Sunday 12 June 2016

Vigan - part three of a Philippines journey

The drive from Sagada to Vigan, capital of the Ilocos Sur province, took six hours. It began with stunning views of the morning clouds in the valleys which soon gave way to one small town after another, each with their church, shops, petrol station and food stalls. Less than one hour from Vigan we caught a glimpse of the body of water known locally as the West Philippines Sea with its many small boats and people fishing from the rocks and the shore.

Shortly before reaching our destination, we stopped for lunch at a branch of Max's restaurant, a Philippine chain founded in 1945 and famous for its chicken. Greeted at the door by the customary "welcome sir, welcome ma'am" - my guide was able to arrange for a vegetarian dish for me as well as some of the sweet potato chips that I had by this point become addicted to. However, the highlight of my lunch was a huge bowl of Halo Halo - a dessert made of shaved ice, various types of sweet bean and fruit. I've eaten another version of this in Singapore where its known as Ais Kacang, but I'd never had one where the main colour is purple!

Vigan was hot and humid after the temporary respite of Sagada's micro-climate but this did not prevent me from strolling along Calle Crisologo - something I had been looking forward to since arriving in the Philippines. It is the city's main street and unlike Manila, many of the older buildings survived the Second World War. This elegant street has many cafes, restaurants, souvenir shops and other enterprises linked to tourism and which provide employment for local people. Many of the buildings have been carefully restored with the encouragement and advice of the local authority and it is possible to admire the many capiz-shell windows and ventanillas (ventilated walls) that add character to the street. The architecture is an eclectic mix of Spanish colonial style with some Chinese and local influences such as the steep staircases and decorative features. The atmosphere has been enhanced by the banning of motor vehicles from the street with horse drawn carriages being the only form of transport allowed.

There is much to see in Calle Crisologo and it is easy to miss some of the detail if you don't look carefully. I especially liked the uniform detailing under the eaves of the buildings, a surprisingly ornate staircase in a lobby behind one of the street vendors, the collection of old doors, pots and metal items outside an artisan's studio and a dark wood antique cabinet in the little cafe I chose for just one more coffee before bed.

There are several ancestral homes in and around Vigan, some of which are open to the public. The Syquia Mansion on Quirino Boulevard was built in 1830 and was the home of Dona Alicia Syquia, wife of former president Elpidio Quirino. The Syquia family emigrated from China to the Philippines in order to trade with the Spanish. The mansion has been beautifully restored and contains many original furnishings, some of them in Chinese style reflecting the family's origins. The layout of the mansion reflects the class divisions of the colonial period with separate rooms set aside for receiving different classes of guest and a volada, a covered external corridor running the length of the building allowing servants to pass through without coming into contact with the family. The Syquias owned a number of properties in Vigan including one on Calle Crisologo which still bears the family name although the building was sold some years ago.

I also visited the Quema house in Encarnacion Street. Built in the 1820's for merchant Don Mariano Quema, the house retains most of the original furnishings and decor, some of which has been restored. The living quarters are at the upper levels whilst the ground floor was originally for storage and for garaging horse-drawn carriages.

The furnishings reflect a range of styles including Viennese chairs and Chinese cupboards whilst the walls and ceilings are decorative, some with images of vine-like plants. The furnishings include a wooden chair with elongated arms that doubled as a lounging seat and a birthing chair. Like the Syquia mansion, the Quema house has a volada and ventanillas allowing air to circulate in the living quarters. It also has something quite ingenious. One of the wooden floor panels in the room above the old coach entrance hides a small window giving residents a peep at would be callers and allowing them to decide whether or not they are "at home". If the caller is to be admitted, a cord behind the curtains opens the outer door to grant them entry. Cheaper than CCTV and it doesn't break down! Visits to the house are by appointment only. The latest edition of the Rough Guide to the Philippines gives 075 632 0480 as the number to call to arrange a visit.

A new museum and documentation centre will open in Vigan before the end of 2016. I was privileged to get a preview of the almost complete building which covers the city's history with a particular focus on its built heritage for which it enjoys UNESCO World Heritage status as the best preserved Spanish colonial city in Asia. A range of artifacts reflecting the various ethnic communities in the area are exhibited and,there are some excellent interactive features that will be the envy of many museums both in the Philippines and further afield. I particularly enjoyed designing my own ancestral home using one of these features!

The museum consists of a series of buildings linked by bridges and will include a cafe and gift shop once works are completed. The project has for the most part been funded by the city government who understand the importance of the built heritage and how it contributes to the economy, well-being and cultural life of the city today. The museum will include a store where local people can purchase old doors, window-frames, furnishings and other items to assist them in restoring their homes. These have been purchased from neighbouring towns and cities where old buildings have been demolished or "modernised". These rescued items will only be available to Vigan residents. In addition to this, a book has been published showing how to undertake sensitive and authentic restoration and giving useful local contacts. It is this kind of forward and practical thinking that has led to Vigan being recognised by UNESCO for Best Practice in World Heritage Site Management.

