Part of my editorial duties included a domestic trip once in a while. This time, I got to visit the northernmost province in the Philippines.
We were fortunate to arrange a stay at Sitio Remedios, the resort of Dr. Joven Cuanang, Jr. whom I had previously interviewed for a piece on the St. Luke Medical City's medical tourism campaign. While there, we'd explore the old city of Vigan and surrounding areas, as well as taste the local delicacies. We split writing assignments, but being that I was a recently converted vegetarian, I opted to take more photos while our other writer, Emil, did the eating.
Sitio Remedios: The ‘Soul’ Survivor
“Preserve” and “culture” are buzzwords often heard strung together among art circles the world over. Yet, some of these acts are so far removed from the true essence of historical and cultural preservation that the intentions are, for the lack of a better word, in vain.
Text and photos by V. Glenn Orion
True, there is a place for the museum, the art gallery, or the touring (albeit once at its destination, stationary) exhibit. After all, national treasures like the US Constitution or the original Mona Lisa should be kept under close guard, in state-of-the-art, climate-controlled, antitheft rooms, along with other one-of-a-kind works by masters long gone so they may educate and be enjoyed by more generations to come.
The point is not that these are kept at the Mecca of tourist and art goers—the Capitol Building in Washington DC and the Louvre in Paris, respectively—but that their preservation, and ultimately, though ironically, their accessibility to the public is ensured by keeping them cordoned off, just out of arm’s reach, enclosed in bulletproof glass, and kept from seeing the light of day because the sun’s harmful UV rays could spell disaster for the relics.
On a smaller scale, these are representative of their country’s heritage, a part of their history that indemnifies them from the obscurity that time brings. So what’s more when things like festivals, historical landmarks, and even architecture, on a more literal and grander sense of regional identity, are thrown to the wind and forgotten?
A necessary remedy
Many say they are lovers of art. But compared to Dr. Joven Cuanang Jr.’s true labors of love with Sitio Remedios, others’ efforts may just seem like summer flings. With a philosophy for the healing arts and the art of healing, when Dr. Cuanang saw a change in the Ilocos landscape that deviated from the home he knew and loved, he knew that there was something he had to do about it.
The good people of the north are known for their hard work, good provincial hospitality, and simplicity. This can be seen in their way of life and notably in the architecture of their homes, which were heavily influenced by the Spaniards during their colonization. The style, with its whitewashed walls, simple floor plan, basic yet elegant, and use of materials readily available in the province, has been something we have come to know Ilocos by.
They are also known for being the manpower exporting capital of the country. Ilocanos were among the first to go abroad in search for greener pastures—to Hawaii, California, and Alaska, where many continue being seamen, just on larger ships that haul-in a catch that they could only dream of if they stayed on the shores of Ilocos.
And when these countrymen return home, they bring influences from the foreign lands. Brightly painted houses patterned after Western style architecture began to dot the Ilocos landscape. Homegrown architects and designers were furthering their education abroad but at the same time, were overlooking the lessons to be had right in their own backyard. The architecture of Ilocos was dying, being forgotten and unappreciated by its inhabitants.
This made Dr. Cuanang, a native of the town of Batac, distraught for the future of his province. He wanted the things that had been such a big part of his childhood to be preserved—not in pictures, or murals, or in history books—but in their true form.
It was during one of his vacations back home to Ilocos when Dr. Cuanang noticed a new development across from Paoay Church called Palazio Venecia. He felt something there that he no longer felt at his rest house due to the neighboring resort that catered to a foreign tourist-centric market. His friends put him in touch with Rex Locsin Hofilena, the architect, just two days after Christmas of 2005.
“He asked to meet on his birthday, which is New Year’s Eve,” recalls Architect Rex with a fond smile. “He wanted to begin conceptualization right away.” The idea quickly grew from just one rest house to a little village. The local town had a yearly fiesta and celebration, however, which occurred on the 1st of May. Dr. Cuanang wanted to make sure the village would be finished by that time, giving only a four month window for all construction to be done.
The vacant lot purchased by Dr. Cuanang just a few properties away from his current rest house, would be the prime location. Although there were remnants of a house on the lot, there was nothing else except fully matured trees and a very uneven landscape that lead down to the beach on the South China Sea. “No two sides of this lot are actually parallel,” points out Architect Rex of the lot’s challenges, “we had to make the planning and layout decisions as we came upon them, by feel. It was too difficult and impossible to anticipate if we were to just write down the plans on paper.”
Everything somehow seemed to fall into place, as if some other force was at work. Initial sketches from their first meeting, became more or less the layout Dr. Cuanang wanted and had in mind for the village. Some of Dr. Cuanang’s collected artworks helped accentuate the buildings. The crucifix and tabernacle in the chapel, which were only installed after the completion of the actual building, seemed like they were meant to be, echoing the feel of the chapel and physical fit with the rest of the architecture. “It was those little incidents that really seemed like this place has a deeper meaning,” smiles Architect Rex.
