Seoul, gateway to the Orient

Seoul, gateway to the Orient

I arrived in Seoul (capital of South Korea) on a winter morning, when the news of the coronavirus was still limited to China
and South Korea was just beginning to fear contagion.
While we Westerners were amazed to see so many people wearing masks on the street, they, the Orientals, had already
gotten used to wearing masks. In all the shops, supermarkets, hotels and restaurants there were dispensers with hand
sanitizer. “Did you hear about the coronavirus – asked me a kind waitress – please use the mask when you go out”. Such
kindness seemed excessive to me.
But now, after a few weeks, we too find ourselves in the same situation.
Looking back on my trip, I can forget the impression of seeing so many people with masks.
Except for this, the trip was very interesting and absolutely peaceful, pleasant and full of knowledge both in human and
cultural terms.
The trip was due to business reasons: I had to attend a conference, which was mainly attended by Americans, Koreans,
and some Europeans.
But leave the sad thoughts behind and come to all the beautiful things that filled my eyes in my Korean days.

My touristic tour began with the royal palace, called Gyeongbokgung, which means the Palace of Shining Happiness, with
the typical pagoda architecture.
After passing a first gate, manned by guards with colourful uniforms, helmets and spears, I crossed the vast courtyard to
get to the throne room.
Many Koreans are used of renting traditional costumes, called hanbok, in the numerous shops in the palace area.
And so, almost everywhere, in the courtyards of the buildings and in the surrounding streets it is easy to meet people who
wear colourful hanbok.

Traditional hats, hairstyles, bags and make-up complete the
outfit. All of this transports you in a past era, all this makes you
travel in a past era, yet still present and made current by the
people who celebrate this tradition every day.
There are more than one royal palaces in Seoul.
The second, not far away, is called Changdeokgung, is built in
the same style. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a wall
encloses the park and the various buildings that make it up:
throne room, apartments, etc.
But Seoul is first of all a large modern metropolis.
Skyscrapers are the undisputed lords of the city.
Modern architecture presents a huge variety of buildings, which
makes visiting the city center absolutely exciting for anyone
who loves this style.
The city is certainly huge, with nearly ten million inhabitants, but
it is easy to move both due to the dense network of subways
and the large number of taxis available, cheap (compared to the
Italian rates) and easy to use.
I never waited more than a couple of minutes before finding a
taxi on the street, you can pay taxi by credit card, the advice I
can give is to always carry a sheet with the hotel name written
in Korean characters, because taxi drivers do not always
understand English.

For example, my hotel provided cards at the reception, with the name of the hotel and a small map to help drivers find their
way around.
As for Korean cuisine, it is certainly very varied and also very good. The main feature is the use of garlic and hot peppers used
in large quantities. The king of Korean food is kimchi. Kimchi is made of fermented vegetables, usually cabbage, and chili
pepper (and other spices). It can be found everywhere and is usually served as a side dish for main dishes, or as an appetizer.
Soups are very popular and cheap, real milestones of Korean cuisine.
The traditional drink is the soju, a distillate halfway between a light grappa and a wine, slightly reminiscent of sake.
But in Seoul it will not be difficult to find even more western food, for example sandwiches, pastry shops, coffee shops,
chains as Starbucks etc.
A walk not to be missed is the one in the outdoor Namdaemun Market, the largest market in all of Korea. You will find
everything: cheap clothes, tea, biscuits and ginseng in all shapes and sizes.
But I recommend you go there especially for street food, freshly cooked and tasty.
From ravioli to pancakes, from sweets to… insect larvae.
An experience not to be missed!

Bianca La Placa

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