Brian's Blogs

Strolling Between the Walls in Downtown Manila

I was wandering around central Manila a few weeks back and found myself in Rizal Park, heading for… well, I’m not sure where. Rizal Park, you’ll remember if you read my last blog, is situated slap bang next to the National Museum and along Roxas Boulevard, adjacent to Manila’s old walled city of Intramuros.

Something that had caught my eye on my previous visit was a sign to the old Orchidarium; and as I love gardens and plant exhibits, I had determined to visit it as soon as time permitted.

The sign had caught my eye before as, not only did it point the way to the Orchidarium itself, but at the bottom it warned, rather ominously in my opinion, “Government Property Do Not Remove. Mere possession of this sign is punishable by law”.

Now, although I cannot fathom for one minute why anyone would cast a covetous eye over such a ramshackle old billboard, I had to keep reminding myself that I was, after all, in Manila and anything that isn’t bolted down is liable to be lifted.

Slap bang in the middle of this object of desire was the word Barbara’s, added, I suspect, somewhat haphazardly at some date after the board had originally been created.

Barbara’s, for those in the know, is a catering chain that claims to specialise in Filipino and Spanish dishes, though house specialties apparently also include other European-inspired dishes. Barbara's also claims to “cater to people who enjoy good food served in a grand manner”. The most recent addition to the company’s projects is the Orchidarium outlet, whose plaza can accommodate functions for up to 500 people.

Alas, the well laid plans of mice and men are invariably thwarted; and with tears in my eyes I soon discovered the Orchidarium was well and truly locked for ‘rehabilitation’. So the garden has once again returned to my list of must-see-places-some-time-in-the-future.

So what else can one do in this part of downtown Manila? What else, apart from explore the old area of Intramuros, just along the road!

Over four centuries ago, Intramuros WAS Manila. From its founding in 1571, to the end of Spanish rule in 1898, it was the exclusive preserve of the Spanish ruling classes, while the native populace was settled in surrounding areas such as Paco and Binondo, while the 'troublesome' Chinese were kept under permanent supervision in a ghetto called the Parian.

For some 400 years, Intramuros served as the capital of the Spanish East Indies. It was the centre of commerce, education, government, and religion in Spain's most distant imperial possession. Within its massive walls were imposing government buildings, stately homes, churches, convents, monasteries, schools, hospitals and cobbled plazas. Life there was the standard against which all other lifestyles in the rest of the country were judged.

But time was not kind to Intramuros. It suffered gunfire, earthquakes, fires and a world war or two, followed by neglect; and it’s surprising that so much still stands today, given that it was only in 1979 that there was finally an attempt made to rebuild it, starting firstly on the old walls.

Also known as the Ciudad Murada (Walled City), Intramuros is almost completely surrounded by this massive three-mile-long circuit of walls and fortifications, that were begun in the late 1500s to protect the inhabitants from attack. The Spanish conquistador Miguel López de Legazpi laid the foundations of the new capital on the former site of Maynilad, a palisaded riverside settlement, being the remnants of an Islamic settlement by the mouth of the Pasig River.

The walls enclosed a pentagonal area approximately 0.67 sq km in size – or some 64 hectares – within which lay a tight grid-like system of streets and a main square surrounded by government structures. The defensive curtain was more or less completed by the 1700s, although improvements and other construction work continued well into the next century.

Not that it stopped it being invaded by Chinese pirates, threatened by Dutch forces, and held by the British, Americans and Japanese at various times. But it did survive until the closing days of WWII, when it was finally heavily damaged by US bombing during the battle to recapture the city from the Japanese Imperial Army, by which time the walls were almost all that remained.

Reconstruction of the walls was started in 1951 when Intramuros was declared a National Historical Monument; but that didn’t stop the Global Heritage Fund identifying the place as one of 12 worldwide sites "on the verge" of irreparable loss and destruction" in its 2010 report entitled Saving Our Vanishing Heritage, citing poor management together with development pressures.

