Gongju and Bueyo are two small settlements in Chungnam that were, for a time, capitals of the Baekje dynasty which controlled much of the Korean peninsula’s southwestern area during the Three Kingdoms period. Once known as Ungjin, Gongju became the second capital of the realm in 475, when it was moved from Wiryeseong (now known as Seoul), but held the seat of power for only 63 years before it was passed to Buyeo, a day’s march to the southwest. Buyeo (then named Sabi) lasted a little longer until the dynasty was choked off in 660 by the powerful Silla empire to the east, which went on to unify the peninsula. Today, these three cities form an uneven historical triangle, weighed down on one side by Gyeongju’s incomparable wealth of riches. Although the old Silla capital sees by far the most foreign tourists, the Baekje pair’s less heralded sights can easily fill a weekend. Many of these echo those of the Silla capital – green grassy mounds where royalty were buried, imposing fortresses, lofty pavilions and ornate regal jewellery. Unabashedly excessive, yet at the same time achieving an ornate simplicity, Baekje jewellery attained an international reputation and went on to exert an influence on the Japanese craft of jewellery-making; some well-preserved examples in both cities can be found at their museums, which are two of Korea’s best. Additionally, the Baekje Culture Festival takes place each September, with colourful parades and traditional performances in both Buyeo and Gongju; see wwww.baekje.org for more information.
The two cities remain off the radar of most international travellers, and most who visit do so on day-trips from Seoul. Much of this can be attributed to the fact that there’s next to no higher-end accommodation in either city, though a resort has recently opened up just outside Buyeo. Though unheralded even by Koreans, the cities’ unassuming restaurants are a different story altogether – though extremely earthy, the food on offer here is some of the best and most traditional in the land, and an extremely well-preserved secret.