Strolling along the afternoon shadows on the well-traveled cobblestone streets of Vigan City can conjure up romanticized visions of what it might have been like for Filipinos hundreds of years ago. Time has stood still for much of the city, which was named a UNESCO world heritage site as the Philippines’s most extensive, preserved town that dates back to Spanish Colonial rule in the 1600’s. Vigan derived its name from the “Bigaa Apo,” a giant Taro plant from the Gabi family that used to thrive on the surrounding riverbanks.
In pre-colonial times, Vigan was an important coastal trading post where Chinese junks sailing from the South China Sea came through the Mestizo River to the town. Seafaring merchants came to barter exotic goods from Asian kingdoms in exchange for gold, beeswax, and other mountain products brought down by natives from the mountains.
Vigan is located in the far northern province of Ilocos Sur, on the northwest coast of the main island of Luzon. It is also well-known as the birthplace of the sixth president of the Philippines, Elpidio Quirino.
POINTS OF INTEREST
The major attraction of Vigan is its mestizo district, which is filled with Spanish-style houses that evoke a bygone era when its people lived prosperously because of the Manila-Acapulco maritime trade. A walk or calesa ride through Vigan’s Calle Crisologo will transport you back to that period. The cobblestone streets are lined with heritage houses of the families of Filipino-Chinese traders who rose to prominence during that time of vigorous trading.
The houses are simple, with roofs of red tiles, thick walls, and huge doors and staircases leading to rooms of high ceilings and sliding capiz shell windows. Look more closely at the architecture and intricate craftsmanship employed in the grill and wood works. Many of the houses have been turned into stores and museums. Overnight visitors can even experience staying in a heritage house as some have been converted into inns.
A walk through the mestizo district at night is said to be magical. Since it is closed to vehicular traffic at any time of the day, the stillness and shadows add more to the 18th-century ambience of the lamp-lit street that local and foreign visitors love. Couples can take advantage of this romantic atmosphere with dinner in one of the old houses that have been converted into a restaurant, like Café Leona, before or after their walk.
The Spanish government established a basic system in which towns were to be built using a grid pattern with the center being a plaza or central park. In Vigan this is the Plaza Salcedo, and following the grid are the Casa Real or the administrative buildings, and the Municipio or Municipal Hall.
In the Plaza, visitors will find the Salcedo Obelisk, which was placed in the elevated plaza during the 17th century as a centerpiece. It is literally the focal point of the city’s Spanish urban design.
There is a cooling fountain display, and a lagoon was added in the seventies to store water. The Plaza also gained notoriety as the site of the execution of Gabriela Silang in September of 1763. She was the first woman leader of the Philippine revolution, and was publicly hanged there to serve as warning for a rebellious populace.
St. Paul’s Cathedral
Continuing with the grid are the nearby religious buildings, dominated by St. Paul’s Cathedral. The first church was built in 1541 but was later damaged by an earthquake. The present-day cathedral was built from 1790 to 1800, and mass is still held there.
The church is predominantly Baroque in style with large buttresses on its side. It also has Neo-Gothic-, Romanesque-, and Chinese-inspired embellishments. The main altar is silver-paneled with three naves, twelve minor altars, and brass communion handrails. The only remaining Archbishop’s Palace in the Philippines built during the Spanish colonial period is located beside the Cathedral.
Kalesa Rides or Horse-Drawn Carriages
A trip to Vigan is never complete without a kalesa ride. The old mode of transportation will complete that feeling of traveling back to a time where the smell of fuel and exhaust was non-existent. Travelers coming from the annoying traffic of Manila will especially appreciate the horse-drawn rides.
For 150 pesos (or $3.00) per person per hour you can tour the city and listen to the rhythmical sound of the horse hooves as they clap against the cobblestone streets. The kalesa ride tours last about 2 to 3 hours, which for less than ten dollars is quite a bargain.