Story by: Belle Nachmann, Photos by: Belle Nachmann
Damyang, South Jeolla Province — The first thing I see at the entrance to Samjinae Village is a huge oak tree. Through the shaded gates and amid the stone-walled lanes, the only things to be heard are our footsteps and the buzzing of bees. There are flowers everywhere — growing on rambling vines atop gateways and archways, peeping out at the bases of the walls and even towering above us in an overgrown courtyard, almost a Korean “Secret Garden.”
After living in Seoul awhile, tranquil is not a word one can use very often. I adore our city, but the grind of the subway, screeching sound systems outside shops and the dank stench of trash on the streets gets to all of us. With that in mind, I booked a weekend away in Samjinae, an official “Slow City” in the Damyang region in South Jeolla Province, approximately 20 kilometers from Gwangju.
Before long we find Hanok Esso, our minbak, and it’s just as beautiful: a traditional Korean house overlooking a walled, sun-dappled garden. The owner kindly lets us check in early and offers us as many persimmons as we would like, motioning to the fruit-laden trees around us.
After a short stroll, enjoying the views of traditional hanok, community plots, orchids and the vast expanse of rice fields backdropped by mountains we eat a long lunch at a charming local restaurant, where we are the only patrons. The feast arrives and we are surrounded with duck bulgogi, delicious local sides and the smell of fresh air permitted by the open floor-to-ceiling window looking directly upon the rambling garden outside.
Samjinae is quaint and quiet. There’s no Lotteria, 24-hour convenience store or E-mart, and you wouldn’t want to have to rely upon the local bus getting you anywhere quickly. That’s the point of a Slow City.
In 2007, Samjinae was named the first Slow City in Asia by Cittaslow International, an Italy-based organization inspired by the cultural trend, the “Slow Movement.” Cittaslow’s goals include improving the quality of life by slowing down the overall pace, especially in a city’s use of spaces and the flow of life and traffic through them. Cittaslow also encourages nations around the world to preserve the cultural legacies of small towns and promote slower lifestyles, discouraging technology in favor of tradition. There are currently 147 Slow Cities across the globe, 12 of which (including Samjinae) are in Korea.
Apart from relaxing and enjoying the surroundings, fittingly, there’s not that much to do in Samjinae Village. The Damyang region, however, has plenty to offer if that’s more your style, and can be easily explored by bicycle. Famous for its bamboo, there are many related activities: the graceful Korea Bamboo Forest, Bamboo Museum and many bamboo markets to explore. There is the pretty Soswaewon Gardens, and the picturesque Metasequoia Road — used in many Korean films and television dramas — or you could even spend a day learning about traditional values and practices in the local Confucian School.
We chose to skip all that. After two tranquil, silent days of walking, napping and eating, we were rejuvenated.
Although heading back to the “real” world was the last thing we wanted to do, the much-needed break helped the idea. The next few days were accompanied by thoughts of the previous weekend, and by the end of the week I had recovered from my annoyance with Seoul, and fell in love with it, and Korea, all over again.
There are express buses to Damyang from Seoul Central City Bus Terminal (approx. every 4 hours). A taxi from Damyang to Samjinae is 11,000 won.
The KTX from Seoul at Yongsan Station runs frequently, and from Gwangju Station the local 303 runs past Samjinae. Get off at the Changpyeong Police Station stop.
For Hanok Esso, call 061-382-3832 to make reservations.