Anyway, one of the most famous gates in the wall is the Postigo del Palacio, which was built in 1662, and renovated 120 years later. On 30 Dec 1896, the Philippines’ national hero José Rizal was taken through this gate from Fort Santiago en route to the place of his execution at Bagumbayan, in what today has become Rizal Park. Damaged in the battle of Manila in 1945, the gate was restored in 1968, with further restorations made in 1982.

Except for a brief period under British rule (1762-1764), Intramuros remained a Spanish city until 1898, when the U.S. took control of the Philippines at the end of the Spanish-American War.

Before the American Era, entrance to the city was through eight gates. Drawbridges were raised and the city was closed from 11 pm till 4 am every night, continuing in this way until 1852, when, following a major earthquake, it was decreed that the gates should thenceforth remain open 24/7.

Amazingly, there has not been that much commercialisation taking place inside the walls. The exception is the establishment of one or two fast food outlets such as Jollibee, McDonald's and Starbucks which are all full to bursting due to the patronage of the student population within Intramuros.

But apart from the Golden Arches et al, there has been quite a bit of effort made to restore Intramuros to its former glory. You would be hard pressed to know that many of the buildings have been almost entirely rebuilt. And the Spanish colonial architecture is surely what makes this area so attractive.

Here, for instance, is the ECJ Building, which is one of my favourites. It was formerly the site of Casa Nueva – the provincial house of the Augustinian Order. When it was destroyed by a fire in 1932, a two-story building belonging to Adamson University was constructed, but this was also destroyed in the 1945 bombings. The Institution was founded in 1932 by George Lucas Adamson, a Greek national living in the Philippines, as a School of Industrial Chemistry and Engineering. The first school building was located at San Miguel, then transferred here to Intramuros, and during the war, to Meralco.

If you’re wondering what ECJ is all about, I’m told it stands for Eduardo Cojuangco Jr. who is the chairman of San Miguel Corporation (the largest food and beverage corporation in the Philippines and Southeast Asia), former Philippine ambassador, and a former governor of Tarlac. It has been estimated that, at one time, his business empire accounted for 25% of the gross national product of the Philippines. He was a candidate for the presidency in 1992, ultimately losing to Fidel Ramos, who got 23.6% of the vote. Miriam Defensor Santiago (my heroine!) came in second with 19.7% and Cojuangco came in third with 18.2%.

Actually there are loads of attractive buildings. This, for instance, is the Bagumbayan Light and Sound Museum showcasing the life of José Rizal. It used to be the site of the first Filipino congregation of religious women, called Beaterio de la Compañia de Jesus which was founded in 1684, but it too was destroyed in 1945.

But wherever you are in this city-within-a-city, you are never far away from the walls which enclose the 160 acres. An inner moat (or foso) surrounds the perimeter of the wall and an outer moat (contrafoso) surrounds the walls that face the city.

Several bulwarks (baluarte), ravelins (ravellin) and redoubts (reductos) are also strategically located, following the design of medieval fortifications. The seven bastions were constructed at different periods of time, which is why they all appear so different from one another.

One of the future plans of the Intramuros Administration is to complete the perimeter walls that surround the city so that visitors will be able to completely circumnavigate the area from the walkway on top of the walls.

Although most of the walkways are still solid enough, many of the walls, gates and bulwarks are covered in weeds and are crying out for a bit of TLC. Given the amount of visitors coming every day you would think that a bit of sprucing up of the said stonework would be money well spent…

When the Americans took over, they made drastic changes to the city, such as in 1903, when the walls from the Santo Domingo Gate up to the Almacenes Gate were removed, as the wharf on the southern bank of the Pasig River was improved. The double moats that surrounded Intramuros were deemed unsanitary and were filled in with mud dredged from Manila Bay where the present Port of Manila is now located. The moats were then transformed into a municipal golf course!

