Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Iloilo: City of Dreams

There exists, not only in the mind, a city of love and dreams entrenched in a magical time well before our very own. A privileged bastion of higher learning and culture, this sanctuary speaks of a romantic past that lingers elusively in our collective memory.

In Iloilo, the landscape of southern accents, bespoke values and hospitality have dominion over the land. In this city replete with master architecture and effective rural planning, a synergy of progress is welcomed vis-à-vis the nostalgia of yesteryear — an ambience that reeks of a gilded era of Hispanic Roman Catholic churches, stonewalled cemeteries that serve as antiquated fortresses and charming colonial mansions that epitomize opulent living.

The heritage churches of baroque appeal and silenced courtyards stand alongside expansive sugar fields and mills as well as new developments such as Robinsons Iloilo, an impressive, world-class shopping mall with over 200 shops, dining outlets, entertainment facilities and service centers.

Several business and boutique hotels like the cozy Rio Hotel in Molo district and a brand-new, ultra-modern airport in the town of Cabatuan, some 20 kilometers away from the old airport, are welcome additions.
The new Iloilo Airport can accommodate wide-bodied aircraft and is currently the fourth busiest airport in the Philippines, according to ATO.

In Iloilo, a land smiled upon by providence, not only coconuts and sugarcane ripen like sunlit gold, but the staunch leadership of the citizenry under the indefatigable Iloilo City Mayor Jed Patrick Mabilog shines as well.

In retrospect, this city was second only to Manila as a commercial center in the 1800s. Did you know that as early as 1837, the Hong Kong Shanghai Bank already had a branch here? The late Norberto Baylen of the Visayan Tribune compiled the information that Iloilo can be proud of being a pioneer in many fields.
It had the first commercial airline, luxury liner, car assembly plant, elementary school and the first modern cinema house outside of Manila.

Today, Iloilo is proud to share that it will also host the very first “Sineng Pambansa” in January 2011 in time for the Dinagyang celebration, a religious and festive occasion to honor the Santo Niño. Among the films available for viewing are Halaw, Red Shoes, Lola, Emir, Donor, Enkuentro, Bakal Boys, Kano, Astig and Manila Skies.

Mayor Mabilog announced this after he met with Briccio Santos, the dynamic chairman of the Film Development Council of the Philippines as they finalized the plan of holding the Iloilo Film Festival at SM City cinemas located along Sen. Benigno Aquino, Jr. Avenue.

Santos said, “We intend to localize film festivals to faithfully reflect the rich multi-ethnic and multi-lingual composition of our people.” Whenever possible, the local film festivals are tied in with a significant cultural event, the better to emphasize the cultural context of film.

On the other hand, Mabilog said that the selection of Iloilo City to host the film festival is a manifestation of national filmmakers’ awareness that culture and movies are alive in Iloilo. Iloilo has several independent filmmakers and directors like lawyer Joenar Pueblo, Oskie Nava, Kevin Piamonte and the late Quin Baterna. Mabilog added he is happy to note that the University of the Philippines Visayas has recently been producing short indie films in the local dialect Hiligaynon to showcase the moral values, tradition and culture of the Ilonggos.

Iloilo, composed of six districts, each with its own plaza, church and market and city proper, includes Arevalo, Jaro, La Paz, Mandurriao and Molo, which was once known as the Athens of the Philippines. During the Spanish time, Molo was an educational center of the Philippines having four colleges — Colegio de Santa Ana, Centro Escolar, Instituto Ensenanza Libre de Molo and Escuela Publica.

Over a sumptuous lunch at Breakthrough Restaurant of clam soup, succulent diwal (elongated shellfish), garlic buttered scallops, the tastiest managat fish and the sweetest mangoes from nearby Guimaras, my siblings and I, together with our dear Uncle Norm Turley from Vallejo, California, heard the angelic voice of our very dear family friend Jo Mari Chan, who hails from Iloilo, as his songs played over the radio.

Other memorable highlights of our trip included a visit to Jaro Cathedral located three kilometers from the city proper and the breathtaking Miag-ao Church, a Unesco World Heritage Site, located 40 kilometers southwest of Iloilo City. It was built in 1756 and its restored interiors by Monsignor Claudio Sales feature a P4.9 million gold leaf altar with silver refurbishing. Msgr. Sales traveled to Europe to study how the pattern of the retablo of that period should be created.

Miag-ao is a very special church for our family. My youngest sister Yvonne remembers gifting our late dad Vincent “Ting” Dayrit with an exquisite sculpture of the church expertly crafted by our Mama Mila’s relative Anton Quisiumbing. This can now be found in the entrance of our ancestral home.

Our home away from home in Iloilo, Hotel del Rio, was situated by the Iloilo River. A few minutes away from the airport, pier, historic downtown, and the city’s business shopping districts, it has elegantly designed guestrooms, which are all equipped with modern amenities and tastefully furnished with light neutral tones.

Famished as usual, we proceeded to Teds La Paz Bachoy, which serves culture in a bowl. This hearty noodle soup with innards, chicharon and tasty bagoong is paired with puto or pandesal. We also stopped by the famous Panaderia Molo, where we sampled the delicious baked goodies like biscocho, galletas and ojaldres. We admired the grand Nelly Gardens in Old Jaro built in 1928, a fabulous colonial home that incessantly embraces the magnitude and splendor of the legendary Iloilo sugar fortunes.

We remembered the palatial mansions of the Astors and Vanderbilts in Newport constructed during the Gilded Age of America. As we toured the interiors of the magnificent Nelly Gardens, we were impressed by the well-preserved balustrades, grand staircases and furnishings as well as the dramatic arrangement of space as seen in the high ceilings and massive wooden doors.

Built by Vicente Lopez y Villanueva (1879-1963) and his wife Elena Hofilena y Javelona, it was named for their eldest daughter Nelly, who had a penchant for gardens. I was pleasantly surprised to find out it was my former student in Assumption College, Frannie Golez, granddaughter of Nelly, who was caring for the well-preserved imposing Beaux-Arts-style home now. She now operates a lovely bed and breakfast with the rooms on the ground level.

The residence began as a simple two-storey affair that was continually enlarged and embellished as the family grew, as their fortunes multiplied, and as their social obligations increased. These mansions still stand as a reminder of days gone past, drawing visitors as they remain as inviting today as they did before.

This trip to irresistible Iloilo with my siblings is cultural voyeurism that highlights introspection. The raconteurs that we are, we remained speechless as we toured the tangible edifices of its storied past. As we cover the ground outwardly, we advance inwardly. To appropriate a phrase from Andre Malraux, a “museum without walls.”

This is Iloilo — aerated, full of sunshine and graduated shadow, a timeless exposition of beauty, charm, gracious people, aesthetic artifacts and marvelous cuisine.

It is high time we visited Iloilo, the city of love and the city of dreams. Explore, too, Tinagong Dagat, a whimsical lake situated on a plateau surrounded by the rolling hills of Lambunao, stroll down the romantic Fort San Pedro, weave your own versions of nostalgic stories among the centuries-old trees and edifices. Make your way to the Dinagyang festival dubbed as the Best Tourism Event by the Association of Tourism Officers of the Philippines.

Join the Ilonggos as they wear colorful costumes, dance to the hypnotic drumbeats, chant “Hala Bira! Viva Señor Santo Nino!” and check out the world-class films at the Iloilo film fest. A peek into our cineaste future, this is certainly an effective way to soak in our beautiful emergent culture.

souce: The Philippine Star


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