Like all towns in Ilocos Norte, the church had to be at the highest point and the plaza had to be a focal point of the layout. There even had to be a watchtower which was used at the time to signal other villages in case any marauding pirates were spotted in the horizon. Despite the logistical challenges of the uneven terrain, they were able to accomplish this. “We really wanted to preserve and make this as aesthetically Ilocano as possible. It even meant moving the foundation of the church three times.” No commercial plants were introduced and all the trees, except one, were saved.
A home away from home
The actual houses have literally been uprooted and transplanted from various towns in Ilocos. “Each house is an expression of the architecture of the specific town or municipality they’re from,” Architect Rex explains. “Each is unique, slightly varying in style, but still sharing the same common characteristic of being organically Ilocano that lets them coalesce in that way.”
“Most of the owners are already in the States,” continues Architect Rex on how the houses were acquired. “And a lot of them don’t have serious plans of coming back. So they welcomed the idea of them being preserved rather than having them go to waste or even abandoned.” There are 9 houses total, each an original building that was taken apart for transport, and then put together back at the building site. All in all, some 23 houses were used to bring the houses up to code, using “spare” parts to ensure both the structural and historical integrity of each building.
Some adjustments and modifications have also been made to make them more livable—enlarging the rooms, installing air conditioning units, and making indoor bathrooms, are a few. But these were done with the utmost consideration of keeping as true to the original design as possible. Other incorporated designs are in the details—the “rainmaker” showerheads and terracotta tiles.
The now-called resort is unlike anything you’ve ever seen. It has managed to marry everything a peaceful haven of serenity modern getaways offer with the rustic, old charm of a time long gone. It moves you, yet you quietly soak in the surroundings, discovering new things about the land and about yourself daily. Under the vast expanse of fresh, open air above you, and the waves lapping on the beach just within earshot, you don’t need to look any further for a physical and spiritual recharging. You get to be as much a part of history as you are in it.
Sitio Remedios has indeed been a revelation for many who have come through its gated archway. Governor Imee Marcos is said to have stood on the steps of the chapel and felt a similar ambiance that she had during her visits to Angkor Wat. Others have likened the Avenida de Azucao, the pathway with lotus pools on either side, to the reflecting pool of the Taj Mahal, and the open airiness to Borubudur in Indonesia. “The place has this quality that makes you feel like it’s timeless,” says Architect Rex. “It has something in architecture that I like to call ‘soul.’”
Vigan: More than you bargained for
One of only two World UNESCO Heritage Sites in the Philippines, Vigan is more than ‘a boring city with a bunch of old buildings.’ It still has a captivating charm to it that can appeal to even the staunchest unbeliever. Text and photos by V. Glenn Orion
We woke up a little later than we planned, what with the tiring 9-hour, overnight bus ride the day before and ensuing full itinerary of Ilocos Norte. Excuses and uncombed hair aside, we were excited to discover the urban part of the province.
After downing a hearty breakfast of eggs, dilis, and sausage at Sitio Remedios, my colleague Emil, who had actually already been to Vigan once when he was toddler, and I headed to the Currimao bus junction just outside the resort to catch a ride heading south. We asked some of the local tricycle drivers waiting by the stop which bus would be ideal for the hour-and-a-half trip. They said all were fairly comparable but that the airconditioned, Manila-based lines were faster, not to mention, more comfortable.
We let a couple pass by, anticipating the familiar name of Partas to be the bus coming around the corner next. After passing the fourth one up, we decided to take the next bus, regardless of which liner it was. Sure enough, a local bus pulled up with its final destination being Vigan. This was an open-air bus with seats for two on either side made of wood frames that couldn’t recline. “Not too bad, for just an under-two-hour ride,” I thought to myself.
An elderly lady had some vegetable baskets that needed storing in the undercarriage so we waited a while before taking off. We picked up more locals along the way quite a bit more frequently than we experienced on the way up to Ilocos Norte the day before. Soon, school children and other locals dressed for the office were among the added passengers that hopped on.
Maybe if we had been more alert, we could’ve realized that these were foreshadowings of what the day had in store. About midway through the trip, at one particularly long stop, without explanation we began hobbling onwards in first gear. Even with the obvious clanging noise coming from somewhere under the bus, the driver and conductor seemed to carry on with business as usual while our fellow passengers continued their conversations without missing a beat. Emil and I just looked at each other and shrugged, thinking it was a momentary hitch that would somehow resolve itself.
When our snail-like pace continued for another kilometer and with our friendly duo not showing any sign of stopping for repairs despite being passed by other buses at every other straightaway, we knew we had to take matters into our own hands. So at the next decently populated area we decided to get off and risk waiting for another liner and paying for another fare. Luckily for us, no sooner had we stepped off the bus than did the familiar colors of red, yellow and white on the side of a Partas bus glide over the hill. We were saved.
Next stop, Vigan
With a renewed vigor as we stepped into the cooler, cushion-seated bus, we promptly dozed-off to sleep for the rest of the way to the ancient city. Only stirred awake by the low-hum of a resting diesel engine and the firm voice of the conductor announcing our desired stop, we pulled ourselves out of our seats and into the noonday sun. We got off right in the center of Vigan, with the Ilocos Sur Capitol building on one end of Plaza Salcedo, and the Vigan Cathedral on the other.