Along the top of one wall are metal picture casts of past Philippine presidents, starting with the first President – Emilio Aguinaldo – and going through to Gloria Arroyo. Here are the mugshots of Ferdinand Marcos and Corazon Acquino…

Actually, it's all but impossible to get lost in Intramuros, thanks to the district's orderly street plan. General Luna is the main street cutting a swathe through to most of the major attractions, including San Agustín Church and Manila Cathedral, the latter being the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Manila and one of the most important churches in the Philippines. Although it was reconstructed in the 1950s, it has also been locked tightly shut for urgent structural repairs since February 2012, and no definite date has been given for its reopening, which probably means it will be closed for a very long time to come!

Although somewhat less imposing than the Cathedral, San Agustin Church (originally known as "Iglesia de San Pablo") is arguably much more attractive. It was founded in 1571 and built by 1589 and is the oldest stone church in the Philippines. It is said that from 1565 to 1898 close to 3,000 Augustinians worked in the Philippines. They founded 328 parishes, and in 1897 it is estimated that some three million Filipinos were under their care.

The church is steeped in history. It has witnessed major events – for instance it was in the sacristy of the church that the Spaniards and Americans discussed and signed the terms of surrender of the city of Manila to the Americans in 1898. And during the last days of the Battle of Manila in 1945, hundreds of Intramuros residents were gathered and held hostage in the church by Japanese soldiers.

San Agustin Church also survived looting by the British forces, who occupied Manila in 1762 during the Seven Years' War. In 1863, a strong earthquake hit Manila leaving San Agustin Church as the only public building left undamaged in the city. The earthquake of 1880 left a huge crack in the left bell tower of the church but it was eventually repaired. The church also withstood many other major earthquakes that struck Manila in 1645, 1699, 1754, 1796, 1825 and 1852. In 1993, it was one of four Philippine churches constructed during the Spanish colonial period to be designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

Mind you, San Agustín's neighbouring monastery was damaged during the war and was subsequently refashioned into exhibition space which is used for the San Agustín Museum.

They say the museum's pretty impressive, if rather poorly labelled. There are collections of Spanish colonial-era ecclesiastical vestments, sacred vessels, religious art, manuscripts, and other important cultural artefacts. But I’m afraid I gave the museum a miss this time – not being that turned on by ecclesiastical memorabilia – and headed instead to the main part of the church.

I particularly like the four stone lion statues guarding the entrance, in particular this one on the right picking his teeth with what looks like a 17th century sex toy (not, you understand, that I am an expert in such things!).

There’s loads of wooden carvings, both inside and outside – as found here on the main entrance portal whose carvings are quite intricate.

The inside of the church is also intricate, and has a very Spanish feel to it and is much more welcoming than some of the more austere churches you can find around the place.

And this gate leading into the nether reaches of the church looks like it was made by a metalsmith who just didn’t know when to stop. I quite like it though!

The ceiling of San Agustín Church is also attractive, with its trompe l'oeil murals throwing out a seemingly 3D image to the worshippers below…

Having absorbed my fill of culture at this splendid church, I moseyed outside once more and turned a corner to come face to face with another restaurant in the Barbara's chain, this one located at the Plaza San Luis.

Apparently this restaurant elicits very mixed emotions, if those on the web are anything to go by. “Food is normal, but good entertainment” says one, referring to the cultural performances that are part and parcel of the evening fayre.

Too dirty, too old and some areas need repair,” gushes another. “Unfriendly staff but the food is okay.”

Food is not stunning but is not bad either,” begrudgingly agrees a third; while yet another recorded “very basic meals by the look of them. We only had quesadillas and taquitos that were somewhat bland but expensive.”

Further research makes me somewhat relieved that I didn’t give in to my hunger pangs after my morning constitutional. “The water is dirty since their is something floating in my drink,” wrote one customer, while another reported “Disappointing service, so-so food, dirty water, and baby cockroaches.”

Well that does it! Why only baby cockroaches? Surely everyone knows that you can find big fat juicy ones all over Manila? No, I think I will well and truly keep this eatery on my list of restaurant nearly-rans. Now, where did I see those Golden Arches? I’ll bet they don’t use babies in their roachburgers!

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