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Seoul Sights & Feasts

Written by  Denise Mattia

ASIA Korea
Flight cancellations in New York and Toronto delayed my scheduled arrival at Incheon International Airport in Seoul, South Korea. Weary, I boarded the hotel bus bound for the Lotte Hotel Seoul, a member of WorldHotels deluxe collection. With plenty of activities and sights to see in the city, the Lotte Seoul is an elegant, comfortable five-star retreat. www.lottehotelseoul.com

Once rested, I browsed the multi-layered mall at Seoul Station. Throughout the city there weren’t any of what I would deem outlet stores, and although the haute couture fashions were très chic at the Lotte and Shinsegae Department stores, they were très expensive. I favored the markets along the Myeong-dong and Namdaemun neighborhoods, where thousands of stalls are flanked by excellent, reasonably priced restaurants. Beliefs and traditions of neo-Confucian concepts can be traced back to the Joseon period, the last dynasty of Korea (1392 to about 1900) and include the harmonious blend of colors and textures with communal dining.

Feasting in seoul
Fish, (note: the little-known Noryangjin Market sells every form of alive or freshly caught marine life) rice and quality produce are enjoyed with savory sauces made with red peppers, garlic, sesame oil, ginger and chili paste. Traditionally, banchan, side dishes of beansprouts, cucumber, kimchi and yellow pickled radish (danmuji), are served with every meal. Soup is excellent, whether prepared as a side or a main dish. I had Jjamppong (Spicy Seafood Noodle Soup), made with mushrooms, pepper, shrimp, chicken broth and various vegetables, and Bapsang, a whole chicken in broth with garlic, ginger, onions and scallions.
The fried chicken (dakgangjeon) served with banchan was deliciously crispy and crunchy without being greasy. (The batter starts with corn starch rather than flour.) The BBQ pork belly (samgyeopsal) and mushrooms were grilled to perfection. I developed a facility for selecting the banchan with cheot-garak, stainless steel chopsticks, and learned to wrap the grilled pork and mushrooms with pickle, garlic and spicy kimchi in a large lettuce leaf.
The Kimchikan Museum in Insa-dong is the place to learn about the Korean culture and kimchi, the famous Korean aged cabbage, into which can be added intensely piquant spices. During certain hours, visitors can taste the many varieties of the vegetable.www.visitseoul.net
At Jasmine’s Gangnam Secrets, I savored rice noodles with peppery kimchi (www.koreafoodtours.com), while the fresh stuffed crab, grilled beef and vegetable dinner at the Hotel Novotel Ambassador Seoul (www.Novotel.com) was mild in flavor. The hotel caters to the largely European corporate market and there’s a growing interest in the hotel for vacationers and wedding guests.

Getting Around
Most dong (neighborhoods) in Seoul are accessible by the efficient, clean, electric buses and subways. Signs are clearly marked and once at the appropriate stop, elaborate signs indicate exits. Each exit has a fascinating underground maze of food, clothing and bric-a-brac shops, which, if not paying attention, takes the wanderer far from the intentioned exit. Still, it’s impossible to get lost in Seoul. Men and women in bright red information vests are everywhere, and civilians (including a Korean nun one afternoon) go out of their way to help visitors.

SIGHTSEEING IN SEOUL
I reached the main throne hall of the Gyeongbokgung Palace, with its magnificent sweep of grand, curved eaves. It’s one of the loveliest, most photographed sites in Seoul. Millennials pranced around the grounds posing in rented traditional costumes, often showing sneakers beneath their elegant dresses. Located within the Palace grounds, the National Museum of Korea houses over 40,000 artifacts and royal treasures from the Joseon Dynasty.
During warm weather, visitors can experience spectacular free, outdoor traditional dance and operatic performances in front of the National Theater of Korea in Meong-dong.

When my stay at the Lotte Hotel Seoul ended, I checked into to the budget friendly Holiday Inn Express (an IHG Rewards Club member), rode the subway to City Hall, walked the path along Gwanghwamun Plaza, often the site of peaceful demonstrations. I caught the royal guard changing ceremony at the Deoksugung Palace. Guards in their bright blue robes and broad-rimmed black hats carry formidable swords and change shifts three times daily, every day except Monday. I wandered around the intricately carved buildings to the pavilion that contains a water clock, a century’s old rocket cannon, capable of firing 120 arrows at a time, and the 15th century Bosingak bronze bell, which visitors are permitted to ring on
specific dates.

The administrative district (gu) of Jongno is the up-and-coming hub for trendy fashion and art. Galleries, boutiques, arts and crafts shops and high-end clothing stores featuring luxury brands have settled into traditional buildings. Trees are wrapped in colorful knitted cozies. I found the Bukchon Cultural Center, where exhibiting artists will become household names in the states one day. In one gallery, Lohyeong Lyn’s eclectic corsages were beautifully crafted, while the unique designs of Kyung Joo Noh’s metal necklaces would make New York’s fashionistas envious.
Another trendy hot spot, both day and night, is in Hannam-dong. I visited the splendid Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art, where the work of famous Korean, American and European modern and contemporary artists are on display. Museum One contains exceptional examples of 15th and 16th century Buncheong and Celadon ceramics and 14th century paintings and ornaments.

Originally, Seoul occupied the section north of the Han River, but over the last decades it has seen extensive development south of the river as well. I changed hotels to the Accor W, a Starwood hotel (www.accorhotels.com) in the business section of Gangnam-gu. Directly outside the pleasant, modern hotel is the Airport bus stop, from where my journey home began.
In February 2018, gold medals were up for grabs during the XXIII Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang. New events such as snowboard Big Air, mixed doubles in curling, Alpine skiing and speed skating bridged the gender divide. Visit english.visitkorea.or.kr

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