Brian's Blogs

Ilocos Sur’s Time Capsule City

Cobblestone walkways, horse-drawn carriages, mansions of yester-year…. 'One of the most atmospheric and enjoyable cities in the country,' opines The Rough Guide. This is Vigan, one of the few remaining 16th century towns in the Philippines.

Vigan is the capital of the province of Ilocos Sur, located on the north western coast of Luzon, facing the South China Sea. Everyone says it’s a must-see place to visit, so here I am, being driven around by a local driver to see the sights on a whistle-stop tour.

In pre-colonial times, Vigan was an important trading post for Chinese junks. The merchants traded gold, beeswax and other products from the central Cordilleras for exotic Asian goods. A number of Chinese traders settled, marrying the local girls. Vigan was captured and settled by the Spanish in 1572, and grew to become a centre of Spanish political and religious power in the north of Luzon.

According to local legend, Vigan got its name from a simple breakdown in communications. A Spaniard walking along the Metizo River is said to have met a local and asked about the city's name. Not understanding what he was being asked, but seeing that the Spaniard seemed to be pointing to a tree, he replied ‘Bigaa Apo’ (referring to a giant Taro that was common in the area). It is said that Vigan is derived from the word ‘Bigaa’. Huh! A likely story!

A more likely explanation is that the area around Vigan was originally a settlement of traders coming from Fujian Province in China. At the time of Spanish colonisation, the Chinese settlers spoke the Southern Fukien dialect – known as Hokkien in the Philippines. It was then spoken by about 98% of the ethnic Chinese population. They referred to the area as ‘Bee Gan’, meaning ‘Beautiful Shore’; and since the Spanish conquistadors freely interchanged V with B in order to get their tongues round the language, they spelled it as ‘Vigan’, which is the name used to this day.

Anyway. Our driver takes us first to the Church of St Augustine in the outer suburb of Bantay. It was originally made of bamboo and cogon to house the Image of ‘Our Lady of Charity’, which was found by some fishermen placed in a wooden box floating in Bantaoay River. It is said that people from other towns and provinces came to take the image but could not move it; only people from Bantay were able to. The church was later changed into a permanent edifice in 1590 because of the good fortune this image was said to have brought to the local people.

The church and its separate bell tower are two of the oldest structures in the province. The Bell Tower was constructed two years after the church and at the same time was used as a watch tower.

It’s in a not-too-bad condition, considering its age; and though the cement shows definite signs of deterioration, the entire structure feels a lot safer than some other churches I have visited in Luzon.

The same cannot be said of the five bells, which are in a pretty dreadful condition, and are definitely not fit for ringing, though it is more likely that it’s the actual fabric of the tower itself which would be in more danger if they were rung.

From the top of the belfry you get a magnificent view of the town, a good view of nearby Vigan centre and of course a bird’s eye view of Bantay Municipal Cemetery.

The Church has a deep brown, neo-gothic façade which incorporates ‘earthquake baroque’ (ie large buttresses giving extra strength to the walls) in its architecture, since this is very much earthquake country.

Having suffered damage during World War II, the church underwent reconstruction in 1950.

Although quite large inside, it is not that stunning an interior, to be perfectly honest…

Outside, there’s a pleasant garden, which features some of my favourite ginger plants.

Pleasant though Bantay undoubtedly is, visitors come mainly for the downtown area of Vigan, whose well-preserved Spanish trading town environment has survived the test of time, including bombings during World War II which levelled other major Philippine cities such as Baguio, Cebu and Manila.

It’s the best-preserved example of a planned Spanish colonial town in Asia and it’s unique in the Philippines. In 1999 Vigan City was listed by UNESCO as the best preserved example of Spanish colonial towns in Asia, with its conglomeration of cultural elements from the Philippines, China and Spain. Last year, too, Vigan was crowned as one of the ‘New 7 Wonders’ Cities.

Personally I wonder at some of these made-up awards that seem to spring up with boring regularity. It feels a bit like the unending lists of Intangible Cultural Heritage that China adds to every five minutes and organisations like UNESCO make up (to justify its existence, I sometimes wonder). Along with Vigan, the New 7 Wonders Cities list includes Beirut, Doha, Durban, Havana, Kuala Lumpur, and La Paz. Doha? Durban? Are you kidding me? Oh come on! Enough said I think!

Still, there is no denying that Vigan is special in many ways, and accordingly it attracts tourists like there is no tomorrow.

UNESCO notes ‘Vigan is an exceptionally intact and well-preserved example of a European trading town in East and Southeast Asia. The architecture is truly reflective of its roots in both materials and design, in its fusion of Asian building design and construction with European colonial architecture and planning.’

Vigan is therefore becoming ever better known for its cobblestone streets, and a unique architecture that fuses Philippine and Oriental building designs and construction, with colonial European architecture.

Actually, when the Spaniards took control of the town, they called it ‘Villa Fernandina’, in honour of Prince Ferdinand, the firstborn son of King Philip II, who died at the age of 4. As the city grew, and the seat of the Archdiocese of Nueva Segovia transferred to Vigan, it was later renamed ‘Ciudad Fernandina de Vigan’.

It appears that back in 1572, the Spaniards didn’t display much originality when deciding how they would lay out their cities. So they decided to pattern Vigan’s urban plan on that of Intramuros – the walled city in Manila – not that that’s a bad choice, I have to say. And they didn’t have much else to copy from in any case.

The urban planners all basically followed a pattern that can be observed in most old Spanish towns in the country. Streets follow a grid , the centre of which is a plaza or a central park. I guess that’s not a bad pattern to follow.

Over time, various disasters took their toll on the city. Some of the houses in Crisologo Street were casualties of fire during the Japanese period, for instance. Several houses on Quezon Avenue were also destroyed by fire in 1952; and in 1971 houses near Plaza Burgos burned down. The houses along Crisologo Street that were burned were later reconstructed faithfully following the architecture of the former structures.

Japanese Imperial Army planes bombed Vigan in December 1941 and Japanese troops occupied the town in 1942. But three years later, combined U.S. and Philippine Commonwealth ground troops, aided by Ilocano resistance fighters, defeated the Japanese Imperial forces and liberated Vigan. (Thank goodness the Americans didn’t decide to fly bombing missions, or maybe Vigan would never have made it to the 7-Wonders list!)

One of the main touristy sights making their way around Vigan are the many Kalesa (horse-drawn) carriages that vie for the passing tourist trade. Like most touristy kalesas in other cities, they tend to stink of horse pooh, though I guess if you love growing roses in your garden, then you would welcome them with open arms. (Is this why roses in China tend to be so robust?) Still, it doesn’t seem to put the rubber-neckers off, and I guess as a relaxing way to see around the town they may well have their appeal (as long as the wind is blowing in the opposite direction that is).

I feel a bit sorry for the horses though, being left standing around in the sunshine for so long each day…

It makes one tired just to look at them! Thank goodness there are some rather snazzy 'wheel-chairs' gracing the streets on which to rest one’s situpon…

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