A stunning and splendid historical showcase
By Earl D.C. Bracamonte
Once the capital of the entire Ylokos region that encompassed the provinces of La Union, Ilocos Norte, Abra, Ilocos Sur, and the Cordilleras, Vigan is the only World Heritage City in the Philippines, and was inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage List of Sites and Monuments on Dec. 2, 1999. Ciudad Fernandina, as it was known before, represents a unique fusion of Asian building design and construction with European colonial architecture and planning. It is an exceptionally intact and well-preserved example of a European trading town in the Far East and Southeast Asia; one of the few stopovers of the bustling galleon trade in the 19th century. Vigan derived its name from the lush Bigaa tuber, a species of the gabi family.
“While we may not pass the stringent guidelines of cityhood, which require population size, territorial area, and income, Vigan is however mandated by a royal decree which states that as long as the Archdiocese and its church stand, it will forever remain a city. This same decree has been validated by an act of Congress,” explained third-time mayor, Hon. Eva Marie Singson-Medina, the only unopposed mayoralty candidate of Vigan. She has served her previous two tenures to its full nine-year periods.
The capital city of the province of Ilocos Sur, measuring 28.8 square-kilometers in size, it is located in the northwestern coast of the Philippines. A former island surrounded by three bodies of water (the rivers Bantay, Mestizo and Vantes), Vigan is now connected to the Luzon mainland by bridges. Its river cruises point to the significance of waterways throughout its colorful history.
“Our conservation efforts continue despite changes in governance. We are fortunate to have the support of our local residents. These efforts are our very tools for development. Everything is embodied in the Homeowners Preservation Manual, a guideline published by UNESCO and the University of the Philippines,” continued Mayor Medina.
Total cultural heritage package
One of the Singson family’s ancestral domains, Casa Caridad is a treasure trove of memorabilia as well as valuable historical materials. The wealth of this beautifully-preserved home is made much more valuable by the genteel hospitality of its owner, the accomplished entrepreneur Jose ‘Bonito’ Singson, president and CEO of BCS Realty Holdings & Dev’t Corp.
Built in 1872, the stately mansion was used as a tavern set for Oliver Stone’s “Born on the Fourth of July” film that starred Tom Cruise. “This house is named after our mother, Dona Caridad. Each of the ancestral houses in the Heritage Village has its own story. One local historian can trace the history of these households from memory. We started restoration work in 1995 and brought back the traditions of yore,” intoned Sir Bonito.
A few paces from Casa Caridad is the opulent Hotel Felicidad, another of the Singson’s dwellings that’s been converted into a hotel. Located along Calle delos Reyes, it enjoys a quiet location within the Heritage Village. The hotel is a block from the remarkable cobblestone walk, which was known as Escolta de Vigan, and has been preserved since the Spanish era.
“We pioneered the standard of hotel experience in Vigan. Not just in rooms but also in food preparation and cuisine presentation.,” he added.
Hotel Felicidad is also near numerous historic sites like the Syquia Mansion, Plaza Burgos, St. Paul Cathedral and the Burgos Museum, to name a few. Also nearby is the Vigan Convention Center, a modern facility set in the country’s only world heritage city. It sits 3,000 covers on a theater-type sitting and 2,000 on a banquet setting. “Baluarte, my Manong Chavit’s estate is the highest elevation in the entire Vigan. It used to be called El Pueblo de Salcedo,” enthused the father of four.
A variety of entertainment, shopping opportunities, local delicacy peddlers, as well as tourist attractions are close by. Noteworthy of these places is the burnayan. The Bantug clay used to make the tapayan (jars) is sourced from a non-arable farm lot in Brgy. Bulala, and which was awarded to the Go family in 1954 as ceramic molders. Surviving heir Fidel Antiporda Go continues the trade and was named as National Folk Artist by the NCCA in 1990.
“The dragon kiln for our burnay is the only remaining one in the country that cooks the air-dried, formed clay. It is patterned after the pasotes from Mexico. Our cuisine, on the other hand, is rich and flavorful. These include staples like bagnet, longganisa, dinengdeng, igado, puqui-puqui, pusi, mara-utong,buridibud and pippian to name some.
