In today’s post, we’ll visit a beautiful Joseon-era walled village west of central Suncheon, in the province of Jeollanam-do on Korea’s southern coast. Here, for centuries, a formidable ring of stone fortifications has maintained a silent, steady guard over a quiet town of rustic thatched-roof houses.
Welcome to Naganeupseong.
I arrived in the coastal province of Jeollanam-do (전라남도) on a domestic flight from Seoul. Trains are actually my preferred mode of transport in Korea, but 24th January was the first day of the long Seollal weekend in 2020 and I knew that intercity rail services would be filled to bursting. The same is true of domestic flights, but here’s a key difference: aeroplane tickets can be reserved months in advance, unlike KTX tickets which go on sale only weeks ahead. To put my mind at ease over sold-out trains, I booked a flight as soon as my travel plans were finalised.
After a half-hour bus ride from Yeosu Airport, I found myself standing in the centre of Suncheon (순천), one of the largest cities in Jeollanam-do.
With luggage safely stashed at my guesthouse, I walked to the nearest bus shelter and boarded the next available service bound for Naganeupseong (낙안읍성): a Joseon-era walled village whose stone fortifications, begun in the 1400s and completed in the 17th century, are an important landmark of the area. Note that it’s also referred to as the Naganeupseong Folk Village (낙안읍성민속마을, Naganeupseong Minsok Maeul) in some resources, and with good reason. The walls are certainly a major attraction, but the picturesque town nestled within – featuring houses built using traditional materials and architecture – is an essential part of the experience.
Of course, which bus offers the best/easiest route depends on your starting point in the city. To illustrate: I was setting out from the stop named 중앙초등학교 (Jungang Chodeung Hakgyo, “Jungang Elementary School”) – not far from Suncheon Station in the heart of the city – and I had a choice between city bus numbers 61, 63, 68, and 16.
Here’s a travel tip: download either KakaoMap or Naver Map (or both!) onto your smartphone or tablet. They’ll open up the otherwise inscrutable, inaccessible world of Korean local bus networks to you, allowing route searches that pinpoint the precise locations of stops and, in many cases, even offer live schedule/arrival data. Both have English interfaces but may differ on how precise details (e.g., bus stop names) are rendered. If you’re unable to read hangeul, Naver Map might be worth considering as it’s a little more English-friendly; that said, I personally prefer KakaoMap as bus stops are labelled with their original Korean names (easier to match up with signboards and announcements).
And away we go. T-Money cards are accepted on Suncheon city buses – just as they are in Seoul – so a simple tap upon boarding (and another tap on exiting) took care of my fare.
The ride from central Suncheon may take anywhere from under 40 minutes to almost an hour (assuming no transfers needed); mine was on the shorter end of the scale. In any event, the bus stop nearest Naganeupseong’s main access point – via the walled town’s East Gate – is the rather lengthily named 낙안읍성 3.1운동 기념공원 (Naganeupseong 3.1 Undong Ginyeomgongwon).
The second part of the bus stop’s name refers to the March First Independence Movement Memorial Park, which sits just outside Naganeupseong’s East Gate. The park’s centrepiece is a monument commemorating local participation in the March 1st Movement of 1919.
Not far from this memorial is a monument of a different sort – likewise executed in stone but antedating it by centuries.
No, we are NOT going to rush straight for it like an uncivilised barbarian horde. We are, after all, a civilised tourist horde – and we’re here to leave money behind (rather than pillage it away).
After buying an entry stub at the ticket booth, which was rather charmingly disguised as a local choga-jip (thatched-roof house)…
…I visited the neighbouring information office to pick up a guide pamphlet. There, one of the staff very kindly led me to a nearby map of the walled town and gave me a brief orientation re: walking routes and major sights.
In the map of walking routes above, the East Gate (my starting point) is near the bottom. In the aerial image that follows, the East Gate is at the extreme left edge.
Here’s a scan of the map I received at the information counter. The East Gate is on the right-hand side.
I’ll spare the readership from a lengthy discourse with dates, names, and figures – but here’s the text of an English signboard (posted near the East Gate) if you’d like to learn more.
Right, we are ready to invade. 🙂
Off we go towards Dongmun (동문, “East Gate”), one of Naganeupseong’s stoutly fortified entrances.
The stone wall that surrounds this Joseon-era village-fortress stretches for about 1.4 kilometres, and looks particularly impressive from near this entry point.
Perched on top of the East Gate is the Nakpungnu pavilion, a wooden gatehouse brightly painted in traditional colours.
