This Yuletide season, let’s take a different kind of Christmas break. Let’s have an adventure of the mind and soul. Let’s revisit and educate ourselves with our rich and vibrant Filipino history and culture. And in the Philippines, there is no other place where you can truly step back in time than in lovely Vigan, a heritage city in Ilocos Sur. It is also one of the last remaining Hispanic towns in the Philippines.
Due to the wholehearted and diligent efforts of the LGU and the citizens, many of the original cobblestone streets and unique colonial European architecture remain beautifully preserved. So much so that Vigan was officially recognized as one of the New 7 Wonder Cities in the World in May 2015. Additionally, the city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is one destination that is truly worth visiting.
The most difficult part of this trip was to endure a 10-hour ride from Metro Manila to Vigan, which covers a distance of 400-plus kilometers. There are flights from Manila to Laoag, just a bit north of Vigan. However, the airfare leaps beyond our budget.
Fortunately, we rode a Deluxe Partas bus, which features fully reclining seats with spacious legroom. Thus, we alternatively slept and watched the in-bus movies.
We arrived in Vigan at around 10PM, ate in a local Jollibee outlet, and checked in our hotel. The next day, we woke up early and started our exploration of our past.
Spanish-era buildings like the one in the photo below prevail in this otherwise modern city. Many of these structures were originally private houses, which were then converted to restaurants, inns, offices, and more.
Our first stop of the day is Hidden Garden, a favorite stop of the city’s plant lovers and collectors. The adjective “Hidden” is truly apt. It was like being in a concealed jungle in the middle of the city.
Cemented pathways form a simple network that lead to the different parts of the garden.
Many rare orchids, ferns, flowers, and other plants are found here. Common herbs and small vegetable-bearing plants are also available. The garden also has a large nursery where saplings and seedlings are taken care of until they mature.
Sweetie loves plants, so she was naturally thrilled when she found that these fortune bamboos were for sale. We bought a few pots to bring with us back home to Cebu.
If you are a landscaper, horticulturist, or plant hobbyist, then this place is perfect for you.
These are truly rare flowers; the yellow one with dark pods is my personal favorite. If you have these flowers growing in your lawn, you’ll be the envy of your neighbors.
One of our favorite parts of the Hidden Garden is the bonsai collection section where various types of bonsai trees are on display. The place is tastefully decorated with miniature shinto shrines, gravel pathways, and bamboo fences. For a moment, we thought we were in Japan. Hehehe!
Since bonsai plants are delicate, a chain fence is installed around the garden; no one, except the caretakers, is allowed to go near them.
There are various kinds of bonsai trees, which is really an umbrella term for miniature trees, that are grown here. Bonsai, the thousand-year-old Japanese art of growing and trimming trees grown in containers, originated from the Chinese tradition of penjing.
Check out that fat one with a chubby, twisted trunk that looks like a set of tentacles.
But lush plants are not just the only attractions in the garden. A Zen fountain and a wishing well greet guests near the entrance. A collection of ceramic Buddhas may grant your fondest wishes if you give them a treat.
Finely chiseled wooden sculptures and handmade crafts decorate various areas of the garden.
Various fruits and vegetables, grown organically in the Hidden Garden, are placed on sale. They are also used as fresh ingredients in many of the Garden’s dishes. Yes, they have a restaurant!
We left the hotel without eating breakfast, so we were ravenously hungry by the time we finished our Hidden Garden tour. We headed to their open-air al fresco restaurant.
Food adventures are essential to a great trip, so we ordered some of Vigan’s all-time, traditional, and delicious specialties. Aside from our usual favorite fried eggs, we enjoyed crispy bagnet (deep-fried crispy pork chunks), the sumptuous Ilocos longganisa (which survived spoilage for a week), and sweet dragonfruit shake (which is sinfully tasty and colorful).
After breakfast, we headed to our next destination, the famous Baluarte, a zoo run by former Filipino politician Chavit Singson. Although it is a favorite and popular destination in Ilocos, we found it ghastly and disgusting as the place runs exactly opposite to our morals and advocacies.
We might or might not tell you about our visit here as we find Baluarte a cruel place compounded by an exhibit that blatantly presents man’s arrogance and disrespect against Mother Nature.
Rowilda’s Loom Weaving
Getting out of the Baluarte invoked a sense of relief from a constricted and horrifying feeling in us. Wanting to inject something positive into our thoughts, we headed to the nearby Rowilda’s Loom Weaving factory, a well-hidden cultural establishment.
We find Rowilda’s quite a special factory as it still uses traditional hand-and-foot-powered looms to weave yarn into beautiful place mats, table runners, blankets, and other textile products. Vigan residents take an immense amount of pride in their heritage, history, and culture that industries like these continue to strive healthily.
Unfortunately, it was a weekend, and the workers were out for a break. However, the owners who were left in the shop, allowed us to check out their place.
These old looms are truly complex and intricate human-powered devices. You have to admire the incredible skill and dexterity of the weavers using these machines.
We tried the art of weaving when we were in Puerto Princesa, Palawan during our first-year anniversary. We tell you, the process is frustratingly—and delightfully—complicated!
Spools upon spools of yarn are just waiting to be woven into lovely hand-crafted products. While the stockroom was messy, it does have a somewhat romantic feeling to it as if we were suddenly transported back in time.
