Sunday, May 22, 2011

Northern Exposure: Enchanted in Vigan, Ilocos Sur

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Vigan: Travel back to the past

The scorching heat did not prevent us from exploring the famed city of Vigan, the capital of Ilocos Sur. Vigan City draws visitors because of its well-preserved colonial houses, old buildings and cobblestone streets that  reflect a rich history and colorful heritage.

Vigan's Past
Vigan was once a thriving coastal trade area where merchants from neighboring countries (China, Japan and Malaya) bartered with locals for gold and other produce. In the 15th century,  Spanish conquistador  Captain Juan de Salcedo settled in Vigan with his troops and renamed the town as Villa Fernandina de Vigan, after the son of King Phillip II. After Salcedo's successful conquest of nearby towns and provinces in Northern Luzon, the King awarded him the province of Ilocos as his Encomienda, with Villa Fernandina as the capital.  Later on, Don Juan de Salcedo brought Augustinian missionaries to the town and had it developed like the city of Intramuros (though not intended as a fortress).  

Vigan was a prosperous town during the Spanish colonization period. It was the center of  economic, religious and political activities in North Luzon. When Japanese forces occupied the Philippines during World War II,  Vigan was one of the few towns that was not burned down by the soldiers.  It was also spared from bombing during the Liberation of the Philippine Islands, unlike the cities of Manila and Cebu. 

Vigan's Attractions
Today, Vigan is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, thanks to the efforts of its locals and the city government.  Exploring Vigan is a unique experience: The old blends well with the new; and the Spanish, Mexican, and Chinese  influences in the town bring an eclectic vibe to this Philippine city. 
A statue of Fr. Jose Burgos at the Plaza

Like any traditional planned Spanish town,  visitors to Vigan will be greeted by a main plaza that is divided into two: the Plaza Salcedo (named after the Spanish conquistador), where the Provincial Capitol and the Municipal Hall are located; and the Plaza Burgos (named after the martyr priest Father Jose Burgos), where the Vigan Cathedral (or the St. Paul's Metropolitan Cathedral) can be found. Both plazas underscore the two important forces during the colonial period: Church and Government.  Interestingly, the Vigan Cathedral's belfry stands at least 10 meters away from it to make sure that either the church or the bell tower will remain standing even after an earthquake. 

The Vigan Cathedral's Bell Tower

The all-white, baroque design of the Cathedral of Vigan was not quite imposing.  However, it's a different story once we went inside. In lieu of elaborate reliefs are impressive arches and an ornate altar made of marble, gold and silver.  Also inside the Cathedral is a Mausoleum which houses the remains of 12 of the 36 bishops of Nueva Segovia. Entrance to the Mausoleum is through the Museo San Pablo (at the Southern part of the church), which houses religious artifacts and a photo collection featuring 18th century Vigan.  Near the Cathedral is the historical Arzobispado de Nueva Segovia or the Archbishop's Residence, which is responsible for addressing the ecclesiastical needs of the Ilocos Sur province.  Stories of faith mixed with Vigan's cultural practices and politics added color to our visit to these religious institutions. 

An afternoon at Kasanglayan

Vigan's most photographed attraction is the Kasanglayan or the Mestizo District, where the well-known Calle Crisologo is located. According to locals, Kasanglayan stands for "Where the Sangleys live" and referred to the Chinese traders who settled in Vigan and intermarried with the Ilocanos. Through hard work and enterprise, these families became influential in shaping the trade and economic activity in Vigan. Some of those families later became involved in politics and likewise shaped Vigan's recent history. 

Elements of the Bahay na Bato

Promenading at the Old Mestizo District is like stepping into 16th century Vigan.  In particular, the well-preserved bahay na bato  (stone houses) highlight the fusion of Asian materials and European architectural design. The ground floor of a typical bahay na bato was made of stone and served either as a warehouse or office while the upper floor which was made of timber served as living quarters. The tilted roofs, large open windows, sliding window panels made of capiz shells, and huge wooden doors reflect the multi-cultural influences in the construction of the house.  At present, some of the stone houses have been converted to stores that sell antique items, accessories, clothing, local food and souvenirs. Others were  transformed to inns, restaurants and cafes. The rest have remained as they were centuries ago, elegantly standing despite the ravages of weather and time.

Calesas for rent at the Plaza
Visitors can explore Calle Crisologo by foot or by riding a calesa for that "old world" feeling. We preferred to take a leisurely stroll so that we can have more time to take photos and buy souvenirs. It also allowed us to see closely some of the historical markers and important landmarks in the area.

The Syquia Mansion, a lifestyle museum
Outside Kasanglayan are other significant places that will help one understand the lifestyle and history of the BigueƱos (locals of Vigan). Foremost is the Burgos Museum which is a short walk from Plaza Salcedo. It is the ancestral home of Father Jose Burgos, a Filipino priest who promoted secularism and was executed on allegations of leading a mutiny. Inside the museum are the priest's memorabilia, books, photographs as well as paintings and dioramas depicting local history. Another one is the Syquia Mansion (at the corner of Calle Quirino and Calle Salcedo), where the former Philippine President Elpidio Quirino once resided. The Crisologo Museum, though a bit rundown, is also worth visiting. The Museum pays tribute to the former Governor of Ilocos Norte, Floro Crisologo, a charismatic political leader whose unsolved assassination inside the Vigan Cathedral changed the political landscape of the province.  The Burgos Museum and Syquia Mansion have minimal entrance fees while the Crisologo Museum simply accepts donations. 
A peek into the Crisologo Museum

Farther away from Kasanglayan is the Baluarte, located at Salindeg, 10 minutes away from  Vigan City. It is a mini-zoo and wildlife sanctuary owned by Chavit Singson. Aside from seeing exotic animals and watching live animal shows, visitors can also see the Singson's residence. Construction's underway during our visit. Somehow, it reminded us of the Trump Towers in Las Vegas.

Golden tower at Baluarte

Our visit to Vigan will not be complete without dropping by at the Vigan Empanadaan. The Empanadaan is a row of stores selling the popular Ilocos Sur snack, empanada. The empanada is a crunchy, mouth-watering treat of fried pastry stuffed with vegetables, longganisa, and egg. Vigan Empanadaan's located at Jacinto Street, near Plaza Burgos. 

Must try : Vigan's Empanada

Once we finished our empanadas, we took a short stroll back to Calle Crisologo to see how the street looks like at sunset. The cooler breeze, the glow from the lamp lights and the shadows cast by the old houses made the place more romantic. By night, the place looked even more enchanting. All of us couldn't help but exclaim, "We'll definitely return to Vigan."

Calle Crisologo at sunset 

*For more photos, check out the Ilocos album on Facebook.
*Getting to Vigan:

  • By plane, you can reach Vigan by taking a flight from Manila to Laoag, then rent a van or a  car to get to Vigan City.  The road trip  would take a maximum of 2 hours. 
  • You can also take an air-conditioned or non-airconditioned bus from Laoag to  Vigan.  It would take more than 2 hours, including stops.
  • There are also buses from Manila to Vigan. Travel would take 8 to 10 hours. Partas, Dominion and Farinas Trans are just some of the buses that you can take to get to Vigan.

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