Now then, let’s take a look at some of Naganeupseong’s key landmarks.
In the northeastern quarter stands the Nagan Gaeksa (낙안객사), a state-run inn where official guests were lodged. The entire facility would have consisted of several buildings, but only the main hall now survives.
A good chunk of the village’s northwestern quarter is occupied by the Dongheon (동헌), the local government headquarters. Whilst the architecture is the key draw, one might also note the recreated Joseon-era trial (with a cast of mannequins) and the replica whipping board out in the front courtyard (which visitors might use to, er, vent out their frustrations on companions).
Right next to the Dongheon – in a subdivision of the same compound – is the Naea (내아), or the Nae Dongheon (내동헌). This inner enclosure was used as the local governor’s residence and reception area.
Just outside the Naea’s front gate is a richly ornamented drum tower, which was likely used for sounding out the hours and signalling emergencies. Something like Big Ben and a fire alarm rolled into one. 🙂
Not far away is a small exhibition hall, amongst whose exhibits is a detailed scale model of Naganeupseong.
After walking a short distance from the exhibition hall, I arrived at Seomun (서문, “West Gate”). Given its similar layout to Naganeupseong’s other entrances, I wonder if this portal was also once crowned with a tile-roofed wooden gatehouse.
The stone circuit wall of this fortress community is, of course, a sight to behold when viewed from the ground…
…but its elevated surface offers a different sort of vista to enjoy when one walks upon it – like a sentry of old.
There are various entry points along the walls; I used these stairs near Seomun.
Right, we’re off!
From here, I followed the wall as it curved around Naganeupseong’s western corner. The path rose gently, climbing to the crest of a low hill.
Shortly after negotiating the bend in the last picture, I emerged at the top of a flight of steps…
…and that very spot – or one of the steps below it, according to your preference – happens to be the best observation point from which to appreciate the spread and scale of this walled village … and its timeless character.
I paused near the foot of the stairs and looked back, appreciative of the fact that I’d chosen to go the way I did rather than in the opposite direction. Otherwise, I would have had to go UP those steps rather than down!
The following stretch of wall was a very straight path, with lovely views of green fields to my right and a sea of thatched roofs to my left. Of course, there were thatched roofs on the right as well, along the exterior face of the fortifications: houses exhibiting (at least outwardly) the form of the classic Joseon-era choga-jip. I assume that in order to preserve the character of this place, there are regulations governing the architecture of any buildings constructed not just within the walls, but also in a buffer zone extending a short distance beyond.
In due course, I arrived at Nammun (남문, “South Gate”). Like Naganeupseong’s East Gate, this entrance had a complete set of defensive structures – most notably the grand Ssangcheongnu pavilion bridging the gap in the circuit wall.
You’re free to continue on the wall-top path (through the pavilion and beyond) … or you might do as I did at that point and descend back into the village.
There are many other small attractions and cultural experiences sprinkled around the preservation zone, but let’s look at just a couple more.
Whilst walking along one street, I chanced upon an ancient stone-lined well. Nothing remarkable about its outward appearance … so I’ll leave you to learn about its significance from the signboard (third picture below).
“[W]e can have good-personalities and be good-looking [sic]”. Interesting. Excuse me whilst I take a moment to suck this well dry. 😉
Later, I popped into one of the old-fashioned restaurants in the centre of town for a spot of lunch.
Old-fashioned is right. I haven’t seen this beverage served in a glass bottle for a long time. (Note: popping off the cap with a bottle opener felt tremendously satisfying. Away with boring aluminium drinks containers!)
The usual dishes of banchan – generously refilled later in the course of the meal – were set out first…
…followed by my choice of main course: a bowl of noodles topped with vegetables and shredded gim, served in a simple but well-flavoured and piping-hot broth. To add a little kick, I was also provided with a small dish of blended spicy seasoning.
Delicious to the very last strand. What a splendid way to cap my morning’s sightseeing at this magnificently restored fortress town.
Let’s round things off with a few street scenes, mostly featuring Naganeupseong’s choga-jip: rustic countryside houses with thatched roofs. It’s this type of simple domestic architecture – rather than the tile-roofed giwa-jip almost universally associated with the word hanok – that provincial commoners of the Joseon era would have resided in.
Now then, it’s only early afternoon and there’s still plenty of sunshine left for sightseeing. Let’s carry on towards another famous Suncheon attraction…
…but we’ll save that for another post.
Till then, cheerio.