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Medieval Manila

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My story on Intramuros for the April 2009 issue of Singapore Airlines' Silver Kris magazine

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Medieval Manila

  1. 1. TRAVEL �edieval �anila Reasons To Linger In The Capital Skip the capital of the Philippines and you’ll be missing out on historic treasures – a resilient 400-year-old church, a reconstructed Spanish period house and a restaurant rivalling its colonial counterpart, says AlAn C. Robles. He takes you on a stroll through the cobbled streets of Intramuros, and promises you won’t want to leave. Y ou might have heard this billboards too large, and – are noted politely that Manila’s traffic said about Manila: It’s the those vendors standing in the was “difficult to control”.) city you arrive in and say middle of the road actually But try not to judge. The city’s goodbye to as fast as you offering plumbing tools to passing charms are hidden, and discovering can, staying only long enough to motorists? (Manila’s traffic snarls them is a reward in itself. catch the local flight to the golden are legendary. And historical. In a Manila is a city of fusion – and beaches of Boracay, Panglao or novel he wrote in 1887, Philippine confusion. Built and sustained Puerto Princesa. national hero Jose Rizal described by centuries of trade, it brought After all, at first glance the the crush of horse-drawn together Malays, Chinese, Philippine capital doesn’t offer carriages – calesas – in the narrow Spaniards and Americans – with much by way of tourist appeal. streets, where coachmen yelled a smattering of Indians and It’s crowded. Hot. Grimy. The at pedestrians to stand aside. Japanese – in a melting pot which buildings are nondescript, In 1938, an American newsreel hasn’t stopped simmering. Of the >> The garden at San Agustin, the oldest church in the Philippines, and a UNESCO World Heritage site. SilverKris 4 8
  2. 2. TRAVEL FROM LEFT: Jeepneys, a colourful form of public transport in Manila, add to its legendary traffic jams, along with vendors plying everything from balloons to plumbing tools; a statue of Spain’s King Carlos IV presides over the small park in front of Manila Cathedral. Employing Chinese and Filipino artisans, the Spaniards proceeded to build a medieval city, complete with churches, cobblestone streets and plazas, all encircled by a moat and a stone wall. I’ve stood in the cathedral square – now called Plaza Roma – imagining how it looked when it was an arena for bullfights, when monks chanted vespers in nearby churches, and when, in the nearby royal palace, ambitious governor-generals plotted to extend imperial Spain’s power in Asia, or dipped into the profits of the galleon trade. Now, the >> East and West, Rudyard Kipling for Filipino), whose passion for – Ping, Lotlot, Bing, Bong – Ivan blue seas off Palawan, and stayed heart – the 64 hectares declared: Never the twain shall this city is unmatched, laments has neither. in Davao’s Pearl Farm. But Manila? of fortified history called meet. But in Manila they didn’t just how even Manileños overlook What he does have, is a My address. What else was there Intramuros, the Walled City. This meet, they went out on dates, got the treasures of their culture. mention in Lonely Planet. Last to say? is where it all began: In the small married and had a large family. A mestizo (Spanish for ‘mixed year, he escorted celebrity chef Plenty, and no one says it better park in front of Manila Cathedral In this capital, you’ll come ancestry’) of traders from Anthony Bourdain on a food tour than Ivan. He leads walking tours (www.manilacathedral.org), the across massive Spanish Southern China who came here of Manila (“He liked our lumpia” – (www.oldmanilawalks.com) – often statue of Spain’s King Carlos baroque churches, colourful generations ago, Ivan, like most Filipino fried spring rolls, he muses). under the hot sun – that last three IV marks the spot where, Buddhist and Hindu temples, and of our population, is descended “There’s richness and diversity to five hours. Far from lynching 438 years ago, a doughty old American colonial buildings built from several nationalities, and as and character – if you’d only try,” him, his clients