Head to Suwon to take in the delights of a splendid, World Heritage-listed old fortress, and to delve into Korea’s rich folk traditions – and, for carnivorous sorts, there’s the chance to savour Korea’s best barbecued meat on the way around.
Most make the short journey from Seoul to Suwon itching to see Hwaseong Fortress, the only remaining complete walled old city in Korea.
Hwaseong was built in the 18th century by King Jeongjo to house the remains of his father after his gruesome execution; the king intended to distance himself from the trauma by moving his capital to Suwon, though this never came about. Designated a World Heritage Site, Hwaseong combined what were then the latest developments in military architecture from both Eastern and Western traditions – though design tech aside, it’s a joy to march along the course of the walls, which take you through a mixture of forest, parkland and urbanity. If you choose to, there’s also the opportunity to take part in a traditional archery session here (and try not to let your side down; South Korea has won more than half of the Olympic archery golds on offer).
Within the walls is Haenggung palace, where the royal family retreated during times of war. It’s now a surprisingly gentle-looking spot, with pink walls edged with green wooden framing, and a number of restaurants serving barbecued galbi meat (made with more salt than elsewhere, Koreans deem it the best in the land).
In the countryside just outside Suwon hides the marvellous Korean Folk Village, its thatch-roofed houses and dirt paths evoking the sights and sounds of a bygone time. Demonstrations of local folk culture take place from time to time – the “farmers’ dance”, a costumed cacophony of drums, crashing cymbals and twirling ribbons, is quintessentially Korean, and featured prominently in the opening ceremonies when the country hosted the Olympics, Asian Games and World Cup.