I can be a bit of a dreamer. I’m fascinated by Royal History and when I visit places like this, I like to dream and wonder what would it have been like to be in a palace in times gone by, a member of the royal family, a member of staff, or simply a visitor to the royal court. When I was Seoul there was a palace I really wanted to see – 14th Century Gyeonbokgung Palace or Gyeongbok Palace – ‘gung’ means palace in Korean. While I was there, I joined a free walking tour through the Palace prebooked through visitkorea.com.
The first part of the tour, after I met my guide, was the Changing of the Guard Ceremony. It took place in the main courtyard and in front of Gwanghwamun Gate. As soon as the ceremony finished we met with the guide again and she started with telling our group some of the fascinating information about this important and ancient palace and its buildings. Construction started on the palace in 1395, three years after the Joseon Dynasty was founded. Growing in size over the next 200 years it was burnt to the ground in 1592 by the invading Japanese. for the next 273 years Gyeongbokgung lay in ruins while the royal courts operated from Changdeokgung Palace nearby.
In 1867 the Palace was reconstructed with a staggering 330 buildings incorprating some 5,792 rooms. However, Gyeongbokgung was again abandoned and buildings destroyed with invading Japanese during the late 19th century and through out most of the 20th century. In 1989 the Korean Government started on a 40 year restoration project and to date some 45% of the original buildings have been restored.
The stone courtyard features two rows of pumgyeseoks – ‘rank stones’ where the officials stood according to their rank in front of the Throne Hall or Geunjeongjeon – meaning diligence helps governance. The building is situated in the centre of the courtyard surrounded by wooden cloisters. Geunjeongjeon is where the Emperor delivered edicts to his parliament, greeted international diplomats or gave important speeches.
The marble steps to the throne room sit either side of the intricately designed sloping middle stone, where only the emperor was permitted to travel over. However, the Emperor wouldn’t walk, he would be carried in a sedan chair over said centre, which is carved with an ancient phoenix.
The opulent throne hall – Geunjeongjeon – is ornately resplendent with a picture at the rear of the magnificent throne depicting the sun, moon and 5 mountains that are situated behind the palace in real life. In the centre of the ceiling is a depiction of a golden phoenix representing the king.
Perhaps one of the most famous picture of Korea, seen on postcards and covers of travel brochures is Gyeonghoeru – Royal Banquet Hall. The Hall was built on an artificial lake in 1412 to hold special state banquets, it was burnt down by invading Japanese in 1592. Rebuilt in 1867 it was torn down again by the Japanese during the occupation (1910-1945). Finally rebuilt in 2005 it is used today for state banquets and special occasions and is one of many Korean national icons.
In the living quarters of the royal families, the doors open upward allowing air to flow right through the building on warmer days. The intricate wooden lattice windows are covered in locally made paper allowing light to penetrate the building on cooler days when the doors are closed.
The traditional Korean Ondal – underfloor heating – was used throughout the palace and still used, although in a modern sense, through out Korea today. The wood burning stove – as seen above – underneath the building, heats the masonry or tiled floor with the smoke and fire keeping the building and its occupants above warm.
Hyangwonjeong, built by Emperor Gojong in 1873, is a small two story pavilion, hexagonal in shape, with its name translating to “Pavilion of far reaching fragrance” . It is situated on a man made island to the south of the palace connected via a bridge to the palace grounds. Hyangwonjeong Pavilion is one of the most photographed buildings in Seoul, used as a backdrop, locals bringing their families for group photo’s especially during Autumn when the leaves change colours dramatically.
Situated at the rear gate of the Gyeongbukgung Palace complex, built on the former palace gardens is Cheongwadae – The Blue House, or translated to ‘Pavilion of blue tiles’. The Blue House is a series of buildings that contains offices and reception halls and is the official residence of the President of the Republic of Korea (South Korea). The Blue house, a place where modern Koreans aspire and dream to be, was built in traditional Korean style but with modern finishings and looked stunning with the backdrop of Mount Bukhansan. It was a fitting end to the walking tour of Gyeongbukgung Palace.
For this and other walking tours of Seoul, South Korea visit http://english.visitkorea.or.kr/enu/SI/SI_EN_3_4_14.jsp