I had high expectations of Vigan, a city north of the Philippines best known as a World Heritage site. The city bears the enviable title of being the best preserved example of a Spanish colonial town not just in the country but in Asia.
When I arrived, I realised the images from Google were no exaggeration. The city is even more picturesque in real life than on the web. The narrow cobblestone streets, the calesas or horse-drawn carriages carrying people around and, the piece de resistance, the grand old Spanish colonial houses that lined the main streets.
Even with the billboards, the cars and the electricity poles all reminding me that this is the 21st century, the olde worlde Vigan makes itself known, giving the city that air, that mystique and that vibe of centuries gone by.
On the surface, Vigan bears no resemblance to Paris. No famous landmark like the Eiffel Tower, no hole-in-the-wall cafes and the locals certainly don’t display the affectations of the Parisiennes.
But what Vigan lacks for in those tourist offerings, it makes up for in what many writers love about Paris: that feeling of walking into a magical world where what’s around the corner could be your next character or your next inspiration for a storyline. There is nothing mundane about Vigan. It is a perfect place to people-watch and, on occasion, step back in time. Something to do with the juxtaposition of 16th century architecture against modern day living.
The city is a four-hour car ride from La Union, the province I was staying in. I wish I had two days to spare to be in Vigan but my schedule only allowed a day trip. As my holiday visit was in April, summer time, it was sweltering hot. So hot that I wouldn’t recommend what I foolishly did: ride one of the calesas in the early afternoon. I should have stayed with the car, though I’m sure my experiences would have been different.
My relatives and I used the day to wander around Plaza Burgos and the streets lined with touristy shops. We ate at a local restaurant where I had fried milkfish belly, munggo soup and even langgonisa (for lunch!). I was tempted to buy the famous Vigan crispy pork belly called ‘bagnet’ but was so full that I didn’t, although I regretted not buying any when we’re on the car ride home.
We visited Father Jose Burgos' Residence and as a history buff, it was good to see his birthplace. Father Burgos was one of the three Filipino priests executed for defying the Spanish authorities of the time and for championing the rights of the ‘native’ clergy.
But what I loved most about Vigan is that I was introduced to it by a good friend who lives in Australia, and whose life is inextricably linked to the city’s history (see her story here).
Florecita Hoersch nee Singson Lazo, or Manang Citang, as she is affectionately known, insisted I visit Casa Grande and Casa Nening, two Spanish colonial houses that belonged to her maternal ancestors.
While both houses need urgent repairs and restoration, it was clear as I walked up the grand staircases and roamed the halls of the various rooms that these houses would have hosted some of the grandest parties ever seen in Vigan in its heyday.
As neither are open to tourists, which made my visit even more special, Manang Citang recommends three must-see places to go, namely the Heritage Village, including the Syquia-Quirino Museum, St. Paul’s Cathedral and Pagburnayan, where the Vigan jars are made.
The trip was far too short. I look forward to knowing more of the city’s people, cuisine and local culture in my next visit.
This article is the first of a three-part series titled 'Philippines, My Philippines', the perspective of an Australian-Filipina, proudly supported by the Philippine Airlines as part of this magazine's More Fun In The Philippines campaign.