Vigan: A journey back in time

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By Jojie Alcantara


Thursday, September 13, 2012

VIGAN used to be an island detached from the mainland by three major rivers -- Abra River, Mestizo River and the Govantes River. Established in the 16th century, this beautiful town is unique among the Philippine cities as one of the very few authentic Hispanic towns left and the only surviving historic city that dates back to the 15th century Spanish colonial period.

It became an important coastal trading post in pre-colonial times when seafaring merchants sailed from the South China Sea and discovered "Isla de Bigan" by navigating the Mestizo River encircling the island. After the barter came the intermarriage between merchants and natives, producing the unique multiracial lineage of Bigueños.

Today, the City of Vigan is the first component city and capital of the Province of Ilocos Sur, and is one of the most sought after travel destinations in the country. As a result of silting through the years, it is no longer an island, but its picturesque grandeur, warm people and remarkable atmosphere lure more travelers in.


Once called "Villa Fernandina" ("Town of Ferdinand", in honor of Prince Ferdinand, firstborn son of King Philip II of Spain), Vigan is said to have gotten its name from the “Bigaa Apo” in Ilocano dialect - this is a taro plant of the gabi family which once thrived in abundance at the riverbank of Mestizo River. The city was later renamed "Ciudad Fernandina de Vigan" ("Ferdinand's City of Vigan"). In another story, this area was originally a settlement of traders from the Fujian Province. These Chinese settlers during the Spanish colonial period were said to have referred to the place as "Bee Gan" in Hokkien dialect, which means "Beautiful shore." "Bee Gan" became "Vigan" to the Spanish settlers who often used V instead of B.

This significantly quaint town is the best preserved example of a comprehensive architecture which reflects the coming together of cultural foundations from China, Europe, and elsewhere. This resulted in a unique fusion of Asian construction style with European colonial design. As soon as you step onto its cobblestone streets and watch horse-driven calesas ride past you, you are immediately transported back in time and space.

The nostalgic atmosphere that Vigan draws are the building materials made of terracotta, wood, shells, stone and lime acquired from its environment. From the pre-colonial typical Vigan house design of a bahay kubo on stilts when it used to be an island surrounded by the rivers, the structures have been transformed into stone houses with upper framed floors made of timber, steep tiled roofs, and window panels made of capiz shells. The town’s building has been closely patterned after the specified plan followed during the Spanish Empire, but it becomes remarkably Vigan architecture through the merging of Chinese, Ilocano and Filipino influences.

Public buildings also demonstrate diverse multi-ethnic influences, like the Cathedral of St Paul, Archbishop's Palace, Catholic Cemetery Chapel, and the 20th-century provincial Capitol. Establishments like MacDonald’s and the CAP Building conforms to the environment style and landscape while calesas still abound as one of the city’s major transports.

On December 2, 1999, Unesco listed Vigan in the World Heritage List of Sites and Monuments, as a prime example of a well preserved and “exceptionally intact European colonial architecture and trading town in Asia.” It is only one of five heritage sites that became a national symbol in the Philippines.

This started the celebration of the annual World Heritage Cities Solidarity Cultural Festival that runs every September 4-9. Since 2002, Vigan celebrates the Filipino pride, and according to Mayor Eva Marie S. Medina, “a festivity of the arts, culture, values and traditions that promotes and establish our commitment in protecting our tangible and intangible heritage.” Presently, Vigan is enjoying a festival every two months and is attracting tourists from all over.

Highlights of this particular weeklong fiesta are a food and trade fair participated by provinces in Northern Luzon and Bicol region; activities like Fotografia y Recuerdos and Historia Oral at the Vigan Culture and Trade Center, Sabayang Pagbigkas (speech chorus), a Zarzuela Ilocana stage play, debate, poetry (daniw and dallot) and folk dancing at the Plaza Burgos. There is also a cultural showcase of music and dance, Latin sports, and a street dramatization of the history of Vigan (Repazzo de Vigan parade) after a Eucharistic celebration.

Currently, Vigan has embarked on a wide scale campaign for a bid on a slot in the prestigious roster of New 7 Wonders - Cities of the World. One of the 300 cities shortlisted, Vigan is presently ranked as No. 1 in the race in South East Asia and Oceana, drawing more curious tourists to travel by land in an 8-10 hour ride from Manila. You can visit to vote for Vigan City to be included in the deserving list.

I share with you the scenes taken by Rhonson Ng, who weathered the long road trip just to get to this place as he covered the festival alongside MX3 and GMA Network. In awe of the city that jolted him back a jump in generations, he could only confirm the truth in Vigan’s slogan: “Our Heritage from the Past, Our Treasure Today.”

Published in the Sun.Star Davao newspaper on September 14, 2012.


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