If you like Spanish architecture you will love Vigan. It is a smallish town of 50,000 people about 550 kilometres north of Manila in the Philippines on the western coast. It is one of the only surviving towns built by the Spanish during the colonial period. It was built mostly from scratch in the 1600’s and based on a similar plan to Intramuros, the earliest town of Manila. It follows the same Spanish design of having a central plaza area with roads at right angles to each other surrounding it.
We had a day to enjoy what Vigan had to offer. We were enjoying a morning coffee in the centre of town, and a Calesa pulled up. Basically a horse drawn cart and after some negotiations he agrees to show us around town. It was a wonderful way to see the city, up high with plenty of fresh air we had a unique vantage point of the town.
St Augustine Parish Church and Bell Tower
The church was organised to be built in 1590 by the parish priest. It was damaged during World War 2, and rebuilt in 1950. The restored façade is a neo gothic design mixed with pseudo – Romanesque elements. The site of the church was the scene for an uprising in 1763. Facing the church, the bell tower is to the left about 50 metres up a small hill. It was built in 1591-1592 and was not damaged in the war. For a small donation, you can climb the stairs to the top with a fantastic view of the town and still has the original bells in it. The Calesa driver was very patient as we climbed the bell tower and went inside the church and took many photographs.
The Church of Saint Augustine Parish in Vigan City
After a nice ride through the streets of town, the next stop was an area where they made earthenware jars called Burnays. Originally introduced from mainland China before the Spaniards arrived in 1572, descendants of the Chinese now craft these jars on a potter’s wheel. We are guided through one of the last remaining Burnay factories in the country with only three surviving, all in Vigan. We are given a free demonstration of how these are crafted. The potter seems to be second nature at moulding the jars and it only takes a few minutes before he has finished. When we have finished looking around we are back on the cart and off to our next destination.
The hidden gardens are the next place of interest on the Calesa driver’s agenda and we are led through the opening gates at what looks like a rainforest type of garden, with very tall plants and trees. There is a lot of bamboo and plenty of secret little nooks to sit and enjoy the serenity of the place. It does not cost anything to enter, but they do sell plants and there is also a restaurant.
The best way to describe this place is that it is a mini zoo. I am surprised that there is no entrance fee to this place as well. Soon after entering, we are confronted with life sized statues of a brontosaurus and other dinosaurs. There are animals just wandering around the streets, mixing with the visitors. Ducks, goats and even miniature ponies. There are other animals that are fenced in, like the deer, ostriches, goats and tigers.
The place is not that big and is a nice place to rest and have a drink. As we do just that, a voice then comes over the loud speaker to announce that there will be an animal display in ten minutes, a nice surprise. Somehow we manage to end up on stage and I end up on display holding a large Iguana. We are brought back onstage for the finale and this time I end up holding a large python with four others, before the handler wraps an albino one around my neck. Quite an experience made even better because it was all free.
Crisologo was a governor of Vigan before he was gunned down inside St Paul’s cathedral in 1970. The perpetrator of this violent crime was never found, but it was thought to be politically motivated. The museum has been set up in his old two story house and visitors are encouraged to give a small donation on entry. The museum is not only about Floro Crisologo’s life, but also showcases how Filipino people lived during that era.
There is also an old Bel Air car with several bullet holes in it. It is the car in which Carmeling, Floro Crisologo’s wife, survived an attempt on her life while she was pregnant and serving as governor of the province in 1961. Her child was given the name of bullet because of the incident. The museum shows election paraphernalia, pictures with dignitaries, reports, medals, awards, clothing and furniture belonging to the politicians. You can take a look at his study, bedroom, dining rooms and kitchen with the house acting like a snapshot of 1970 and is a little eerie.
Here endeth the tour
The museum was the last stop on our five hour tour of the city. The Calesa driver drops us off at a Spanish restaurant in the centre of town, not far from where he picked us up. He was such a good driver and tour guide we invite him inside to share dinner with us. After dinner we bid farewell to the driver and wander around the cobblestoned city. It is even more photogenic during the night as we snap away and I imagine the people that have walked these streets before me.
Why is Vigan one of the only surviving examples of Latin colonial architecture and rule?
The answer lies in that it was saved from certain ruin at the end of World War 2. The Japanese were making a hasty retreat from many nations in the Pacific and were ordered to burn and destroy the occupied zones before they left. Vigan even had drums of gasoline at strategic areas of the city ready for the fires, when on the eve of the departure, the Japanese Military Commander, Captain Fujiro Takahashi, pleaded with the curator of the Vigan Seminary, Fr. Joseph Kleikamp, to take custody of the Japanese officer’s Filipino wife and their love child.
The priest agreed but asked that the town be saved to stop the local folk from taking revenge on his family. The commander also agreed and the Japanese left quietly during the night. The townsfolk awoke to discover their town had been saved and they quickly laid out an oversized American flag in the plaza, to stop the American bombing of the town to flush out the Japanese. The planned miraculously worked and Vigan remained largely intact, unlike some other historic towns of the Philippines.