Vigan: The Old Romantic

IT’S A SUNNY NOVEMBER AFTERNOON, and Joseph, Dave and I are strolling along what may be one of the Philippines’ iconic streets, Calle Crisologo. The part of Vigan what many associate the city with, the cobble-stoned street is lined with ancestral houses from the Spanish era. Stretching a few blocks, we spot houses with tile roofs, massive hardwood flooring, balustrades and terraces with Spanish, Mexican, and Chinese architectural styles, though almost all of them have been converted to souvenir shops or restaurants.

Walking with the APEC summit holiday crowd, I try hard to imagine the place as it was in the 19th century. Vigan was a thriving business post in the precolonial Philippines, acting as the site of trades for various goods, due to its strategic position on the Silk Route. By the time Spaniards came, the town had evolved to become the political and economic nucleus in the Ilocos Region. Vigan managed to preserve its history when it was miraculously spared from the destruction that befell many other cities during World War II.

With horse-drawn carriages and colonial architecture, Vigan’s Calle Crisologo evokes a 19th century city.
Visitors to the Syquia Mansion – the house of former President Elpidio Quirino – pose for a picture in front of a Spoliarium replica.
Plaques and recognitions decorate the wall of a room in the Crisologo Museum.
A 3D picture of St. Paul Cathedral’s interior is one of the many on exhibit in the newly opened national museum. The building was the jailhouse where Elpidio Quirino was born.

WE ARRIVED IN VIGAN THE PREVIOUS NIGHT after three hours of travel by bus from Laoag. We checked in at a guesthouse in a nearby town because all hotels in the city are booked as flocks of vacationers have arrived.

This morning, we started with a visit to the Pagburnayan, a site where the famous Ilocano jars called burnay are made. Traditionally the jars are made as containers for basi – a local sugarcane wine – and bagoong – a fish sauce. A worker showed us the making of a jar using the old-fashioned potter’s wheel, then let the three of us try making our own one by one.

Passing by the Mestizo District, Vigan’s historical heart, we entered the Crisologo Museum. It was the house of former Ilocos Sur representative Floro Crisologo – who was assassinated in 1972 – but is now a repository of reminders, decorated with plaques, old appliances and furniture, and rooms that have largely been kept untouched, perhaps except for regular maintenance. Like many houses in Vigan, it’s a rich representation of a well-off life in the city.

We also visited a weaving center, where traditional textiles are made using abel, a locally produced cotton fabric; the Baluarte, a mini-zoo in the easternmost part of the city owned by former provincial governor Chavit Singson; and the Hidden Garden, a site that’s meant to excite horticulturists.

Left, deft hands guide the formation of a jar in Vigan’s Pagburnayan. Right, sample finished jars are on display.
Weaving is a thriving industry in Vigan, where the textiles are sold to souvenir stores or other distributors.
Animal mascots entertain visitors to the Baluarte, a mini zoo and resort complex owned by former Ilocos Sur Governor Chavit Singson.
Bonsai of all shapes are on display in the Hidden Garden.
Left, a light and fountain show dazzles onlookers at the town square, with the St. Paul Cathedral in the background. RIght, Christmas spirit is alive in the provincial capitol grounds.

AFTER LUNCH we’re back at the city center. We ride a calesa to the Old Ilocos Sur Provincial Jail Museum –  a crowning achievement of the city’s cultural preservation. It was the jailhouse where former President Elpidio Quirino was born. Today, it houses dozens of paintings, including 14 depictions of the 1807 Basi Revolt from the collection of Esteban Pichay Villanueva. A collection of photos of Spanish era churches are on display, too, when we visit.

Another short calesa ride takes us to the Syquia Mansion, Quirino’s former house, now also a museum. As Joseph, Dave and I walk in its hallways and rooms, I think of all the activities that might have happened here. The conversations in the living room. The romantic gestures in the azotea. The meals in the dining hall.

Our Vigan visit ends by returning to Calle Crisologo. Buzzing with visitors, the area is sometimes criticized for having the feel of a theme park more than a cultural center. True, it can be touristy, but I can’t help but admire at how the colonial era-feeling shops and the calesas regularly passing by make it a quietly romantic place.

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