Some other things aside from elegant tropical resorts, nightlife, and rural escapes, the Philippines too treasures a rich heritage that makes it a notable “pearl of the orient” in years past. Its colonial history which influenced a lot of what it is today not only remain as leftovers of the then struggling revolution, but also as an artifact of western cultural and religious fusion in all aspects of human activity in the archipelago. Just by strolling around municipalities, towns, or even cities, the colonial architecture is much represented by ancestral houses although some are poorly maintained to dilapidation. But 400 kilometers from Manila, the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Vigan remains uniquely preserved.
Being the Capital of Ilocos Sur and was established in the 16th century, Vigan showcases precious remnants of old Spanish architecture. It is also the best-preserved Spanish colonial town in Asia with a unique European atmosphere and the oldest surviving colonial city in the Philippines.
Strolling the Old World City
I took a bus ride from Manila after my last day of work for the week and slept mostly during the trip, until interminably awakened by stopovers for refreshment. Before it sped, I had in my scheduler all exciting things to do already, as a lonely traveler, though dizzied and later on slumber was finally overcame by one bus stop. The trip took me almost ten hours to Vigan, quietly amused of how those wide (impressive) highways were transformed to narrow cobblestoned routes that turns around and about the antiquated city steps. It was in the eastern part of Plaza Burgos, a place called Vigan Empanadaan, where I sampled the famed empanada of Ilocos. I was lucky too there was something new en gusto, like the Sinanglao, a local hotpot delicacy made of beef innards. I strolled the narrow streets feeling as if in Europe, eavesdropping on some sonata resonating on the spaces outside one rustic window where a stereo speaker was probably faced to the wide open muteness, but the music just added a little euphoria as it went in whispers, me going farther .
My strides were filled with amazement. I read from the signage, “This way to Museum.” I followed, energetically, although it wasn’t preplanned in my scheduler, things new popped up so easily from where I stood, still communicating to my senses if all was so real to deserve a momentary touch by my finger. I entranced the Crisologo Museum which used to be the residence of the Crisologo Family, breathed long among markers belonging from the past. Then I took my initial steps within, acquainted of the accounts that make up the Old Vigan Colonial houses.
The Castillan designs maybe impressive, but her story tells that the ancestral houses were mostly built by opulent Chinese traders. The big houses are made of thick brick walls and plastered red clay. The Mestizo district is composed of more than a hundred houses line side by side along Calle Crisologo. Founded in 1572 by a Spaniard named Juan de Salcedo, the whole blueprint of Vigan is copied from Intramuros or “Old Manila.” It was previously called Ciudad Fernandina, in honor of King Ferdinand which later became the seat of Archdiocese of Nueva Segovia. No wonder why it became one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Site, because even today much of the coats of 18th century Castillan buildings are still in good condition. In fact, some are turned into cozy inns, museums, and souvenir shops.
Not very long I exited the museum. My sling bag hangs loose to the left side of my body. My steps became solemnized in view farther, where a group of tourists like me gags. I took a turn, still the cobblestone uniformed in between my legs and stretching throughout the footpath. The vestiges of colonialism obviously did not stop there.
Memories of Bohol slid past me, though concisely. Old churches resembling like the one from Baclayon, was immediately overlaid by the buttressed grandiose versions of Vigan, centuries-old edifices breath like reminders of what was royalty once, as one among the earliest Spanish settlements in the country. I halted, fronting the lofty St. Paul’s Cathedral, its impressive octagonal bell tower wayward south; finding hard of any word in mind to depict the motifs. It was only until later, until I knew it was built by the Augustinian friars and features a Neo-Gothic and pseudo Romanesque motifs did this cathedral withstood the “Earthquake Baroque” style of Ilocos region.
In real time my attention was interrupted on an elevation westward, I decided to skip most of its internal portion. There was another oldish monument, the oldest in Luzon called Plaza Salcedo. But skipping most part of the Cathedral did not hinder me from going into the Archbishop’s Palace which was made a rich repository of religious artifacts from the whole of the district.
It was afternoon in the age-old streets of Vigan. My strides were frankly miniature trips to the past, hopping from one to another too with the aroma of food, coffee, and old wood. The people I met cracked smiles, I smiled back as a warm response, but swiftly another door opened and the spirit of dining possessed me. Local cuisine was among the priorities I have on my list, so eyeing some earlier of the day at the plaza (some can be at the marketplace) I purposely introduced myself to Lita (only her nickname). On the top list we have Pinakbet, Igado, and Dinakdakan. But she told me Vigan is more than that, so I stressed another about something foreign that has been nurtured for a long time as the place was. Lita smiled of corniness, tossed me some garlic flavored chichacorn or widely known as cornick. It tasted like snack but I swallowed it piranha style. She laughed and calls for her brother named Leon.
Leon told me that Pipian is good when eaten noontime. For the sake of eating it we managed to an inn with a little cookery done. This time we were on scooter. The dish was served and I never thought it was that perfect. I could tell from the food the ginger, the chicken, the annato seeds, the sour bilimbi all fused and one distinct herby taste Leon said came from pasotes leaves. When we got out the sky turned starlit and so we drank blue tonic mix served in a drinking tower beside the inn. After the set Leon took me to his friend where we continued three petite bottles of rum until the rest of the evening.
The next day Leon was early. His scooter quickly took us to their eatery and Lita served us Abrao. This dish is made from assorted seasonal vegetables in fish broth flavored with bagoong or fish paste. We hit the road again but the sky turned dark of thick clouds. We opted to cancel the Baluarte Zoo trip and went to Pagburnayan instead, a barrio in Vigan where anyone can see how the famous jars (burnay) are made. The ray of light broke from the sky and later it was cleared again. I asked Leon if I can drive the scooter and he agreed to. He pinpointed directions until we arrived at the Hidden Garden in Bulala. The place is also famous for making bricks and pots of clay with a wide greenery. In the middle stood a snack bar where we enjoyed potato chips and a can of Four Seasons.
That very afternoon I said my parting words to my newfound friends, with an assurance of coming back. It was a brief weekend trip indeed but a lot remains to be discovered of Vigan. But I am quite sure it was among the charming places on earth I ever stepped into.