We had worked up quite an appetite by this time and after checking with the information desk, we set off in search of some genuine Ilocano food. But our hungry stomachs prevailed and we settled for the Chow King down the street. This industrialized part of the city was not what I had pictured when I thought of a preserved, ancient city. Across from the cathedral’s bell tower was a McDonald’s. Farther down the road there were clothing outlets and banks with huge signs offering loan promos.
There were still a number of kalesas waiting for passengers along either side of the cathedral after we ate. Tapping into our inner equestrian, we felt the major criterion to having the most efficient route through the city was to find the youngest looking horse. We spotted what looked like a sprightly young stallion and eagerly stepped aboard with manong whipping away. A few gallops into our ride later, and only then did we realize that though we had chosen the youngest horse, we also could have easily been partnered with the oldest guide.I asked him for his name but he instead gave the horse’s—it was “Bella” and we were 0 for 2.
Through his toothy grin and some vague mumbling, manong announced that we were at the first of our four-stop tour. It was the St. Augustine Church and Bantay Bell tower. Built in 1590, and probably one of the oldest churches in the all of Ilocos Sur, it needed drastic reconstruction about 400 years later after being nearly demolished in World War II. We welcomed the cool shade inside the church’s towering arches, and the eerie silence made the narrow nave down to the shrine of Our Lady of Charity seem even longer.
The sun was high in the sky now as we clambered back into the kalesa. Manong had managed to make Bella reverse into a parking slot, which we thought was amazing. Our next stop would be another rich part of not only the North’s history, but of the Philippines’ early struggle with the Church, too.
Father Jose Burgos is considered the Champion of the Cause of the Filipino Clergy. He, along with Father Gomes and Zamora, were executed by Spanish authorities for their alleged part in inciting the Cavite mutiny in 1872. Now, his home has been preserved and serves as a mini museum of both his life’s story and other important events from the period along with some random items—like model Spanish galleons and an antique typeset wordpress. We had the pleasure of being toured by a college student fulfilling her compulsory credit for the NSTP. From the old desks where numerous letters outlining the atrocities of the Spanish Church must have been written, to the downstairs library with leather-bound books and worn, yellowed pages lining its shelves, it was spiritually invigorating to be where some of the patriarchs of religious freedom had gathered.
A forgotten time Once again taking in the fresh air in the backseat of our kalesa, we headed to our next destination, which ended up being quite far away. We left the town proper and got a peek into some of the surrounding village life. We noted a few textile factories and what we guessed were entrepreneurial hallow block makers forming the building material in the front yard of their homes. The lone stretch of highway before us, we reflected on the slower pace of the province. And maybe a bit more than we should have. After going through the Hidden Garden, which didn’t really offer much in terms of sights unique to the North (a few bird and animal cages and some other foliage), we started to ask ourselves if our hour’s worth of touring with manong had already elapsed. We scratched our heads trying to remember what time we started our ride. Stopping off for some souvenirs at a tiangge area on the outskirts of the Vigan town proper where other tourists had gathered, we decided we ought to ask manong if he was charging for another hour. Alas, we couldn’t really make out what he was smiling and nodding about. We looked around for an interpreter. Someone with a similar uniform emerged and translated something along the lines of 450 pesos. “How could we be touring for three hours already?” was all we could ask. But the sun betrayed us. True enough, the shadows had gotten longer and the glowing orb was now just peaking over the treetops without our noticing. Now we were rapt with attention. We had a communication breakthrough when manong agreed to skip whatever our next stop was and head back to the plaza. Our budget would barely allow us to catch a ride back to Sitio Remedios where we would pack our things, eat a light dinner, and head back to Manila on the redeye. Then all of a sudden, we turned a corner and found ourselves, mouths gaping, staring down the cobbled street of Calle Crisologo. This was the Vigan I saw in my brief Google image search during the days prior. Completely reneging on our just-inked agreement of heading straight for the terminal, we were, to say the least, moved to bring Bella to a halt and let the downright captivating aura of the place ruminate within the deepest part of our beings. Lining either side of the stoned alley are the most well-preserved colonial, two-story houses this side of post-Spanish occupation. The setting sun cast angular shadows against the strong, sharp corners of the pale-white façades highlighting the intricate wooden grilled sliding windows and their capiz shell details even more. The blending of European and Chinese with Ilocano architecture so unique to this era really makes its visitors feel like they’ve just stepped into another time. Vendors line the street using the first floor space that once served as the affluent family’s granary or storage space. Although the wares are modern—keychains, abel blankets unique to the province, and other miscellaneous paraphernalia—I could just imagine the same bustling scene from centuries ago. Our footsteps reverberating against the walls on either side and echoing up and down the roughly one kilometer avenue, time seemed to peacefully stand still. For once that day, everything seemed right with the world.
And here's Emil's article on the province in its entirety as well as a blurb on the food accompanied by my photos.