Valderrama: Historical Vigan

WHEN you think about tourist destinations in the Philippines, the top ten that usually come to mind are Boracay, the Rice Terraces, the Underground River at Puerto Princesa, the Chocolate Hills, Mayon Volcano, Taal Volcano, Taal Lake, Mount Apo, El Nido beach and Mount Kanlaon. What do these places have in common? They’re all natural. They’ve been around for hundreds or possibly thousands of years and – aside from the Rice Terraces – people have had no hand in their creation.

When I was thinking about where I was going to spend my vacation, the same thought crossed my mind. None of the tourist spots in this country were truly made by man –so I asked around and a friend told me about Vigan, a province in Ilocos that was reportedly a Spanish colonial town frozen in time.

When my travelling partner and I arrived in Vigan via Laoag, we were pleasantly surprised. Vigan has retained its colonial charm without completely rejecting modernization. It does this by refusing to touch a street in the old sector of town named Calle Crisologo. If you think you can compare Vigan to Silay, you have another thing coming.

Silay may have old, ancestral mansions, but those mansions are surrounded by modernity. In Vigan, the original cobblestone roads and blocks of 19th century style colonial buildings with calesas and horses walking up and down the road make you feel like you went back in time.

If stones could speak, they would tell you how the city served as Diego Silang’s revolutionary capital, and how the heroic Ilocano resistance fighters retook Vigan from both the Spanish and the Japanese both times it fell.

On a different note, however, I realized something during my time there. This is not the first “old town” I have visited. I once visited Gamla stan in Stockholm – Sweden’s historic quarter – which dates back to the 13th century, with architecture from the 15th century or older.

The difference I noticed is that the Swedes painstakingly preserved their heritage site, while we Filipinos are content to let our own colonial past rot away.

A very good contrast of the two towns is when we compare the oldest building in Gamla stan, the hard to pronounce “Riddarholmskyrkan” – which dates from the 13th century – to the Bantay Bell Tower, which was at one time a marvelous example of Spanish 16th century architecture. The Riddarholmskyrkan is a glorious, majestic cathedral with spires that touch the sky and an ornate marble interior, designed to make atheists feel uneasy.

The Bantay Bell Tower, however, is a church belfry made of limestone that is slowly being eaten away by the elements. One does not feel safe climbing up its wooden steps, and an unfortunately placed wooden support beam that one is likely to hit with one’s head has claimed many victims. Riddarholmskyrkan underwent restorations at various periods in its history, the most recent being in the 1990s, while the Bantay Bell Tower has remained untouched since the ‘50s.

In this writer’s opinion, it would be best for the Philippines to cherish what remains of its past – the Department of Tourism should not be content to let them languish under the elements. Cleaner and more beautiful buildings mean more tourists, after all.
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