Seoul Good


I’ve just returned, travelling at 270 km/h, from a 4-day weekend in Seoul – Korea’s capital city and home to half its population. 25 million people live in Seoul Capital Area, making it feel worlds away from the port city of Busan I, and only 3 million others, call home. Busan is very big, of course, but differences were apparent immediately, from the moment I set foot out Seoul Station. Seoul, like many huge cities, gives off a ‘cool’ vibe.

Getting to my cute little guest house was the first challenge I faced – all 25 million people seemed to be taking taxis at the very time I wanted to ride in one. The queue at the taxi rank on both sides of the station was at least 60 people long, and wasn’t moving very fast. Frustrated, I decided it actually wasn’t a long walk to where I was staying, so I’d give it a shot. Even more frustrated, and with a heavy bag, I admitted defeat and stood on a street corner, along with those in the same boat, praying for a taxi to come past. They did indeed come past, but two turned me down before I managed to get one. One was a co-taxi, which I assume means I should have shared with others, and the other simply wouldn’t pick me up on that side of the street. Charming.

Happily, I was finally picked up, and at my guest house I was pleased to find myself in a traditional Hanok-style house, complete with under-floor heating and futon-style mattress – as people used to sleep on in days gone by. Very comfy it was too. In the morning, I ventured out to meet friends. Surrounding me were houses from a typical travel guide…exactly what you picture when you think of this area in Asia. Situated right next to the palace, the Hanok houses can feel a little like stepping back in time, and at 9am in the morning, there was virtually no-one to spoil the tiny streets by whipping out a selfie stick. The very few people I saw were dressed in Hanbok – Korean traditional costume, allowing them to get into the palace and certain areas for free, while looking beautiful doing so.

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Cute little Hanok houses – the area I stayed in in Seoul.

Our first stop was Namsan tower, which (clue is in the name) towers over Seoul, slap bang in the middle of it on one of the many mountains in the city. The highest point in Seoul, it is a slice of nature in a huge metropolis. We climbed to the top to find beautiful views of different parts of the city, and the famous love locks placed around the tower itself. Lovers have left padlocks on fences and metal bars surrounding the structure for years, a symbol of longevity for the relationship. We were left wondering how many of those loved-up couples were still together now.

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All you need is love.

Thursday was a national holiday (Children’s Day), and the government had granted us all an extra day off on Friday, so many families were making the most of it. We made our way around the famous palace buildings, and headed down to Itaewon for a spot of dinner. Itaewon is the foreigners’ district, and while it has a trendy vibe, it is, as you might imagine from the name, full of foreigners like me. Yuck. Itaewon boasts cuisine from all around the world – Spain to Singapore, Ethiopia to my little old England. Variety is not lacking there, but tables certainly were. With no space for us, we settled on a standard pub, and paid through the nose for fairly standard fodder. Itaewon would most certainly be the district I would try to avoid as much as possible if I were living in Seoul – perhaps the nightlife is its upside.

The next day, met with drizzle, I headed to Myeongdong, which I’d heard was the beauty district. Not a day goes by where I don’t read about a new cream or lotion that I now am in need of, because it will fix a problem I didn’t even know I had – so I had to go check it out. K-beauty is big business. People have beautiful skin here, and it’s easy to see why when you see the amount of lotions and potions they have available to slap on their wrinkle-free faces. Before I came to Korea, I simply cleansed and moisturised. Now, I:

  1. Cleanse (oil based cleanser).
  2. Rinse.
  3. Cleanse again (foam cleanser).
  4. Tone.
  5. Apply serum/emulsion targeting specific needs skin may have. Mine is for redness, so I slap on a liquorice-based serum that is supposed to do wonders.
  6. Use mask (twice a week).
  7. Apply eye cream/spot treatment cream.
  8. Apply sleeping mask (night-time)/apply sun cream (day-time).
  9. Use facial mist to top up moisture in face throughout the day.

