Changdeokgung Palace, February 2015. The UNESCO World Heritage listed complex of Changdeokgung is one of five grand palaces in the city of Seoul. If you’ve only got time for one, this is where you should head! Originally built in 1405, a number of Joseon Dynasty kings lived here over the years, chiefly due to the stunning beauty of its palace gardens. Today the palace can only be visited as part of a guided tour. And it all starts here at the main gate (Donhwamun).
Changdeokgung Palace, February 2015. It was a chilly February morning when I took the tour and many sections of the palace paths were muddy and partly flooded from days of rain. This gave the place a somewhat spectral beauty, the skeletal trees and ashen walls juxtaposing nicely with sudden bursts of color from the various plants, flowers and bushes. This building, located opposite a pretty pond, was once Seoul’s Royal Library. The collection of gates at the foot of the steps is amusing. The big gate was for the king; the little ones on either side were for everyone else.
Changdeokgung Palace, February 2015. Despite being located right in the heart of Seoul, it doesn’t take long for the urban buzz to melt away as you lose yourself in Changdeokgung’s serenity and imperial history. Make sure your ticket includes entrance to The Huwon (Secret Garden), a spellbinding trail that takes in light woodland, streams, ponds, rockeries, bridges, fountains and pavilions. All the while insects buzz, birds flit between the trees and squirrels dart nervously along the walls.
Changdeokgung Palace, February 2015. Changdeokgung’s hypnotizing roofs are a real highlight of the tour and in some ways reminded me of Beijing’s Forbidden City. It’s easy to miss all the intricate details, such as the little animal figurines, known locally as Japsang, which are said to protect the palace from evil spirits.
Changdeokgung Palace, February 2015. I eventually lost count of the number of times our guide apologized for the state of garden. “You know, this place is really beautiful in the summer!” she mused, scratching her chin. It was still cold enough that parts of the stream remained frozen and the leaves and twigs had a pleasing crunch underfoot. Unlike my guide though I wasn’t disappointed, though I think it would be nice to go back one day in the full, glorious bloom of July.
You can also check out my piece on The DMZ, a truly fascinating and unique day trip from the Korean capital.