The city of Gongju served as the capital of the Baekje dynasty from 475-538 AD. Our second weekend with the whole Brown clan, we stayed in Daejeon, the nearest large city with a good selection of Airbnbs, to visit Gongju and attend the Baekje Culture Festival. The Baekje dynasty’s capital moved a few different times throughout central Korea. Much of the area we visited, lived in, and explored during our time in Korea was part of the territory of this dynasty. Known for its ornate jewelry, trade with China and devotion to Buddhism, the Baekje dynasty was awesome!
First thing we noticed about the festival is that parking was hard to come by. There were large parking lots across the river from Gongju fortress, but since the fortress was our main reason for visiting, we opted to find parking on the side of the river with the fortress. There was parking on the street, but nowhere near sufficient for the number of people in town for the festival! If you’re heading to Gongju primarily for the festival, I would recommend parking on the opposite side of the river from the fortress, as most of the festival takes place on that side.
The fortress itself had a pretty formidable entrance- it was built on a hill right next to the river, with plenty of natural defense from the steep slope and river. Down hill from the main gate is a small parking lot (full when we visited), a Tourist Information center (with great maps and pamphlets in English!) and a restroom. Although I thought many of the activities were set up only for the Baekje Culture Festival, I think they may just be a part of the offerings at the fortress during the summer and on weekends. When we came in the main gate, there were cute mascots waiting to greet us. Landon just could not resist taking a picture with them!
Right when we entered the fortress, Landon saw the archery booth and decided he wanted to try it. The fortress itself has free admission, but all of the activities required tokens. Tokens were purchased for a few thousand won at a booth, and Landon used his for archery! As for other uses for tokens, the only other activity we saw was dressing up in costumes from the Baekje dynasty. Since we had already dressed up at the other fortress, we passed on that activity. Back at the archery station, the bowstring was too strong for Landon to do by himself, so Austin and Landon worked as a team to shoot some arrows. It was fun!
Right after archery, a program began that detailed a battle that took place at the fortress. A group of soldiers marched up from the fortress to the gate, there was music, narration, and mic’d dialogue between army leaders, all in Korean, of course. We still understood the gist of it, and it was cool to see the sword fights and army costumes from this dynasty. When the show was over, we started walking along the wall of the fortress. The path on the right side of the fortress (away from the river) is steep, but stroller-friendly. There were several walking paths to choose from that wove through the interior of the fortress.
In the time of the Baekje dynasty, the walls were shorter, and made of mud. The walls were built up with stone later, in the Joseon dynasty. The king chose a perfect spot for his castle with natural fortifications and strategic advantages of the mountains surrounding Gongju. I was surprised by how steep the hills were all the way around the fortress- it must have taken a long time and a lot of work to build the stone walls to protect those inside!
At the top of the hill, we departed from the fortress wall path to check out a large clearing. In this clearing was archaeological evidence of a royal palace and other buildings. This “water tank” was unearthed along with the buildings. Although very hilly inside of the fortress, with multiple water sources and plenty of room inside for food, this fortress was built for a siege!
We soon realized that walking the circular route along the fortress wall was going to be a longer hike than we wanted to attempt. So, we cut across the clearing and the interior of the fortress to the river side of the wall. The views from the hillside down to the river were amazing! I should note that while the dirt path over to the river side of the wall was stroller accessible, the fortress wall along the river is NOT stroller-friendly. We made it because we carried the stroller up and down winding and uneven steps, but I would not recommend it to others! At one point, I took Owen out of the stroller and put him in the baby carrier so we did not have to worry about dumping him out while we navigated the stairs!
The fortress wall along the river rose up and down with the hills, and spit us out back down to river level near this beautiful pavilion and the remains of a lotus pond. Seeing things like this led me to think about what life would have been like for the residents of this fortress in its heyday. Who would come to this spot to enjoy the river, or draw water from the lotus pond?
From the pavilion and lotus pond, we opted to stray from the steep and treacherous (at least for strollers!) fortress wall and head back toward the main gate. We walked through a pretty meadow of wildflowers, and then came up this excavation site. It was cool to see the area all marked up where they found evidence of structures and artifacts! I love that Korea has so much history, and does a great job explaining it and trying to preserve it.
We did not end up having much time to explore the rest of the festival. There were many street food booths, a small kid’s carnival, a chestnut and jewelry booth area, and then vendor booths and entertainment on the opposite side of the river. There was an entry fee for the festival, but we did not think it would be worth it for the amount of time we had. There was an expat oasis outside the official festival with an IPA tasting and western food tasting area with live rock music. It had a super cool vibe and Austin and the rest of the Browns enjoyed Turkish Kebab for dinner.
Since the kids (and everyone else) were pretty tired, we did not stay for the big fireworks show, but it is a highlight of the festival, and with all the boats set up, it looked like it would be spectacular!