The upswept rooflines of Korean architecture are beguiling: intricate eaves are a symphony of patterned color...and every once in a while, a face pops out, like this scowling end-tile 'guardian'--a face only a roofer could love.
I spent a couple of afternoons on the grounds of Changdeok-gung Palace, one of the several Joseon-dynasty era royal compounds in Seoul. The leafy gardens provide respite from the non-stop city beyond the walls. As unrelenting as urban modernization might seem, details from the past remain; walk slowly and know where to look--faces will appear.
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Inside "The Hall of Benevolent Administration"
Peek inside the throne hall of Seoul's Changdeokgung Palace, and this is what you'll see: intricate wooden rafters surrounding a carved dragon in the recessed portion of the ceiling directly above the throne. For various times during the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910), this was the where the king would hold court. (There are four other royal palaces in Seoul.) The name of this grand structure: "In-jeong-jeon," meaning 'the hall of benevolent administration.' (If only governments would do just that...)
When describing why this palace and garden complex belongs on its World Heritage List, UNESCO writes: "the Changdeokgung Palace Complex is an outstanding example of Far Eastern palace architecture and garden design, exceptional for the way in which the buildings are integrated into and harmonized with the natural setting, adapting to the topography and retaining indigenous tree cover."
Guided tours are available, but you're also free to wander the palace on your own; the rear garden ('Huweon,' or sometimes called 'Biweon'), however, can only be visited with a guide.
(For an exterior view of this structure: http://www.afar.com/highlights/throne-hall-quiet-again)
Whether in Seoul for a month, a week, or even just a day on a layover, one place not to miss is Changdeok-gung Palace and its wooded Huwon garden. "Garden" is something of a misnomer, as the pavilion-and-pond-dotted-grounds encompass 78 acres of forest-covered hills—a veritable arboretum, including specimens that are centuries old.
Most people in Seoul still refer to this old royal enclave, established in the early 1400s, as Biwon—"The Secret Garden." Through the centuries, it's also been called the "Inner Garden," and the "Forbidden Garden." Today, this UNESCO world heritage site is open to all.
Visitors are allowed to wander the halls of the palace compound, but to protect its ecology and architecture, you must join a guided tour group to visit Huwon. (Tours are available in English twice a day.) As was the case for royalty in the past, the grounds today are an oasis from the city. Traffic and skyscrapers are a world away; magpies chat in the green canopy; curved tiled-roofs hint at past intrigues.
Closed on Mondays. For more info: http://eng.cdg.go.kr/main/main.htm