I’m not even completing the ten-step skincare routine that many swear by, but I’m almost there, and I’ve got to say that my skin feels amazing. Beauty shopping is addictive, and worth it. I feel like every won I chuck in the direction of these shops is well-spent, but I’m struggling to find my limit. Strolling around Myeongdong, I could see that I wasn’t alone. The obsession must be strong enough with others too, as what other reason would there be for 7 Nature Republic stores on the same block? Nearly every shop I went in to thrusted free samples onto me. I walked away with snail treatment face masks galore. My debit card suffered, but my happiness certainly didn’t, and that’s all that matters (honest).

The rain meant we didn’t explore too much further in the day, but rather hit up Gangnam for a night on the tiles. It can be strange to go drinking in Korea – many places won’t let you order just drinks, and insist you eat there too. If you’ve already been out for dinner, this can be quite frustrating, and leads to endless walking until a suitable PLEASE LET US ONLY DRINK HERE venue can be found. It’s either that or street soju. Gangnam is pricey, as we found through going to a 30,000 won (€25) entry-fee club, where drinks were 15,000 a pop. Luckily, we were on the guest list, meaning we could enjoy the music, dancing, and irritating handsy Russian lads for free.

The final day arrived – and it was a day packed with sightseeing after the lazy rainy day we’d had the day before. First stop was Changdeokgung Palace, which boasted a secret garden tour. We strolled in the beautiful gardens, selfie-stick free for the most part, and saw stunning buildings galore, which the king once made his home. He even had a special pagoda for drinking games, so he sounded like a pretty cool guy to us. We later indulged in more culture at the Yeong Deung Hoe lotus lantern festival, where lights danced in the night sky, honouring Buddha’s birth. Parades were held through the city, with many carrying beautifully-designed lanterns in shapes such as lighthouses, lotuses, fish, and even the Korean alphabet. Lantern dragons roared through the streets, elephants trumpeted, and birds soared. Women in traditional headdresses stunned us with their beauty. The vibe was carefree, happy, and welcoming. It was certainly a great way to end our weekend in the capital.

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Tourism in Seoul is big – but still not as big as many cities in the rest of Asia. It is a shame in some ways, as it means many do not rate Korea as a place worth visiting, when it most certainly is. Seoul, and the rest of the country, has lots to offer. On the other hand, it means culture and everyday life are relatively untouched, and are not sold at a price, as they are in many other countries to visiting tourists. I will certainly be making the trip to Seoul again, to enjoy the hustle and bustle of the city, and bask in its cool-ness.

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Finding my Feet


I can’t believe it’s almost been a month since I arrived in South Korea. I expected to be wailing under the covers by this time, sniffling and puffy-eyed because I missed home. Not true in the slightest. These few weeks have been very strange for me…mostly because I don’t feel strange here.

I imagined complete culture shock, foodshock, and oh-God-what-am-I-doing-with-my-life shock. Aside from the latter, which is felt by most people on a regular basis, I have yet to really experience any kind of shock. The language barrier is certainly very real, but it hasn’t been a cause for any kind of trauma (yet), apart from a shouty taxi driver who pretended not to know where I was going. 5 minutes later, we pulled up outside my local metro station – I get the feeling he only pretended not to know so he could drive around the block for that extra 200 won.

Not including my new shouting taxi friend, perhaps one of the reasons that I feel so at home here is that people are so genuinely friendly. They really want to help you, really want to talk to you. Even if they don’t speak a word of English, and you can’t muster anything other than ‘thanks’ in Korean. Old ladies have offered to put my bag on their laps when on the metro. Well-meaning gentlemen point out arrows leading us to where they think we might want to go. Being called beautiful in the street isn’t completely weird. Even if you stutter out ‘hello’ in your terrible Korean, people praise you and commend you on your wonderful pronunciation (so, yes, they are obviously a nation of fibbers). Korea is helpful, friendly, and safe.