Many of these handwoven items are sold in malls, souvenir shops, and stores while others are exported to various countries. With its intricate artwork, it is impossible not to admire the love and skill that are poured into these products.
Since we had extra money, we bought a couple of runners for our dining table back home.
Bell Tower of Santuario de Nuestra Señora de Caridad
Moving on, we headed to Bantay at the outskirts of the city to visit another historical, cultural, and religious heritage—the Bell Tower of Santuario de Nuestra Señora de Caridad. It was constructed in the late 1500s, the same time that the watchtower of Bantay was built.
This is a place of serenity, bliss, and worship. Low, lofty trees provide an airy shade from the searing sun while serving as home for mayas, pigeons, and other birds that frequent the place.
Check that out! They carefully preserved the original red bricks that were used during the tower’s construction. Just imagine; these bricks are more than a hundred years old!
This is preservation unlike the so-called restoration projects that cover original surfaces with cement, destroying the structure’s historical value.
We climbed the bell tower until we reached the top. The heavy main iron bell here weighs more than a ton, and the sound can be heard several miles away.
Smaller bells, now non-operational and fixed in position, surround the tower’s main bell. Each of the smaller bells are used to announce some sort of event—the passing of an important person, a wedding, an alarm, and more—to the townsfolk.
It’s a pity that irresponsible locals and tourists vandalized these precious bells.
Yes, that’s a small cemetery in the distance. But check out the scenery that surrounds it. Wonderful, isn’t it? It is not difficult to imagine the restful spirits of Bantay’s ancestors enjoying a mid-morning stroll in the woods.
Before going back down to our tricycle drivers who were waiting at the churchyard, Sweetie enjoyed a short rest on one of the tower’s brick niches. From here, one can see a great view of the surrounding area and some parts of the town.
This is why in the past, church bell towers often double as watchtowers. They offer an excellent vantage for soldiers on the lookout (bantay in the dialect) for marauders, pirates, and invaders during the Spanish colonial era.
The churches in Ilocos are quite large, and the one in Bantay is no exception. Look at the people on the foreground for scale reference.
The St. Augustine Parish Church is the home of the miraculous image of Our Lady of Charity, the patroness of Ilocandia. The church was severely damaged during World War 2, but rebuilding and restoration efforts did not start until 1950. Today, the facade exhibits a Neo-Gothic design blended with pseudo-Romanesque elements. Like the Bantay tower, it is constructed out of red bricks and mud.
Pagburnayan Pottery Making
With breakfast (and a buko juice we bought at St. Augustine Parish Church) still sitting heavily in our tummies, we decided to skip lunch and head off to another of Vigan’s cultural treasures—a pottery factory. It is located inside one of city’s many wooded areas.
Making pots is still done in the ancient way. The potter places a ball of clay on a gigantic foot-powered potter’s wheel. An assistant kicks (sorry, we don’t really know how to describe it) the wheel to make it spin rapidly.
The clay itself is prepared by blending and mashing it together with sawdust or coconut husks. The latter materials are used to absorb moisture and subsequently improve the clay’s malleability, plasticity, and drying time.
With intense concentration, the old potter pulls, squeezes, coaxes, and forms the ball into a beautiful pottery item, in this case, a vase. We can’t help but be open-mouthed at the skill and craftsmanship of these people. They have been doing this all their lives—truly world-class artisans.
Okay, let’s do this! The old potter invited mo to try it out. I have made miniature tanks, ships, and airplanes for years; and modeling requires a steady hand. I believe I could do this! I’ll show them what I’m made of.
Well, I believe the photo below says it out—I have a loooooooong way to go to even master the basics. That’s reality versus expectation at its most blatant. The pot on the right was created by the local potter. The one on the left is mine; it doesn’t resemble anything!
Once the pots are formed, they are placed outside to air dry. But during rainy days, they are placed in a large roofed shed like this. Translucent skylights allow heat and light to go in, aiding in moisture evaporation.
Stunningly handcrafted jars, cooking pots, vases, water vessels! It is astonishing to know that despite modern appliances, these items made of the earth are still heavily in use in Vigan.
Before leaving the pottery factory, our friends bought some souvenirs. We also took with us a bottle of spicy native vinegar. Yes—that’s pure coconut vinegar, not the commercial ones that taste like acid.
Oh, and if you are afraid of vampires coming to prey on you during the night, just hang a bunch of garlic on your door. They have enough garlic here to melt the creatures of the night.
While there are motorized tricycles, habal-habals, jeepneys, and trucks plying the city’s streets, locals still use traditional kalesas to travel short distances. A kalesa is a horse-drawn barouche (a type of carriage) that was common during the Spanish era. They were first used by high-ranking officials, rich people, and nobles; but their use filtered down to the public at some point in time.
The large wheels and the inclined position of the carriage makes the entire load lighter and easier for the horse. Thus, a single horse can easily pull a kalesa with a full load of four people.
Note the good condition of the horse. The horses in Vigan are big, strong, healthy, well fed, and well-taken care of unlike the scrawny and sick ones in some parts of Cebu City.
The driver, called a kutsero, sits at the front seat of a kalesa. In the photo below, he’s the fellow wearing a white shirt, vest, and a hat.
These are just some snippets of the historical and cultural treasures of Vigan. The core of any place’s story is its people itself. So in the next article, we went a a little bit deeper; we checked out the old, Spanish-era houses that Vigan is so well-known for.
We placed our itinerary, budget, and a few tips of our first day in Part 2.