Hidden away in northern Luzon is Vigan, the oldest surviving city of Spanish architecture in the Philippines. Antique churches, official buildings, and residences, cobbled narrow streets, and horse-drawn calesas (carriages) all take us back to the old colonial era.
In earlier times, before the arrival of the Spanish, Chinese junks used to visit and Vigan was a major trading port.
In 1572 Captain Juan de Salcedo landed at Vigan with a party of Spanish soldiers. He conquered the area and then went on to conquer much of northern Luzon. In 1574 he returned and set about creating a township complete with charming plazas, municipal buildings and luxurious mansions for the ruling elite.
These buildings have survived the passing of the centuries and, unlike much of the Spanish period architecture in Manila, it has not been damaged during the battles of World War II. Vigan is now officially listed on the UNESCO World Heritage list.
Perhaps the best way to imbibe the ambience of the old quarter of Vigan is to wander the streets, especially Mena Crisologo Street, early in the morning when the diffused light transforms the old colonial buildings and the calesas into a scene reminiscent of the 1600s.
The white-walled St Paul's Cathedral dates only from the nineteenth century but is an example of the famous "earthquake Baroque" style of church architecture, built to withstand the typhoons and earthquakes which are all too frequent in the Philippines. The cathedral's facade features a pair of fu dogs, reflecting Vigan's Chinese heritage.
The Palacio del Arzobispado (Archbishop's Palace) dates from the eighteenth century. Inside is the Museo Nueva Segovia with old portraits, ecclesiastical artefacts and a throneroom, showing the opulent lifestyle enjoyed by the archbishops in the Spanish era.
The Ayala Museum occupies a beautiful old colonial house and was once the residence of Padre José Burgos, one of the nationalist martyrs executed by the Spanish in 1872. The Museum contains Burgos memorabilia, rooms furnished in the period style, and artefacts from the surrounding province.
In Vigan's old quarter there are three other old mansions worthy of a visit: the Crisologo Old House, the Syquia Mansion, and the Quema House. These are furnished in the old style and are full of polished narra wood furniture, paintings and everyday objects. The Quema House also features sliding capiz shell windows.
The Governor's Mansion is now a private residence but its beautiful old external facade in a quiet, shady street is definitely worth the effort to see.
Now that Vigan is on the UNESCO World Heritage list, there is a plan in place to protect the Spanish architectural heritage for future generations of visitors and residents to enjoy.
Violeta Quisora writes for the Fabulous Philippines website. To learn more about Vigan, visit http://www.fabulousphilippines.com/vigan.html .
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