I’m settling in to my school rather well. My co-teachers are both lovely, and keen to help me wherever they can, whenever they can. I hope that we will make a good team. My principal has already given me a toothbrush, a water bottle, and a phone charm as gifts – keen on me feeling welcome at the school, obviously. One day, the other English teachers and I were called to her office. A little worried about what I’d done to be summoned, I tentatively nibbled on the rice flour biscuits she passed around, and waited to hear the bad news. It turns out she wanted to start a tea club with the younger teachers in the school, and all of us were then called upon to arrange a day, chat a little, and finish up the biscuits. Not content with just a Tea Club, the teachers were told that they were to attend sports activities every Wednesday. No exceptions. Last Wednesday, we marched around the hall to rousing military-style music, and took part in ballet yoga. It was very surreal.

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School meals…are you jealous, Jamie?

On Saturday, I awoke to find it was a glorious, sunny day. The sky was clear, the air was as fresh as it could possibly be here (more on my new worry, pollution, at a later date), and the chill in the atmosphere had subdued. We decided it would be a good day to explore. Busan tower, situated near the port area of the city, made for a fine excursion. A 120-metre high viewing tower, it sits on a hillside just out of Nampodong, a hustling and bustling shopping area with fashionable shops aplenty, and a rammed marketplace – selling everything from Korean won-themed taekwondo shorts to imported Japanese build-your-own sweet boxes. Up on the hill, it’s peaceful, and your climb is rewarded with a look over Busan. The port, with hundreds and hundred of fishing boats lined up and ready. The mountains, jutting out of the city, powerful and strong. The high rise Haeundae beach buildings – glinting at you in the distance, a faraway reminder of just how big this city is. Up the tower, dizziness greeted us, with even more spectacular views of the surrounding area.

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Busan tower

Busan tower is also an area for true love. A mini-pilgrimage of romance, where star-crossed lovers put a padlock on the surrounding wire fence, along with a plastic engraved heart, or even phone case (well, you know, it is Korea). These pretty hearts swamp the whole fence, and the entire tower is surrounded by declarations of true love. Perhaps I’ll be visiting there myself, padlock in hand, at a later point.

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All you need is love

Another weekend of food experimenting was also to be had. We ventured down into the local market, towards the food stalls and bars, not quite sure what we had in mind. Deeper into the market, street food was being sold at ridiculously low prices. Vats of kimchi, pre-prepared bowls of Japchae ingredients, ready to be tossed into a pan and cooked at any moment, among a myriad of things that we yet have to try…or summon up the courage to.We found a place quickly enough – slightly off-putting in that ‘Korean Pizza’ was written on the window, but not a lick of cheese was in sight. We ate Jeon, a traditional Korean pancake, ours stuffed with kimchi and meat. Jeon can be eaten as a side dish, or often with alcohol. We made sure to do both, and then order Kimchi Jjigae on top of that. Kimchi Jjigae is a warming, rich stew made with the famous fermented cabbage, spring onions, traditional stock, and tofu. It was truly delicious, and the best meal I’ve had yet.

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Yum!

Life day to day in Korea is very normal for me – and perhaps that’s not the interesting thing you wanted to hear when reading this blog. But to me, that’s the beauty of it. My year in Korea is letting me experience a culture at normality, just like when I was in Spain. I could truly enjoy the culture, and didn’t feel pressured to do everything I could, as quickly as possible, as one often does when visiting a new place on holiday. Korea is treating me well so far, and I can only hope I continue to have many more normal, slightly mundane adventures to share with you all.

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A vending machine of insanely cute Japanese trinkets

 

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Cat sushi collectables. Of course.

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Eating Off the Beaten Track


As I roll through the door with bulging belly, it seems only fitting that my next post should be about the culinary delights to be found in Barcelona. There was a time, long ago, when I did not think food was so important, and ate mostly to fuel myself along, but this city, along with growing to realise there is more to life than hopelessly counting calories, has changed my outlook on food – Spanish culture and their attitude to food in general is something we can all learn from.

