Monday, May 23, 2011

The Historical Flavours of Iloilo

Whats there to do in Iloilo? I texted the organizer of our trip a week before the departure date. We'll eat batchoy, he texted back with a smiley face attached at the end of the message. Batchoy? What was so special about batchoy from Iloilo?

When we finally landed in Iloilo, I learned that batchoy was invented here and that this soupy noodle dish is one of the many things the Ilonggos are very proud of.

Iloilo City is the capital of Iloilo, one of four provinces that occupies Panay island in the Visayas region (the others are Antique, Aklan, and Capiz), and is actually independent from its mother province. Because of its strategic location and the presence of an international airport (the fourth busiest in the country) a half hour away, Iloilo City is considered the gateway to the Western Visayas region, which, apart from the aforementioned provinces, also includes Guimaras and Negros Occidental. It is also the country’s second oldest city (the oldest is Cebu City), which makes it one of the earliest regions in the Philippines discovered by Spanish colonizers and where they built their settlements.

This colonization is quite evident in the architecture. As you drive through downtown Iloilo, particularly through Calle Real (now known as JM Basa Street), try and ignore the tacky billboards, garish signs, and thick tangle of black electric wires and you will see beautifully designed old buildings. Unfortunately, many of these buildings have been left to decay or overtaken by commerce and turned into hardware stores or panciterias. You can’t help but wish that these colonial buildings were protected and maintained by the local government. They could follow the example of many major European cities—the facades of these old structures could be preserved, but the insides gutted and developed into charming cafés, quirky shops, or even small boutique hotels. In the 19th century, this row was the liveliest commercial district as it was the site of most of the town’s European and Chinese retailers.

During the city’s economic boom, thanks in large part to the development of the sugar industry in Iloilo and the neighboring Negros island, families turned their properties into farms for sugar production because there was a high demand for the sweet stuff in the world market. The Jaro district of Iloilo became the Philippines’ first “millionaires’ row” because many wealthy sugar barons built their sprawling mansions there. At the height of their affluence, we can imagine the illustrious families of Iloilo like the Lopezes, the Ledesmas, the Villanuevas, the Lizareses, the Montinolas, the Jalandonis, the Javellanas, and the Locsins, lounging in the verandas of their stately homes, playing croquet in the expansive lawn, or holding huge parties in the lavishly decorated salas.

These days, imagine is all a tourist can do. Many of these huge heritage houses have been abandoned because their owners have either migrated to other cities like Manila or Bacolod, or died. Some which have been left to caretakers are open for viewing by appointment or available to be rented for parties and events.

One of the most attractive is the elegant white mansion called Nelly Garden, built in 1928 and once owned by philanthropist and statesman Don Vicente Lopez and his wife Doña Elena Hofileña. Another notable house is the 200-year-old Casa Mariquit, considered one of the oldest existing houses in Iloilo and where the Javellana family once resided (one of the family members, Maria Mariquit Javellana lived there with her husband, the former vice-president of the Philippines, Fernando Lopez, Sr.). Our group managed to enter the brick-based house and surprised the caretakers—they were in the process of cleaning and sprucing it up for tourists. However, they were kind enough to tour us inside, while giving us a history lesson on its former occupants.

But the most stunning of all has to be the grand Lizares Mansion, which was built in 1937. Rumor has it that after the war broke out, family members were killed, and the mansion was used as a garrison by the Japanese. It then remained unoccupied for years till it was turned into a casino by gambling lords in the 1950s. By the 1960s, the mansion was purchased by Dominican friars for the discounted price of P50,000. It was then renovated and it eventually became the Angelicum School. If you visit Iloilo City during the holiday season, be sure to pass by the school at night—every Christmas, the building is beautifully decorated and lit up.

Visita iglesia...

After our drive by rows of rundown colonial-style buildings and abandoned heritage homes, it was time to visit a few old churches—for a change, it was good to observe efforts to preserve and maintain the churches, perhaps because they are always in use as places of worship. The first church in Iloilo was built in the early 1600s by the Jesuits to serve the needs of the military stationed there. As the province was the setting for early “civilization” in the country, the natural progression was for the Spanish colonizers to build churches there. Today, you will find many with stunning Baroque and Gothic designs.

We visited the Jaro Cathedral, which was built in 1864 and is distinct for its collection of life-sized statues of male saints perched on the columns inside. But outside, there is a statue of Our Lady of Candles (her feast day is on February 2) encased in glass and visited daily by devotees. The Madonna and Child is considered “miraculous” because it keeps growing in size, necessitating its transfer and change of glass case every year. The image originally occupied a spot by the altar inside the church; it is said that after a visit and a blessing by Pope Paul VI in 1982, the statue began to grow in size and had to be moved outside. The belfry is another unique feature of this cathedral—it is one of the few in the country that stands apart from the church (in fact, it is located across the street).

There are many other old churches to visit within the city, like San Jose Church (located right in front of Plaza Libertad) and Molo Church (the “feminist” church because of the presence of at least 16 images of female saints). If you dare venture a little road trip, however, we highly recommend the Miag-ao Church. Located some 40 kilometers southwest of Iloilo City, this over-200-year-old structure was declared a national landmark in 1973 and was included in the UNESCO World Heritage list of “Baroque Churches in the Philippines” in 1993. It also holds the distinction of being one of the most photographed churches in the country, thanks to its unique architectural style. The façade has a decorative bas relief described as “native botanical,” featuring papaya and guava trees and a large coconut tree in the center, and flanked by two dissimilar bell towers.

Batchoy, biscocho, and more...

Lest you think these architectural gems are the highlight of a tour of Iloilo City, locals will always take the time to make you taste their food. Ask any Ilonggo what there is to do in their fine city and they will almost certainly answer “Eat!” And at the top of the list is batchoy.

Batchoy is a hearty noodle soup dish that includes pork innards, crushed chicharon (pork rinds), vegetables, shrimp, chicken breast or beef loin, shrimp broth, and chicken stock, and topped with spring onions and chopped fried garlic. The original version used miki noodles, but to meet customers’ demands, other varieties were developed using miswa, bihon, and sotanghon noodles.

There is much debate on who invented the batchoy. Deco’s and Ted’s, two of the most popular batchoy restaurants in Iloilo, both claim to have concocted this filling dish. The original owners, Frederico Guillergan Sr. and Teodorico Lepura, respectively, each started out experimenting with a basic Chinese noodle soup back in the 1930s. They then opened up batchoy stalls in the public market and eventually expanded. One thing is for sure, though: It originated in the district of La Paz, Iloilo; hence its full name of La Paz batchoy indicates that you are eating batchoy, Iloilo-style.

Another source of Iloilo pride is the seafood. Many seafood restaurants line Villa beach and the most popular, no doubt, is Breakthrough. Tourists and locals alike head to this sprawling open-air restaurant, where you can pick out the fish, crab, lobster, or prawns you want cooked your way. Another must-visit restaurant is Tatoy’s Manokan & Seafoods. Their specialty is barbecued whole chicken stuffed with tamarind and lemongrass leaves and, of course, grilled seafood. These seaside eateries are generally very casual and you may even want to eat with your hands.

After three days of sightseeing and eating, the group was ready for some pasalubong shopping. At the top of my list was biscocho, the one thing my dad asked for when I told him I was going to Iloilo. Personally, I didn’t get the thrill of eating a crunchy piece of toasted bread heavily buttered to the point of turning yellow, but the province has made a whole industry out of it. You can find many brands of biscocho in supermarkets and souvenir shops, but we were told the best if from Biscocho Haus, found all over town and practically an institution in Iloilo.

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