“As to festivals, we celebrate our City Day and Longganisa Fest in January. We even produced a book-cum-guide on the ‘101 Ways to Cook Longganisa,’ Holy Week is the peak of our tourism related undertakings. Soon, we will put up park facilities with bath and CR facilities for those on day tours. Sept. 8 is the solidarity celebration of all World Heritage Sites globally. We are seeing a marked increase in our tourism traffic each year. Our day tourists can reach to 450,000 annually.
“The Twilight Festival is our homecoming feast as well as the remembrance of our beloved-departed. Lighted wish lanterns waft to the air from the cemetery plots below. This culminates in a lantern and torch parade.
Today, Vigan remains to be the home of proud Biguenos who welcome everyone with warm smiles to the city. The Tres Patrimonio (Three Patrimonies) musicale chronicles the legacy of its most famous sons & daughters: Diego & Gabriela Silang, Leona Florentino and Padre Jose Burgos. Diego Silang is considered the precursor of the Philippines’ stand against Spain, albeit briefly.
Images and sounds of modernity, like the impressive Dancing Fountain show that plays nightly at the town square, have established their marked presence in the age of digital technology. Inspired by Las Vegas’ Bellaggio, the waterworks display is a gift of former Gov. Chavit Singson to the city’s townsfolk. Yet, dazzling as the images and colored lights may be, including its fantastic soundtrack, they are, however, unable to drown the stillness and elegance of the past. All you need to do is simply walk the entire stretch of Calle Crisologo to have a virtual ‘walk in the past.’ Or hie off to any of its museums and be transported back in time. At the Arce Mansion, you can don traditional outfits and have your portrait taken amidst well-preserved fixtures and furnishings.
“The poverty incidence of Vigan in 1995 rose up to 45.5 per cent. To date, that figure has plummeted to a measly 7 per cent, as shown in our baseline study. To curb unemployment, the city went on a massive skills training program. Then a lending project for capitalization, with 97 per cent collection efficiency, followed through. Everyone is given a chance to improve their lives,” shared Mayor Medina.
Vigan has opened itself to change but has not sacrificed the bountiful wealth of its heritage. It is exactly the ability of coping with the needs of the present, despite the bounds set by centuries-old legacy that makes it a ‘Living Historic City.’
“Last year, Ilocos Sur was declared as a safe and investor-friendly province. We have two investing companies to take over solar farming. We have a government satellite office in Malaysia. Provincial roads are already paved. Cabugao and Bantay towns enjoy the tourist spillover of Vigan. I’ve already spoken to the eighty other governors from all over the country to help us in our bid for the New 7 Wonders Cities campaign. If we win, the focus will help finish our airport facility because it is one important infrastructure that lots of people are clamoring for. Aside from our municipalities, Ilocos Sur has 768 barangays and two component cities. Currently, we are undergoing an agrarian project on hybrid corn wherein each stalk bears more than one cob. We concentrate on agriculture because it is our main livelihood source,” apprized Hon. Ryan Luis Singson, governor of Ilocos Sur.
“Tobacco is still our main industry, accounting for 72 per cent of the entire Philippine supply. Corn and shallots are the next big crops. We also produce wood, gold and silver from our upland areas,” he added.
Vigan is one of the oldest Spanish settlements in the Philippines; together with Cebu, Zamboanga and Intramuros de Manila. Through the years, it has received numerous accolades from different institutions. It has been recently hailed as a Lakbay Aral community of learning, as the most child-friendly component city in the entire archipelago. Vigan is also the first awardee of the Pamana ng Lahi honors for good governance and fiscal management. UNESCO also highlighted its sustainable importance as a heritage city.
And with its on-going bid to be named as one of the seven New Wonders Cities, Vigan may just cinch that distinction and add said laurel to its growing list of achievements.
Filipinos here and abroad are encouraged to vote for Vigan as one of the new 7 wonders cities through the Web via www.n7w.com/en/cities and/or by texting VIGAN10 to 29290777. For more information, simply visit the city’s Web site, http://vigancity.gov.ph.