“Paella, rice, chicken!” are the shouts that greet you as you walk down La Rambla. Now it’s not so much walking, but fighting your way through the shirtless, burned masses who populate the city centre come summer. Big, glaring pictures of seafood, blackened rice, loaded ‘bravas’, and er, traditional sangria leap out at you from the restaurant windows. It never ceases to amaze me that the outside terraces down the seaside end of La Rambla are always crammed to the hilt, full of those sporting ‘I Love Barcelona’ hats and #10 footy t-shirts. If that’s your bag, don’t let me stop you, but before you cram that ages-old frozen potato, otherwise known as ‘bravas caseras’ (home-made), into your mouth, and before you sip that ridiculously sweet, overpriced and over-fruited sangria, let me tell you something: this is not what Barcelona is. This is the same as going to Oxford Street and eating a Pizza Hut. You can do it anywhere in the world. The paella is frozen, but still costs the same as a real ‘casera’ paella, and the sangria, which isn’t even a typical drink of those who live here, is watered down so much it might as well be fruit squash.

Sure, you don’t know where to go. Sure, it’s convenient. I know I’ve eaten in Pizza Hut in London, too. But even five minutes away, you can find a treasure trove of beautifully cooked, authentic food which is well worth the wait, and you won’t pay through the nose for it. Food is a great part of daily life in Barcelona, and it is meant to be enjoyed. If you only have a day or two to enjoy the city, then try to eat as well as possible, but I understand convenience might be the best way to go. However, if you’re here for a longer spell, read on for some tips on where to eat like a local.

Vermut

Ok, so I started with drinks, you got me – but it’s impossible to live in this city and not enjoy the culture of ‘Vermut’. It doesn’t actually just mean drinking vermouth. There is an art to this. On Sundays, locals flock to bars, order a ‘vermut’ and sit with a soda siphon, topping up, and eating raciones de tapas as they go. The vibe is jovial, relaxed, and friendly – meeting and watching the world go by as the sun warms your face. I hate vermouth, but I love the idea of what is pretty much an alcoholic brunch. Order yourself a vermouth, some chips de patatas, ‘berberechos’ (cockles), ‘almejas’ (clams), and don’t forget sauce to put on it – Salsa Espinaler, famed across Catalunya for putting on your seafood tapas, is a blend of spices with works particularly well with all the aforementioned tidbits. They even have their own bar in the nearby beach town, Vilassar de Mar, if you fancy catching the train and spending a relaxing Sunday at the seaside, away from the throngs.

Some good places to ‘Vermutear’ are:

Bormuth, Plaça Comercial 1, El Born.

Espinaler, Cami Ral, Vilassar de Mar (served by Rodalies Renfe, taking the train towards Mataro)

Bodega Marin, Mila i Fontanals 72, Gracia.

Fem vermut!
Fem vermut!
Bormut
Bormuth

Pintxos

Pintxos, actually a Basque tradition, are famed all over Spain. The premise is an individual ‘tapa’, held all together with a stick – when you’ve had your fill, the waiter or waitress counts your sticks, and you pay for each one. You can try all manner of typical Spanish food this way, at the small (general) price of one euro. Head to Calle Blai, near Paral.lel metro, where ‘Pintxo Alley’ is located, to experience a wide array of treats-on-sticks (so far removed from cheese and pineapple on sticks). The entire street is full of bars and cafés offering a variety of more traditional (croquettes, Spanish omelette) to the experimental (falafel, kebab meat). Many will offer deals on a ‘caña’ (beer) and pintxo together. Tapas is also offered at most of the bars, so why not try a bit of both? Be sure to try ‘pimientos del padrón’, small fried green peppers, covered in crunchy sea salt.

Some notable pintxo bars on Calle Blai are Blai Tonight (23-25), and La Tasqueta del Blai (17).

