Time-warp for tea
Wanderlust Travel Magazine|November/December 2021
The district of old hanok houses in Jeonju offers an atmospheric taste of South Korea's past in this most modern of countries
Mark Parren Taylor

The sun-kissed the woman's cheeks. She turned to me with a sigh and indicated the splendid spectacle. “It's a Mediterl of course. It was as if to say, “Welcome ranean light, right?” She was being polite to Korea! It's not so different, is it?"

I nodded appreciatively, but we both knew that it - that lingering, sensual sunset - was pure, undiluted Korean. The kind of light that the peninsula enjoys from the hustle of capital Seoul in the north all the way down (nearly 500km) to the volcanic beaches on subtropical Jeju Island off the south-west coast.

I was midway between them, in Jeonju, gazing at a neighbourhood of traditional hanok dwellings that was spread around us, splashed with the evening glow. The light spilled across the low-slung swallowtail roofline, and streamed along alleyways and into courtyards. It was as sweet and smooth as the cup of makgeolli fermented rice wine in front of me.

From the fourth-floor roof terrace of the Lahan Hotel (one of the tallest structures in the 'village', and fortunately tucked away on its eastern fringe), the lamplight of Jeonju's new town could just be made out. Located a kilometre or two west, between us and the dusky sun, the contemporary city has many attractions - tourists decamp after dark to Daga-dong district for hipster cafes and some distinctly retro eateries. But the focus of every visit to Jeonju is this quarter of 700 or more century-old hanok.

Hanok are traditional cottage-like dwellings, single-storeyed mostly, sometimes with a courtyard, built-in several styles depending on the status of the original occupants. Those farmers and merchants have moved on, and today many of Jeonju's hanok are the domain of homestays and cafes, craft stores and some good restaurants.

There's been a settlement in this sheltered valley in the country's west for more than two millennia. It was the seat of power for one of the kingdoms that shared the Korean peninsula in the tenth century, and later was the birthplace of the Joseon Dynasty, all-ruling for 500 years until 1910 when Japanese colonialists took hold.

Reaching from the Lahan Hotel in the east, today's one square kilometre maeul (as such villages are known) is centred on Gyeonggijeon shrine, which protects a 'national treasure', the 14th-century portrait of Yi Seong-gye, founder of that powerful dynasty. The helmet-domed towers of Jeondong Cathedral (built in 1914) mark its western boundary, adjacent to Nambu bazaar.

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