We started out the next morning with a great find. Instead of eating at the hotel, we headed to a corner bakery we had seen the night before. Migo is a chain of French-style bakeries in Korea, and we realized quickly that we had lucked into some great food. I tried the Migoish coffee, a sweet latte-style coffee drink that was the perfect eye-opener (so much I had two!). Farah, however, was the big winner. She had a sweet potato-cranberry danish, which is now her favorite breakfast food/dessert. We could have stayed there for hours – and we thought about it during my second cup – but we had places to go and things to see.
Our first stop was just east at the COEX Mall, home to the Seoul Aquarium. First, a little shopping – Seoul is a great place to shop, and the depreciating Won now makes prices more reasonable. I even did a little window shopping, although I realized that I could go to an Adidas store in any city in the world and quickly moved on.
I am not usually a big fan of aquariums, but this had some interesting specimens, and it kept us out of the humidity for a while. Of interest was the kids area in the middle of the tour, where everyday appliances such as toilets, refrigerators, and washing machines had been turned into fish tanks.
From there, we took our first taxi ride, over the river to Itaewon. It was much more lively during the day than the previous night! You could buy almost anything you wanted, and some of it even looked authentic. We spent time in alley shops, storefronts, and street carts looking at t-shirts, shoes, hats, purses and bags…you name it. I held off buying anything, although some of the NFL merchandise brought back good memories. The day had turned pretty hot and humid, however, so we ducked into the subway for a break and a ride to the Gyeongbokgung National Palace.
This palace dates from 1395, during the reign of the Joseon Dynasty, and represents the finest architectural and building techniques of the time. It is located near the Seoul Central Government Complex, which was a target for the protestors. The walk from the subway stop to the palace gate is a long one that takes you the width of the palace grounds and around the corner, across the major roadway from the government offices. When we got to street level, we found an eerie scene – armored police buses lined every inch of available curbside parking space. Besides the traffic, there didn’t seem to be too many people around, which seemed strange. Then, when we turned the corner, we realized why – we ran into an entire platoon of riot police, preparing in a calm-before-the-storm type scene. We got inside the palace but were told we could not buy tickets. They would let us in but could not guarantee how long we could stay, as they were prepared to pull everyone out at the first sign of a protest. This was a bit unsettling, and a bit exciting at the same time.
It turned out that we didn’t see any protestors. We stayed inside the palace grounds for about an hour. The grounds are massive, with one compound leading to another, separated by gravel roads and walkways. The buildings are well-preserved, with incredible detail in the sculptures on the grounds and buildings (I include a picture of several small statues on the roof of one of the buildings that are designed to ward off evil spirits). The interiors include throne rooms and replicas of formal areas where visitors and guest of honor were received.
Towards the far perimeter is the National Folk Museum, a multi-storey building that looks like a mix between a Mayan (with its base of stairs) and traditional Korean temple (with its beautiful, multi-roofed tower rising far above the palace grounds). The museum was closed, but the external views were impressive.
The palace offers a nice contrast to the city. It is quite peaceful inside, at the same time offering views of the city’s skyline just over the walls. You could spend a fulfilling day in there wandering around. Unfortunately, we didn’t have much time, in part because of the riots, in part because it had been several hours since our Migo experience, and we were hungry (well, she was; as usual, I snacked throughout the day). It was off to Insadong!