enthusiastically sign conquistador plunged his in grand beaux-arts style by the Filipino as we come. Unlike many he declares. I daren’t confess up for repeats. sword into a tree trunk and same architect who designed of the population though, who to him that years back, I too The city is dauntingly huge defiantly proclaimed the Washington DC’s Union Station. have proper Spanish first names belonged to the ‘Any place but though, making it hard for a visitor founding of Manila on Ivan Man Dy, a thin, fast-talking – Jose, Eduardo, Concepcion Manila’ club. I’d seen the mountain to decide where to start. the site of a former Chinoy (‘Chinese’ plus ‘Pinoy’ – or uniquely Filipino nicknames provinces north, the unbelievably You’ll want to go to its Spanish Muslim town. SilverKris 50
  3. 3. TRAVEL governor’s palace is gone, the l’oeil ceiling, an ornate mural square a tree-lined park bustling in golden three-dimensional with vendors and schoolchildren; effect, and the seats of the choir nearby, government employees lofts, handcarved out of tropical dodge motorists as they cross hardwood. Near the elaborate the street to lunch at one of the altar is the tomb of Miguel Lopez carinderias (budget eateries). de Legazpi, the conquistador who Commerce was Manila’s founded Manila. lifeblood. For two centuries, the Across the street from San city relied on the Manila Galleons, Agustin is Plaza San Luis, a treasure ships which brought in complex of restored buildings settlers and Mexican silver, and recalling Intramuros in the late then loaded up on Chinese goods, 1800s. Its heart is Casa Manila, brought annually by fleets of junks. a three-storey museum in a Repeatedly battered by reconstructed Spanish period earthquakes, the city always house complete with courtyard, rebuilt itself (Manila Cathedral is a well, and garages for the horse- in its eighth incarnation). And the drawn carriages. The house last catastrophe – World War II is sumptuously furnished with – destroyed most of Manila. The antiques and artwork reflecting only structures left standing, were the tastes of affluent Spanish and the walls themselves – and one mestizo Filipinos families in the unique church, which you’ll find by 1880s. Wander through its many walking down General Luna Street rooms and private chapel, and away from the cathedral. marvel at the gorgeous fittings You’re looking for the 403-year- – Venetian chandeliers, intricately old San Agustin church (www. carved mahogany furniture and manila.gov.ph/sanagustin.htm), gleaming wooden floors polished the oldest in the Philippines and to a shine by coconut husks. a UNESCO World Heritage site. The windows are fitted with Built in 1606, San Agustin has translucent mother of pearl panes, withstood everything nature effectively turning harsh sunlight and man has thrown against into gentle natural lighting. it – earthquakes, looting For me, this stretch of street and bombardments. Its between San Agustin and Plaza beige exterior is plain and San Luis comes closest to evoking unremarkable, although the what the ancient city must have elaborately carved wooden door, been like. Occasionally, a calesa as well as the Chinese stone lions will drive by, the horse’s hooves guarding the courtyard, hint of clip-clopping on the cobblestone what’s to come. streets. All it lacks is the armoured And the interior is indeed conquistador. impressive, with its trompe If you’re in need of refreshment at this point, it’s a short walk two CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: blocks down from San Agustin, to Cultural fusion in Manila – a statue of the El Amanecer compound, where a Roman Catholic saint is guarded by my favourite Intramuros restaurant, a Chinese stone lion at the San Agustin Ilustrado (http://ilustradorestaurant. church; sampaguita ice cream, available at com.ph), awaits. Ilustrado restaurant, which serves up top- It’s a well-lit, graciously notch Spanish fare; the elaborately carved appointed, fine-dining main door of San Agustin; Ivan Man Dy, one of Manila’s most famous guides; inside establishment – try the Paella San Agustin – its trompe l’oeil ceiling and Ilustrado, and the sampaguita main sanctuary inspire awe. ice cream, a sherbet delicately >> 52 SilverKris 5 2
