Taal: Colonial Times

Taal, one of the most charming towns in the Philippines, boasts colonial architecture bearing witness to the country’s history. In the past 400 years the town cast off a volcanic eruption in which it found itself relocating to its current place, a bit farther from its position from the lake that bears its name. Eventually it saw itself becoming a key figure in the country’s fight to independence from Spain. A number of people who played part in the events leading to the declaration of independence on June 12, 1898 called Taal home.

A statue of Dr. Jose Rizal greets visitors to the Taal Municipal Hall.
The streets of Taal are filled with ancestral houses dating back to Spanish times.
A walkway leading to the Dela Rosa-Ilagan ancestral house, one of the many in Taal
The house of diplomat Felipe Agoncillo, the Filipino representative to the discussions in France that led to the Treaty of Paris.

On the morning of Independence Day, I venture with Innah and Rachelle to the rustic town, where the streets are bedecked with ancestral houses. Walking along its narrow roads, I imagine the life of this town when it was first incarnated by Fransciscan friars in 1575, nearly two centuries before Taal Volcano’s strongest recorded eruption in 1754.

The interior and the facade of the Minor Basilica of Saint Martin of Tours
A bicycle rests on the balcony of the basilica museum; an art display inside the museum
Light flows through a window, illuminating a narrow pathway to the church’s bell tower.
A panoramic view of Taal from the church’s bell tower

We start our walk at the Minor Basilica of Saint Martin of Tours – or simply Taal Basilica – at the center of town. With length of 88.6 meters and 48 meters, it’s claimed to be the largest church in Asia. But like many colonial structures in the country, the present incarnation is a relatively modern reconstruction. It underwent a series of makeovers, the latest of which was in 1953.

It’s a national holiday so the church today is abuzz with visitors, though the place itself somehow retains a relaxed atmosphere. The adjacent museum hosts a number of religious items. We make our way to the bell tower – a recent version of the one destroyed by earthquake in 1942 – to get a panoramic view of the town and neighboring town.

The front door to the house of the Villavicencios, a wealthy couple who provided financial supporters to Filipino revolutions against Spain.
The living room of the Villavicencio ancestral house
A portrait of Gliceria Marella Villavicencio hangs on the living room; various bottles from a bygone era are on display in the kitchen.
A short film about the Villavicencio couple precedes a tour of their house.

An hour later, we find ourselves in Villavicencios’ ancestral house, a structure built in northern part of town in the mid-19th century. The house was owned by Eulalio and Gliceria Marella Villavicencio, a wealthy couple who provided funds for the revolution and helped finance the publication of Jose Rizal’s novels. Inside, the ceiling features original tin tiles and the walls are made of canvass trompe l’oeil. Large capiz windows provide light and ventilation to the spacious living room on the second floor.

A row of Philippine flags flutter behind an image of Marcela Agoncillo, who made the Philippine flag in Hong Kong in 1898.
A sculpture of the sewing of the Philippine flag
The living room of Marcela Agoncillo’s house
The staircase from the living room leading downstairs; a bathtub in the bathroom

Back on the street, we realize we’re not far from Marcela Agoncillo’s ancestral house, one of the two national government-run museums in Taal and one of the oldest. The structure was once the home of diplomat Felipe and Marcela Mariño Agoncillo. Felipe was the Filipino representative to the negotiations in France that led to the Treaty of Paris, an agreement that effectively transferred control of the Philippines from Spain to the US. Marcela, meanwhile, is popular for making the Philippine flag.

An early studio camera stands inside the Galeria Taal, a private museum of a collection of vintage cameras.
Photos of the house’s family members hang by the dining table.
Twin-lens reflex cameras are among the many vintage cameras on display in Galeria Taal.

We’re starting to have a deeper appreciation of Taal as a place of remembrances. And perhaps the most powerful way to preserve the memory of something is by taking a picture of it. Which is why we head next to Galeria Taal, a private museum that displays a number of vintage cameras from the collection of Manny Inumerable. Manny is the great-grandson of the house’s original owner, Atty. Domingo Ilagan and Maria Martinez.

Balisong, or butterfly knives, are traditionally made in Barangay Balisong, a village in Taal.
A balisong vendor shows one of his wares.

Considering that Taal is also where balisongs are traditionally made, our visit ends in a balisong shop. The vendor, a tall, lean man, shows us an expensive fan knife made from deer antlers. He then lets Innah hold a large balisong, whose length is about half her height. The vendor talks a bit more about fan knives that have become synonymous with the province, along with its distinctive Tagalog dialect and coffee.

We thank him for his time and then flag a jeepney down for our ride to the bus stop.

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