Jared and I continue to work our way down our inventory of tourist activities, and I am happy to report that we have successfully explored Changdeokgung Palace and marked it off the list. We had first visited Gyeongbokgung Palace; though we were intrigued by our first Korean palace, we were disappointed to learn that much of what we saw was not the original structure. Changdeokgung has suffered a similar destructive history, but we were armed with our prior knowledge, we were better able to accept this.
King Taejong ordered Changdeokgung to be built in 1405, even though Gyeongbokgung Palace was the established residence and political center. The King gave the reason that the Gyeongbokgung’s geographical features lacked certain qualities and were not favorable. However, as this king had his half-brothers and others killed at the palace in order to seize power, he may have had reasons other than topography for wanting new digs. Regardless of his reasoning, the harmonious landscaping at Changdeokgung is stunning and easily makes it a better place to visit than Gyeongbokgung. The palace is placed in the foothills of the mountains (though still in Seoul) and the roof lines mimic the slopes of the mountains in the distance.
Changdeokgung did not suffer as much damage as the other palaces during the Japanese invasion (1592-1598), and it served as the principal palace for the dynasty for 270 years. Parts of the palace were destroyed during the Japanese occupation (1910-1945), and reconstruction continues to this day. The buildings’ structure and paint scheme is very similar to what we saw at Gyeonbokgung. In fact, even looking at my own pictures of the architecture, I cannot tell a difference between the two places. Therefore, Jared and I did not spend as much time examining these aspects of the palace. Two interesting facts that stuck with me: Bangja Lee, the wife of the last crowned prince resided in one section of the palace until 1989 and Geumcheongyo, built in 1411, is the oldest stone bridge remaining in Seoul.
The best part of the palace is the Huwon Garden, also known as the Forbidden Garden or Secret Garden, a 78 acre hideaway located at the rear of the palace buildings. You have to pay an additional entrance fee for the garden (₩3,000 for the palace and another ₩5,000 for the garden), but it is well worth the price. While you may self tour the palace area, each garden visitor is required to join a 90 minute guided tour. The day we went the English and Korean tours were already sold out, so we joined the Japanese tour. Our tour guide spoke very softly and made wide, sweeping gestures. I’m actually very happy that we couldn’t understand a thing she said; if she had been speaking English, I may have felt obligated to listen. Instead, it was very easy to ignore her and wander away from the group to soak in our surroundings.
The Secret Garden was an exclusive retreat for the royal family. It was designed to blend with the natural landscaping, and manmade additions were kept at a minimum. Therefore, the garden has natural hills, forests, and a small stream. It is a beautiful oasis; once you are in the trees all the of city noise instantly vanishes. We followed a shady path from one scenic spot to another. We saw a few buildings within the garden, but all blended quietly with their surroundings. One rather large building overlooked a pond, and I later learned that it housed the royal libraries. There were also some pavilions and halls that were used for various ceremonies over the years. My favorite places were the few ponds that small gazebos overlooking the water; they were very serene, romantic places.
I am still learning with my new camera, and some days I am more successful with my pictures than others. I enjoyed the garden because it was the perfect place to play around with different settings and angles. Jared had his camera with him as well, and it was much more enjoyable for us to wander around taking pictures than to learn about the history. Flowers, ponds, gazebos; these pictures don’t do justice to the beauty of this garden!
We have now visited two of the five palaces within Seoul. Out of those two, Gyeonbokgung and Changdeokgung, I recommend visiting the latter. The buildings, to me, seem the same, but with Changdeokgung you can visit the Secret Garden. In the weeks leading up to our Changdeokgung visit we had spent a lot of time in the city; though we love exploring an urban area, I hadn’t realized how much I missed trees until I was in that garden. It made my little soul smile. I think we will even return there in the fall to see the autumn colors reflected in the ponds, or perhaps in the winter with snow on the ground?