Anchovies and sunrises by the sea
A visit to Namhae County, on a spring day, can creat precisely this sensation, especially when a heavy mist covers most of its mountains and beaches with a placid stillness that could be the inspiration for a Hemingway novel.
Indeed, if Hemingway were writing his “Old Man and the Sea” today he might find Namhae’s scenery to be even more inspiring than Cuba.
Namhae, a cozy county on the southern coast of the peninsula, has a charming warmth that creates a restful atmosphere for visitors.
Many say that the place makes them feel at home, even if their home is a high-rise apartment in Seoul.
That’s the peculiar magic of Namhae. Its seas are beautiful but they are also familiar, because so many restaurants all over Korea have pictures of a Namhae sunrise on their walls.
But the place is not just photogenic. It’s also got mountains that are known for their scenic temples and cliffs.
On a recent Saturday afternoon the sky seemed like a grey sea and it shifted over Namhae with the shimmering light of an ocean swell. It seemed like there must be mermaids among the clouds, making a silver cloak to cover the sun.
My companion and I began our tour from the Hilton Namhae, a lush spa and golf resort that was built on land reclaimed from the sea.
After breakfast we took highway 1024, a seaside route that goes past the scenic sites along the coast.
Our first destination is Daraengi, a village that sits among a vast expanse of rice paddies and garlic fields, assembled in remarkable layers.
The village’s agricultural output is quite an accomplishment, considering that farmers in the area began with a patch of land that was less than 1,000 meters (3,280 feet) in width.
The view of the village from the highway is charming. The entire settlement is built along the sea cliffs and the green fields are punctuated by the brown roofs of the farmers’ houses.
Yet, surprisingly, there is not a single boat to be seen on the water. The village, which has a mountain on its landward side and a steep cliff face to seaward, lives off the land and leaves the harvest of the sea to those villages that have direct access to harbors.
Daraengi’s geography reminds me of the dramatic cliffs found in Thomas Hardy novels, places where disgraced girls stand and contemplate a suicidal plunge down to the rocks below. The locals say that a farmer plowing the rice paddies must keep his eyes open at all times, lest he drive his tractor straight over a cliff to his doom.
On a cliff overlooking the sea there is a beautiful house that was built by Kim Man-cheol, a North Korean defector who came to Namhae by boat with his family, in 1987. He lived happily for a while, and often said Namhae was like a dream come true. He told the press upon his arrival that he had “come to South Korea in search of a warm and beautiful land,” And that’s just what he found, but only for a short time.
He suffered from a series of real estate frauds, perpetrated by his aides.
He eventually set up a Christian retreat, seeking some rest for his troubled mind, but one of the pastors at his church fled to the Philippines with 200 million won that belonged to Kim.
Along the seaside road there are some lovely beaches. Sangju is one of the more popular. It’s the largest beach on the southern coast and its backdrop is a pine tree forest that climbs up the foothills of a mountain. Nearby is Songjeong, a popular summer resort that has silver-colored sand.
There is also Mount Geumsan, home to Boriam Temple. It’s a small structure, tucked into the rocks, but it’s one of the three great sanctuaries of Buddhism in Korea and there is a famous stone statue of Buddha outside. At sunrise visitors are apt to gasp in amazement as streaks of light appear, illuminating the islands that are scattered like stepping stones across the sea.
Continuing along the seaside road one comes to Mijo, a cozy port town that regularly holds seafood auctions attended by a huge audience of seagulls and tourists, at which fishermen spread out their catches in buckets.
Mijo’s fame is built upon anchovies. There is an alley by the dockside that’s full of restaurants which specialize in the tasty fish.
It’s almost unheard of for Koreans outside of Mijo to leave the anchovies in their stews.
The fish are normally dried and soaked in water to make soup, and they are removed once all the flavor has soaked out of the meat.
In Mijo anchovies are the main ingredient of the stew, larger because the ones caught here are thicker with tender meat. The fish is cooked with vegetable leaves mixed with spicy sauce. The taste is deep, and, strangely, seems to have hardly any anchovy fragrance. One local tradition involves wrapping anchovies from the stew with lettuce leaves and sesame seeds. Another delicacy here is a soup made from hair-tail fish, which is often roasted or steamed with radishes.
Almost every restaurant in Namhae serves pickled garlic. The county produces around seven percent of Korea’s garlic. The texture of the local product is crisp and sweet, which makes it a perfect vegetable for pickling.
It’s a relief that the county hasn’t undergone significant urban redevelopment. It is one of the few places left on the peninsula that offers quiet beaches, without the views being blocked by clusters of seafood tents and tacky cafes.
Recently the local government has been aggressive in its attempts to expand Namhae’s tourism industry, using catchy nicknames for the town like “Korea’s Maldives” and “treasure island of the north coast.”
A visible sign of the county’s active development plans is the construction of its “German Village,” a town that was made to resemble the countryside homes of Germany. In reality, though, they look like miniature houses in a theme park.
The village was originally built to cater to Korean expatriates, who left the country in the 1960s and 70s to work as nurses and miners in West Germany, a program designed to boost Korea’s foreign earnings.
The village has become a tourist attraction in its own right and it is now so popular that there is a notice at its entrance saying that many residents have left the town because of excessive intrusion by tourists.
The local government plans to start building similar villages with different ethnic themes. It is currently designing an American village for Korean-American retirees.
Namhae is a place with many different dispositions. It changes colorsdepending on the season and which side of town one chooses to visit. And the anchovies are delicious.
To get to Namhae, take an express bus from Nambu Bus Terminal. The journey takes about four and half hours. There are a number of pension houses in the region. Sunset Pension (055-862-0596) offers budget accommodation, starting at 60,000 won ($64). At Namhae Pyeonbaek Ranch (055-867-7881), bungalows surrounded by trees, range from 32,000 won to 60,000 won a night. The Hilton Namhae Golf and Spa Resort (055-863-4000) offers rooms starting at 460,000 won.
Breeze, the Hilton’s restaurant, Breeze, offers a breakfast that is recommended for anybody who visits Namhae. A bowl of porridge at Namhae Jayeon Matjip (055-862-0862) is also a great option for breakfast, for those who prefer a traditional meal. Samhyeon Sikdang (055-867-6498) in Mijo specializes in hair-tail and anchovy dishes.
For more information call Namhae County’s tourism office at (055) 860-8601.
By Park Soo-mee Staff Writer [firstname.lastname@example.org]