Amidst Seoul’s skyscrapers, business districts, high-tech industries, fashionable shopping and pulsating nightlife areas, the city’s streets hum with modernity in a way that’s hard to find in Europe. Spend even a short time here and you’d be forgiven for thinking that this is a city with its gaze fixed solely on the future. Yet Seoul has a surprising number of tranquil parks, historic temples and beautiful royal palaces, reflecting its more than 600-year history as the capital of Korea.
The glorious, UNESCO World Heritage listed, Changdeokgung Palace, is generally considered the most important in Korea so, on my final day in the city, I set off to explore this wonderful place. Korean royal palaces are large, sprawling complexes that require time to explore. Thankfully the rain of the previous day had given way to blue skies, and I was able to walk through the expansive grounds concerned more about sunburn than getting soaked.
Constructed in the early 15th century, in line with the Korean architectural philosophy of the time, Changdeokgung was built to be in harmony with nature. It sits at the foot of Mount Baegaksan, one of the Guardian Mountains of Seoul, and the large grounds are beautifully landscaped. Walking through the main gate, which sits opposite a busy four-lane road, the tranquility of the palace is in sharp contrast to the surrounding city.
I’d expected it to be very busy – almost every historic site I’ve visited in Korea has had lots of tour groups – but, with the exception of some of the main buildings, I often found myself alone. In Seoul, that is not something you can say very often. I strolled through the complex, following the map I’d been given at the entrance, not realising that the site is home to two interconnected palaces: Changdeokgung and Changgyeonggung.
I paid an additional entrance fee and set off through some woods to a pleasant lake before entering the grand square outside Changgyeonggung Palace. This area had far fewer people, and was more beautifully landscaped. A group of school children had just swept through in front of me, making lots of noise. As they left, silence descended and I had the whole place to myself. It was rather magical.
There is a lot of history bound up in these two palaces, home to generations of Korean royalty. As you wander through the courtyards and peer into the wooden living quarters, it’s possible to feel a sense of the lives lived inside this a city within a city. The palaces haven’t always been so peaceful, they were repeatedly damaged by invading armies and, being constructed from wood, were vulnerable to fire.
The palaces burned to the ground during the Japanese invasion in 1592, but were rebuilt faithful to the original in 1609. Which was just in time for them to burn to the ground again in 1623. Changdeokgung remained a royal palace and seat of government well into the 19th century; while Changgyeonggung was home to the Emperor Yunghui, Korea’s last emperor. Deposed by the Japanese invasion and occupation of 1910, he lived here until his death in 1926.
As well as the royal palaces, there is Huwon or the “Secret Garden”, which can be visited only as part of a tour. The tour takes 90 minutes and I simply didn’t have time to do that and visit Bukchon Hanok Village before heading to the airport. I skipped the tour and wandered back through Changdeokgung on my way back into the city.