I don’t normally go on guided tours as I prefer to plot out my own course and travel at my own pace. However, the mums in our party were keen on seeing as many sights as possible with a minimum of time – and a minimum of fuss – so we booked ourselves a private city tour, complete with guide and chauffeured mini-bus.
Our guide picked us up at our Myeong-dong hotel and brought the whole gang over to the first stop of the day: Jogyesa.
The temple grounds were a riot of colour with elaborate floral arrangements and topiary displays – probably temporary as I don’t recall seeing them in other photographs of the site.
From here, we were taken to Gyeongbokgung – the largest of Seoul’s Five Grand Palaces. I was here back in February and wrote a detailed account of that visit, so I’ll mute out the usual commentary and leave the photographs of this splendid architectural treasure to speak for themselves.
My first visit was in the dead of winter, when it was so dreadfully cold that I was happy to beat a hasty retreat after seeing the central part of the palace. This time around, we were enjoying the balmier weather of autumn and easily made it all the way to the northernmost reaches of the sprawling compound, where we were greeted by such sights as the iconic Hyangwonjeong pavilion . . .
. . . and the upper stretches of the stone-lined stream that once flowed all the way across the palace compound.
Our guide then took us through Gyeongbokgung’s northern gate . . .
. . . just outside of which was a great vantage point from which to view Cheongwadae, the official residence of the President of the Republic of Korea.
A short distance from here was Cheongwadae Sarangchae, the presidential museum, where a military performance – complete with parades and martial arts demonstrations – was taking place.
Here’s a video I shot of the martial arts demonstration.
We didn’t get to see the whole performance because, in classic bus-tour fashion, we were all quickly herded back onto our waiting transport (the clock was ticking and we had a schedule to follow).
Before our next major stop, we paused at a restaurant in the Insa-dong area for a quick and tasty lunch. Even here, it was eyes on the clock as the time for our next stop loomed ever closer.
As is customary at Korean meals, the serving staff laid out a variety of colourful banchan to accompany our lunch.
We were asked to choose from one of two main dishes. I went for bibimbap, which seemed like a safe option as I’d had this classic Korean dish many times on my home turf.
When it arrived though, I barely recognised it for what it was.
The bibimbap I’m used to normally comes in a large bronze bowl or a hot plate, and tends to be a more colourful affair than the mostly green and white salad-like dish that arrived on my table. (There was beef in this one as usual, but it was buried underneath the layer of vegetables seen in the picture.) The serving ware itself looked quite different: a dark, heavy bowl that seemed as if it had been carved out of stone or fashioned out of very dense clay.
But when I finished mixing up the dish and started shovelling it into my waiting mouth, whatever doubts I may have had melted away in the face of the absolutely ecstatic experience my taste buds were presently undergoing. Simply put, the bibimbap was delicious – and the deep, super-heated bowl (which essentially functioned as a hot plate) gave the outermost layer of rice a delightful crisp. It was only later that I learned what this particular variant was called: dolsot bibimbap, a special type of bibimbap served in a heated stone bowl, and a name that (even as I type this) I’m now looking forward to seeking out amongst the menus of the many Korean restaurants in my corner of the world.
The name of the other main course option escapes me – perhaps a well-informed reader will chime in with the correct term – but it was also very good, and reminded me quite strongly of sukiyaki.
Ahh, that was good. But the tour bus is waiting, so it’s straight out the door and off to the next stop.
To be continued.