay–at a not-so-nearby KFC branch. That’s what happens when they take too long to decide on a resto! It wasn’t the same as with the KFC back home, as I’ve also discovered in other countries. They didn’t have gravy. How can you have KFC without gravy?
We were aiming to catch the 3:30 pm changing of the guards ceremony over at Deoksugung, so we decided to find a dessert/coffee place in the nearby vicinity. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find A Twosome Place nor Cafe Bene (local cafes we were interested in trying), so we ended up at Peltier, the in-house cafe of Koreana Hotel. The cakes looked delicious, but turned out to be just ordinary, not to mention overpriced.
From there, we walked over to Deoksugung, where we were greeted with a barrage of police in neon green (yellow green?) jackets. They, along with several cameramen, were crowded in a tight circle around what looked to be locals sitting/lying on the ground. We couldn’t get the complete story (hello again, language barrier!), but the gist was that there was some sort of protest about the death of a student…at least, that was how we understood it. Then a few minutes before the scheduled ceremony, a disembodied voice came over the PA system announcing that the changing of the guards would be cancelled due to “heavy winds”. Yeah, right. More likely due to the protest.
Since that was a bust, we went on to the next item on our agenda–the National Museum of Korea. We looked up the directions going there but still managed to get kinda lost during one of the subway transfers. It turned out to be quite far from the main city; in fact, when we spoke with our local friends, they were surprised that we ended up there!
The museum grounds is a sight to behold. Tall trees line the walkway through the main gate and straight ahead, there’s the museum: a long, mostly rectangular structure of white granite and glass. Sounds boring? Far from it. For me, the outstanding feature of the architecture is its use of open space–what they call the plaza–both to break up the massiveness of the building and to frame the natural beauty of the mountains beyond it. Then there’s the beautiful reflecting pond fronting the museum.
Admission to the museum is FREE (except for special exhibits), which is a big plus factor. As is the case with national museums, it showcases the progression and transformation of Korea and its culture. We saw everything from crude flint arrows used for hunting to intricate metalwork fashioned for ornamentation.
I found it interesting that they have a numbered set of “National Treasures”, some of which were on display in the museum. Initially, I thought these were ranked in order of importance, but found out that it’s actually based on the order in which they were designated.
In the evening, my sister’s colleague, Sue treated us to an authentic Korean barbecue with several of her officemates. They brought us to Maple Tree House in Samcheong-dong, a really cool neighborhood lined with traditional houses and charming cafes and shops. I’d have wanted to come back to explore the area, but we didn’t have time. Anyway, the food was AWESOME. I don’t know exactly what types of beef or pork they ordered, but whatever they were, they were delicious. That was one of my favorite meals in Seoul.
Of course, we couldn’t miss dessert. We walked a few blocks to Slow Garden, a European-style cafe specializing in waffles and coffee. I loved the quaint interior and furnishings. Sue and her friends told us that dessert isn’t really popular with most Koreans but hey, sometimes it’s the best part of a meal! We tried one of their Belgian waffles with ice cream and fruits, plus some hot mocha. Again, a great nightcap to a tiring day of walking and stair-climbing!