Friday, August 3, 2012, 00:00
The historical city of Vigan is described by Unesco as the best preserved example of a planned Spanish colonial town in Asia. Founded in the 16th century, the citys architecture combines cultural elements from the Philippines as well as from China and Europe, creating a culture and townscape that is unique in East and Southeast Asia.
When we arrive just before dawn after driving more than 450 km from the capital city of Manila, Vigan is still pretty much asleep. There are no tourists and kalesas the horse-drawn carriages that are ubiquitous during the day on the narrow cobbled streets. The large wooden doors and windows of the towns old buildings are still shut, and at Plaza Burgos, one of two major plazas, early rising locals are enjoying arroz caldo (chicken porridge) and their first coffee of the day.
The city closely follows the town planning decreed by the Spanish empire in its Law of the Indies. Only, while the checkerboard street plan has one main plaza at the center, Vigan has two: Plaza Salcedo and Plaza Burgos. Both face the cathedral. This rectilinear grid was intended to facilitate the quick mobilization of troops and efficient transportation of goods onto ships heading back to Spain. Now it makes it very easy for visitors to go around town with or without maps.
As in other Spanish colonial towns in Latin America where the central plaza must be surrounded by important structures, several imposing buildings dominate these two plazas: The municipal hall, provincial capitol, the cathedral, the archbishops palace and a bit further, the museum.
The two plazas were named after two opposite personalities: Spanish conqueror Juan de Salcedo, who defeated the local inhabitants and established a new city called Villa Fernandina in 1572, and Father Jose P. Burgos, a clergy reformist, one of Vigans illustrious sons put to death by the Spaniards.
The locals also remember Plaza Salcedo as the place where the Spaniards executed Maria Josefa Gabriela Silang, the first female leader fighting for the Philippines liberation, together with almost one hundred of her followers, to serve as a warning to the Ilocanos people.
Maybe its because of this history that the locals Biguenos prefer to hang out at Plaza Burgos. This is arguably the best place to meet the locals and learn about the citys history and culture or just to hear the latest gossip.
The Biguenos remember the harsh Spanish rule, which lasted 400 years, and the independence-minded natives. Vigan supported the revolutionaries who sought to liberate the country through a string of revolts: The Malong Revolt of 1661, the Silang Revolt in 1762, the Tobacco Revolt in 1788 and the Basi Revolt in 1807.
Finally, under the leadership of General Emilio Aguinaldo, they defeated the Spaniards in 1898 and were able to raise the Philippines flag for the first time at the archbishops palace.
Besides the strong Spanish influence, Vigan has a fusion of Chinese and indigenous Ilocano building designs and colonial architecture.
Chinese merchants came here long before these islands were colonized by the Europeans, says Roland G. Simbulan, a professor in development studies and public management at the University of the Philippines. They never arrived as conquerors and became highly respected for their skills and hard work. Many Chinese Filipinos joined the revolutionary struggle against Spain. Chinese people have been integrated in the Philippine society for centuries.
Long before the Spaniards arrived, the city that is now Vigan, was a coastal trading post because of its location on the western coast of North Luzon facing the South China Sea. Chinese traders came via the three rivers that surrounded the city to trade goods from other Asian kingdoms in exchange for mountain products and gold.
The Chinese came before the Spanish occupied the Philippines, not to conquer but to do business and eventually, started their own lineage. Hence, our ancestry is both Chinese and Spanish, explains Ninay Verzosa, one of eight owners of the Villa Angela Heritage House, a family-run guesthouse.
The preservation and restoration of the city began in the 1980s. Verzosas aunt, Marjo Gasser, she says, was one of the people who started it. Villa Angela was handed down through the generations and she is a fifth-generation owner.
My grandparents decided to restore the house to its former glory, she says. They wanted to have a place where the clan could store its relics and memorabilia accumulated through the years. My father formalized Villa Angela as a pension house and made more improvements.
Vigans heart is the area around Plaza Salcedo, Plaza Burgos and Calle Crisologo, the cobbled street that is probably one of the most photographed places in the city. In this oldest surviving Spanish colonial city, most of the old buildings continue to be used by the residents since it was founded in the 16th century. There are at least 187 buildings, residential, commercial, religious, and public, that have been preserved, leading to Unesco declaring it a World Heritage Site.
Vigan, with a population of less than 50,000 people, is arguably one of the best-preserved colonial cities in Southeast Asia. It is probably at par with cities like Hoi An in Vietnam, Malacca and Georgetown in Malaysia, and Chinas Macao. Besides preserving more than 187 buildings, the city has also reconstructed cobbled stone streets. Calle Crisologo is now for pedestrians only, with kalesas constituting the only vehicular traffic.
Vigan is a very interesting city, says Rini Andrijani, a visitor from Indonesia. It is very good that they preserved many old buildings and used them to run restaurants, shops and other services. I hope Indonesians realize that they dont have to destroy old buildings to use them for modern services.
The heritage buildings are one reason people go to Vigan. While in many other cities people cant even take photographs inside old buildings, in Vigan they can stay in these places. They can savor the experience of sitting in the living rooms, dining at the long tables in the dining rooms, and sleeping in four-poster canopy beds.
Tom Cruise stayed in the room where you are staying now, madam, Maricris Pandoro, who has been working as a housekeeper for 17 years in Vigan, tells Andrijani. We dont have many rooms but the people who stay here value heritage and understand the importance of preserving it.
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