A hiking trail not far from the Blue House is finally open to the public after being closed for decades. Most hikers enter the trail at Changuimun (Northwest Gate), one of the 12 gates of the ancient walled city of Seoul and itself worth a visit. For the gate is steeped in antiquity as well as modern-day history.
Buddhists fled through Changuimun and settled in the rugged terrain around Segeomjeong when they lost a power struggle to Confucians over which ism would influence the Chosun court. And it was here, on January 21, 1968, that a lone policeman, Choi Kyu-sik, was killed while challenging a troop of North Korean commandoes on their way to attack the Blue House and assassinate Park Chung Hee. But for officer Choi sounding the alarm, the commandoes might have succeeded in their dastardly mission. An imposing statue of Choi was erected below the gate to commemorate his act of heroism.
Once on the trail I followed it to Sukjeongmun (North Gate), and then took another trail that led to Sam Chung dong, bordering Gyeongbok Palace. It was good to be back in Sam Chung dong, the neighborhood I’d lived in during my first two years in Seoul. Though when I lived there it was hardly the trendy place it has become.
Many of the neighborhood’s old houses remain, but not its old lifestyle. What used to be a quiet residential neighborhood is now chock-a-block with art galleries, boutiques, bistros and young people, making trendy Sam Chung dong an alternative to commercialized Insa dong.
On my way to visit my old house, I walked by what used to be the local ping-pong parlor; it has been converted into a boutique. Then I reached the steep steps leading to the house. On my way up, I passed by two houses that have been converted into pricey restaurants with fancy names. Ditto for the old house; it’s now called Chez Simon. We called it “the ranch.”
I’d love to gather all of the English teachers who used to live at the ranch for a nostalgic dinner at Chez Simon; it would be a real hoot.
After chatting up the proprietors and having a look around Chez Simon, I walked down the steps and was met at the bottom by two fashion models posing for a magazine shoot. My old neighborhood has been discovered.
Of course, the price of real estate has skyrocketed. A friend of mine whose daughter opened a bakery in Sam Chung dong regrets not buying the property the daughter now rents, when the mother could have afforded it.
My days in Sam Chung dong were the best of times. I loved my daily walks along the tree-lined boulevard that parallels the high walls of Gyeongbok Palace. The palace’s tea house was my second home.
It was during these walks that I enjoyed my first cherry-blossom season, learning how ephemeral it is. The first wet and windy day that came along left most of the cherry blossoms on the ground, ending the season abruptly. Now I know to appreciate each and every day of this harbinger of spring.
The French Culture Center, across from the palace’s side gate, was another one of my haunts. Besides chanson and art exhibits, it used to show French films for 350 won per ticket. It was here that I was introduced to the early films of Gerard Depardou, the bloated actor. Truth be told, it was the best place in town to meet les femme. But, alas, the center moved elsewhere and the new one doesn’t show films. Seoul’s Francophiles lost a cultural jewel. Ce la vie.
There was a time when I’d tell people planning to visit Korea not to waste their time on Seoul. I’d tell them to explore the countryside: “Go to Sorak San or Gyeong Ju or Jeju,” I’d say. “Seoul’s noisy, polluted and frenetic.” Now I tell people to stick around and enjoy all that the city has to offer.
The polluted boom days are over and Seoul is a much better place to live in than it was during those days -- socially, culturally and esthetically. Green space is now a priority with urban planners. Unlike the uninspiring boom buildings of the 1980s and 90s, many of today’s buildings have architectural merit and included green space in their blueprints. Unlike previous generations that had to make the transition from rustic to urbanite, today’s Seoulites have an urban style and display savoir vivre.
It’s impossible to pass by SaeJong Cultural Center and Seoul Arts Center without noticing all the colorful banners touting an impressive array of western art, dance and music that appeal to Seoulites’ eclectic tastes. On the other hand, traditional Korean art forms don’t resonate with an urban generation whose second language is English and who are much worldlier than previous generations.
This is an exciting season for opera buffs, with Verdi’s “La Traviatta” being performed at the SaeJong by a visiting La Scala troupe. I saw “Renaldo,” Handel’s baroque opera, performed at the Seoul Arts Center by a La Scala troupe, which left me bellowing “bravo” from the balcony.
Seoul is certainly a destination for the many exotic troupes crisscrossing the globe. Stomp! the outrageous dance troupe, has been here twice, while Cirque d’Solliel packed up its circus tent in June after electrifying audiences for months.
This year marked the 120th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Korea and France, the first European country to have relations with Korea. France did not disappoint its legion of Francophiles, who, along with everyone else, were treated to an exhibition of Old Masters from the Louvre as well as by a selection of paintings from Musee d’Orsay that included many of the famous names of 19th- and 20th-century art movements. And if you haven’t seen Monet’s Water Lilies, they will be in town until September 29th.
Hi Seoul has created an ambience that encourages people to get out and enjoy the city. There’s always something happening on the lawn in front of city hall. The Seoul Spring Festival of Chamber Music has helped out by bringing together Korea’s best classical musicians to perform at public venues, a way of giving something back to Seoul. My favorite is the Ducksoo Palace Concert. To be inside the palace under the stars and listening to the classical strains of virtuosi is uplifting.
I did a double take on the day I saw a wine shop open across the street from the palace. And I doubted whether there were enough wine connoisseurs in OB-land to support the shop. Nonetheless, this did tell me that Korean tastes were changing. Since that day, all sorts of stylish bistros with wine lists and yuppie cuisine have opened and become the haunt of stylish Seoulites. Though these same bistros think they have a right to over charge for middling fare just because they have a fancy name and dress their waiters like French garcons.
I’m for anything that improves the quality of life in Seoul, but when it comes to food I’ve always stuck to my rule of thumb: When in Korea, eat like a Korean. I’ll take bibimpop over faux gourmet food any day. And so would Michael Jackson.
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