The new museum is bound to become one of the most visited sites in Ilocos Sur, if not in the whole of the Philippines but in the meantime, the old Ilocos Sur Jail houses a museum and gallery that is well worth a visit. As well as some excellent temporary exhibitions, the museum is home to the 14 paintings that record the Basi Revolt of 1807 when the Ilocos region rose up against the Spanish in response to their banning of the production and sale of the local wine - Basi. The revolt was cruelly put down and ended with the execution of many of the rebels in the neighbouring town of San Vicente.

In order to remind the locals of the consequences of rebellion, the Spanish ordered one Esteban Pichay Villanueva to paint scenes from the uprising. Not an artist by profession he completed a series of 14 paintings in 1821 in the naif style and in reference to the 14 stations of the cross displayed in Catholic churches. Despite not being an artist, Villanueva made use of some interesting techniques - showing the Spanish as being much larger than the Filipinos to show their dominance but also showing  Halley's Comet a sign understood by local people to mean that a revolution would finally come. I have not been able to find a book or postcard reproductions showing the pictures but they can be viewed online through any search engine. The museum is interesting for having been the birthplace of President Elpidio Quirino whose father worked at the prison and about whom there is a permanent exhibition. Visitors are greeted by an old sign warning inmates that the prison is a drug free zone!

Saint Paul's Metropolitan Cathedral stands in Vigan's main square together with the city's various administrative buildings. Built between 1790 and 1800 in Baroque style, the cathedral has thick ramparts and a belfry built 15 metres away from the main building in the hope that future earthquakes would not take both structures. The cathedral exhibits a number of Chinese influences including the dogs on the facade over the main entrance and the brass communion handrails. The plaza opposite the cathedral is a popular gathering place, particularly in the evenings when people come to see performances by the musical fountain. Its also where I enjoyed a very tasty avocado ice cream.

The plaza features in the story of how Vigan avoided destruction at the end of the Second World War when many other cities in the Philippines were heavily damaged by US bombing and burning by the retreating Japanese. A similar fate would have befallen Vigan but for the intervention of affairs of the heart and for a German parish priest. Captain Fujiro Takahashi went to Father Joseph Klemcamf asking him to intercede with the Americans and to persuade them not to bomb the city. His reason for this was that he had married a local woman - Adela Tolentino - and had two children with her. Unable to take them with him on the retreat from Vigan he wanted to assure their safety. Klemcamf agreed to stave off the Americans and apparently did so by telling them the Japanese had already left and by displaying a huge American flag on the ground of the central plaza as proof. In return for this, the Japanese ignored their order to set fire to the city and Vigan was saved.

Two nights in Vigan passed quickly and it was soon time to head for Laoag from where I was to fly back to Manila to prepare for my journey home. However, there was still one more treat to come. The Saint Augustine Church in Paoay is part of yet another UNESCO World Heritage site, one of four baroque churches listed in 1993. Saint Augustine's is particularly interesting for the 24 huge side buttresses that support the structure and give it something of a Javanese appearance. Adjacent to the church there is an earthquake ruined convent now used as a venue for cultural activity and which had some interesting installations at the time of my visit, whilst beyond the convent there are some well preserved ancestral homes.

After Paoay I enjoyed a vegetarian empanada at Lanie's Empanada in Batac which like Paoay is in the Ilocos Norte province, next door to Ilocos Sur. I had enjoyed several culinary delights in Vigan and the surrounding area including a vegetarian version of monggo which consisted of mung beans, bitter melon, tomatoes and onions - the regular version includes air dried pork. I also liked a dish made from eggplant (aubergine), egg, tomatoes and onion which has the slightly risqué name of poqui-poqui and an early morning drink of taho, made from tofu, custard and brown sugar and sold by street vendors.

My time in the Philippines was over. all too soon I was struck by the diversity of the landscape from the teeming, hot and humid city of Manila to the peace and quiet of Sagada with its temperate climate. I loved those greenest of green rice terraces in Banaue and could have spent days just looking at the landscape and I was charmed by the rich history and elegance of Vigan. I would love to be able to stroll along Crisologo just now and stop for a coffee and a pastry. I have some great memories of riding though Intramuros on a bamboo bicycle, riding on the roof of a jeepney in Banaue, trying my hand at both weaving and ceramics in Vigan and getting the chance to see some of Manila's best art deco buildings from the inside.

But most of all, I was touched by the kindness and generosity of the people and their enthusiasm for their culture and traditions. It was my first visit to these islands but it certainly won't be my last - I am already hatching plans for a return.

You might also like Looking for old Manila and North to Banaue and Sagada.

You can see more pictures from the Philippines here.

Thanks to Undiscovered Destinations who planned and organized my trip and to Intas for providing such excellent local expertise, help and above all fun!

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