Expats living in China will understand when I say that Seoul is civilization. A bit like Japan, I guess, although I have never been. When you arrive in Seoul, you understand that the economic boom is over, that middle class as we know it in Europe has already developed and settled, and that, thank goodness, people have manners as we mean it.
The only tiny negative point about this trip to South Korea was that I visited in the middle of the rain season. What can you do…although it rained on and off for 4 days, at least it was a bit cooler than Shanghai: we left China under 35-40°C, so a small 25°C, even with wet feet, was much appreciated.
For four days, I roamed each corner of the city. Or at least it feels like a saw a great deal of this vast capital.
In Seoul, temples and palaces are legion. There are 6 main palaces in the city centre. Each time, they are a collection of temples serving multiple and varied functions, and arranged in a very large space with beautiful gardens, ponds and parcs around. What I loved most about old Seoulite temple architecture was the way temples were painted in bright, yet elegant colors. It gives a sense of harmony, detail and yet simplicity that I have not found in Chinese temple architecture.
To my greatest delight, Seoul is also a city rife with museums and art galleries. I found the Seoul Art Center to be undeniably the best place for art lovers: a plethora of exhibitions are grouped there, along with theatres, an opera and the school of arts. I would also warmly recommend visiting the Leeum Samsung Museum of Art, in the Itaewon area. No, it is not a museum of mobile phones, it is just commissioned by the Korean electronics giant Samsung. Seoul also has a tradition of making craft masks, which I found really impressive:
Another wonder about Seoul is its food. First of all, do not worry if there is about a dozen different tiny dishes accompanying your main dish. These contain assorted pickled vegetables, which vary according to the restaurant and area. Amongst them, though, a constant: there is always, always kimchi. Kimchi is white cabbage, pickled and preserved in a mixture with chilli and garlic. It seems that Koreans eat it with about every meal. Let me assure you that your nice breath takes a hit after a mouthful of kimchi!
A traditional dish is the bibimbap (picture below), which comes in a stone dish and contains rice, vegetables, mince, egg yolk…all of this mixed in a spicy sauce. It’s abosultely gorgeous! The traditional Korean barbecue is also a must: they bring a little portable barbecue at your table (if the table is not already fitted with a built-in barbecue) and you can cook beautiful thin-cut slices of beef or pork yourself.
South Koera also bears a number of surprises for the European traveler: a unique alphabet invented by Kind Sejong in the 15th century; toilets fitted a very disturbing system of cleaning sprays and blows (AND a self-heating seat), and locals sporting high-heeled Wellies. Rainy season, but in style, please!