  4. 4. TRAVEL infused with the fragrance of the researched and entertainingly national flower. The last time I was presented (for his Chinatown there, a Spanish tourist sitting group he dons a hat and pigtails), at a table nearby, in his loud and Ivan’s tours strip the grime away: fervent appreciation of the paella, Where you’d see a crowded insisted he meet the chef to tell intersection jammed with blaring him it was better than anything traffic, Ivan shows a graceful he’d tasted back home. Spanish-period plaza, complete After this you can resume with fountains, fronting an your stroll to the stone walls, and ostensibly Catholic church built up the Baluarte de San Andres, along Chinese lines (the belltower which has a spectacular view of is octagonal, like a pagoda’s). Manila City Hall and the National Ivan probably won’t tell you, Museum. You can make a nearly but I will: After doing Intramuros complete circuit of the walls, but and Binondo, you’ll want to take a it’s a 4.5km walk. If all of this is 45-minute taxi ride to the tiangge beginning to sound like work, a (bazaar) in Vmall (popularly company called Jeepney Tours called Virra Mall) within Greenhills (www.jeepneytours.com) can Shopping Center (www.greenhills. pick you up at your hotel in an com.ph), my favourite shopping CLOCKWISE FROM ABOVE: The sign for Casa Manila, a museum in a air-conditioned version of Manila’s centre. It’s actually closer to a reconstructed Spanish period house; famous, gaudy and entirely bazaar than a mall, and offers the bazaar in Vmall sells a staggering unmistakable public vehicle. A day nearly everything, but is most variety of items, including South tour of Intramuros, with lunch and a famous for its South Sea pearls, Sea pearls; Manila Hotel, the city’s visit to the gigantic SM Mall of Asia sold by Muslims belonging to the oldest; a Catholic church in Binondo, (www.smmallofasia.com) along the Maranaw tribe – an ethnic group historic Chinatown; a road sign in Chinatown; horse-drawn carriages ply bay, will cost about US$40. famed for centuries as traders. Intramuros, in front of Casa Manila. You should also consider Queen Sofia of Spain supposedly >> heading to the National Museum had no qualms shopping here. (http://members.tripod.com/ That side trip over, is there fast fac ts philmuseum/index) complex, anything else worth doing in CURRENCY which includes a permanent Manila? I won’t bother going into Philippines Pesos (PHP) collection on the Manila Galleon, the music and entertainment and check out the Manila Hotel scene, because most visitors US$1 = 49 PHP (www.manila-hotel.com.ph) – the won’t have any problems finding VISA city’s oldest hotel and a historic site that. But if you’re looking for Requirements vary, but US, in its own right. Ernest Hemingway another day trip, I’d suggest EU and Asean nationals can once stayed here, and General the Pasig River in the new air- stay up to 21 days without Douglas MacArthur called the top conditioned ferry (Tel: 63 2 882 a visa. Check www.gov. floor of the old wing his home. 5734 for daily schedules). ph/faqs/visa.asp for details. And still I’d say, after all this, Ivan has his own preference: BEST TIME TO VISIT your introduction to Manila has “The Malacañang Palace museum barely started. You have to do (official residence of the President) November to February when what the city did – move beyond (www.op.gov.ph/museum), which the weather is cool, between Intramuros’ walls. South-east lies nobody knows about. And for 21°C-28°C. Christmas is the Makati, which teems with malls quirkiness and flamboyance, the country’s biggest holiday, and coffee shops. North is where Chinese cemetery in the suburb when most Filipinos pull out you’ll discover the city’s character, of Santa Cruz in northern Manila. the stops in their celebrations. and you’d do well to get in touch There’s nothing like it anywhere.” HOW TO GE T THERE with Ivan there. But let’s just save that for when Singapore Airlines flies 3 times One of his favourite areas you come back to Manila. You’ve lies just across the river from already stayed longer than you daily from Singapore to Manila. the Walled City: Binondo, the intended, and you still have that MORE INFORMATION historic Chinatown. Painstakingly plane to Panglao to catch… www.wowphilippines.com.ph SilverKris 5 4

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