A selection of pintxos
A selection of pintxos

Catalan fodder

Catalan food, it must be said, is not one of my favourites in world cuisine, but it is certainly worth a try – think hearty, earthy, more home-style meals, which is not at all to be sniffed at and you’re sure to leave with your stomach bulging in content. Washed down with a great wine, the rustic element of Catalan food is very enjoyable, particularly if you want to escape the typical, infamous frozen paella. Whatever you order, make sure it’s accompanied by pa amb tomàquet, the delicious bread rubbed with tomato, olive oil, and sprinkled with a dash of salt. Some notable dishes are botifarra amb mongetes (sausage with white beans), escalivada (grilled vegetables, typically aubergines and pepper, then served with what often feels like a sea of olive oil – but trust me, it’s delicious), and, if you’re here in the earlier months of the year, calçots. These thin onion/leek hybrids (taste of an onion, size of a small leek) are a Catalan staple and are absolutely not to be missed. Calçotadas, a special kind of barbecue where calçots are roasted on an open fire until blackened around the edges, dipped in romesco sauce, then eaten in the messiest way possible – you strip off the skin and then dangle the juicy inside into your mouth – followed by various grilled meats, are widely enjoyed all over Catalunya. Both a cultural and gastronomic treat, you can attend municipal Calçotadas if you’re willing to go a little out of the city.

Calçotada dates vary from year to year, but check on local websites and places like meetup.com, where they will often be advertised.

Calçots roasting away.
Calçots roasting away.
How to eat calçots - it certainly isn't pretty, but it is fun!
How to eat calçots – it certainly isn’t pretty, but it is fun!

For a taste of Catalunya, try:

Ciutat Comtal (more tapas style, and if you’re willing to wait for over 30 minutes – no reservations are taken), Rambla de Catalunya 18.

Can Culleretes (going since 1786), Career d’en Quintana 5, El Born.

El Toc de Gracia, Carrer de Bonavista 10, Gracia.

La Panxa del Bisbe, Torrent de les Flors, 158, Gracia.

And what you’ve been waiting for…fish!

So, Catalan and Spanish cuisine are different, that’s for sure. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get a mean paella here. I’m no fish eater, unfortunately – I would so like to be, as the variety on offer and freshness of the seafood here is incredible. I am, however, dragged around to many a fish restaurant as my other half could eat the majority of the fish in the Med, if he so wished – so I do know where to go. Some of the best fish to be had will obviously be found by the port, where you can find everything from tourist trap to high class eatery. Any place that has a picture of a paella outside is to be avoided – no exceptions. Before you go straight in with the rice, though – consider your options. Another popular dish here is fideuà, typical of Valencia, with the same principle as paella but made with thin, vermicelli-like noodles. Taste this with a whacking dollop of allioli (garlic sauce), and you’ll reek for days but be happy for weeks. Other notable things to try are chipirones, which are small fried squid, chocos (other squid-type friends), pescado frito (fried fish), paella negra, and most types of salted fish – salted cod is typical here, too. You’ll probably be in fish-heaven with most choices on the menus here, so if you’re a seafood diehard, the Costa Brava and Barcelona is the right place to be.

Some recommendable places:

Can Carlus, Tossa de Mar (you have to get out of the city, but if you’re on a Costa Brava holiday, it’s worth it)

Cal Pep, Plaça de les Olles 8, El Gotico.

La Taberna Gallega de Marcos, Moll de Gregal, 23, Barceloneta.

Not the most beautiful of foods, but a huge hit here.
Not the most beautiful of foods, but a huge hit here.

Some other notable places you may want to consider on your trip are:

Can Paixano (La Xampanyeria) – champagne at cheap prices, big cuts of catalan sausage and other typical tapas treats to be enjoyed – what’s not to like? Carrer de la Reina Cristina 7, Barceloneta.

En Aparté – French run bar, generous portions, cheese platters, delicious wine, desserts, and crusty, beautiful bread (oh God, I’m drooling). Carrer de Lluís el Piadós, 2, El Born.

Kiosko – burgers that everyone talks about, queues often out the door – yes, we can say that about McDonald’s too, but this is the real deal and you’ll pay more or less the same for a more enjoyable burger right down by the sea! Av. del Marquès de L’Argentera, El Born.

Mosquito – tapas, Asian style. Dumplings galore. I could eat the dumplings from here every day. If I go, I pretty much order dumplings in all shapes and sizes – who needs anything else? Wide range of beer, including gluten-free, at very good prices. Carrer Carders 46, El Born.

Xampanyeria
Xampanyeria – you’ll fight to get a place, but you’ll be glad you did