As the weather gets warmer, the days are rushing by all the faster and I realise I am even an integer older. The celebration was a visit to Seoul last weekend, staying in the New Wing of the decidedly well-appointed Lotte Hotel.
We travelled to the capital by bus because it was not only cheaper but quicker than flying: about four hours centre to centre. British readers need not fear our enduring the cramped accommodation and delays one can suffer on National Express when looking travel by road. The Geoje-Seoul Express offers large reclining seats and legroom equivalent to Business Class cabin by air and the highway leading into Seoul has a bus lane that enabled us to whisk by a fifteen kilometre queue of heavy holiday traffic. All for a very reasonable 65,000 Won return ticket – about thirty-five pounds at current rates.
Arrived at Nambu Bus Terminal, we took a taxi from the neighbouring rank and headed for downtown. Similar to our experience in Busan, the driver appeared to be a seasoned road racer (albeit a pensionable one) but with the snarl-ups at the traffic lights being quite appalling in some places and the main streets being many lanes wide, I could understand his keenness to cover ground fast when able.
Our route northwards was broken halfway by the Hangang River. It is huge; as in half a mile wide huge. You can look at a tourist map of Seoul and draw lazy comparisons with central London: river flowing east/west with a small meander southwards, Yeouido district a bit like the Isle of Dogs pushed westward. Cross any one of the numerous bridges for the first time (Banpodaegyo in this case) and you realise that the scale is very different. From the middle of this river you can see far more of a huge city than you will see from any point mid-Thames. Our taxi driver managed to keep that view brief while setting a personal best for the standing quarter in recompense for a particularly obstructive intersection.
After check-in and a lunchtime snack we strolled down to Toegyero: bike street. Moving from Azerbaijan to Norway to Korea has been a progression towards increasingly two-wheeled society and I am itching to get back in the saddle. A quarter mile of this street is packed with shops selling motorcycles, mopeds and accessories. We came, we saw, we did not buy but the experience will stand us in good stead.
Our first evening in Seoul was unsurprisingly spent atop the Seoul Tower. Perched on the summit of a wooded parkland mountain and accessible via a very scenic cable car ride, the tower is nothing too spectacular to look at as architecture but its observation deck and restaurants afford fantastic views over the city. A word of warning if dining in the Korean restaurant: don’t order the knuckle if you expect the English meat-on-the-bone because what you will receive is actual knuckle in a broth. Crunchy.
Downtown Seoul at night, as viewed from Seoul Tower
Saturday was grey skies and rain as per forecast but we were not disheartened. Our day was spent conducting a leisurely tour of the city lead by a charming man from the Azerbaijani Embassy who happily escorted us around places such as the Gyeongbokgung Palace (including the Korea Folk Museum), Itaewon and the Deoksugung Palace by Seoul Plaza. Two out of three are rare places of historical import that have been salvaged from the recent wars. Itaewon is a tourist strip with a US military base at the end of it where much is typical tat but places like the Italian restaurant, Macaroni Market are well worth a visit for those who know.
Peace in the grounds of the Gyeongbukgung Palace
We rounded off Saturday with a visit to Club Volume, a nightspot touted as being one of the city’s more switched-on haunts. The décor and the crowd certainly looked contemporary and the house DJ’s were spinning Electro-Trance in a convincingly modish manner. We missed the visiting DJ duo touring for/with Anjunabeats (alas) but with advertising including upcoming performances from Ferry Corsten and a Godskitchen night, it looks like there is a fairly lively dance scene to enjoy in Seoul.
Sunshine returned for Sunday and we took a slow mosey south of the river in search of a gallery that transpired to be closed. A quick visit to a peaceful park with two royal shrines later, we returned to the bus terminal and headed south satisfied. We might only have scratched the surface of Seoul but we saw more than enough to warrant a further visit.
Ancient Deoksugung Palace, rubbing shoulders with modern Seoul