Philippines: Vigan For A Day

No, the title is not misspelled. This article is about a place, not a diet. Vigan is a quaint little city in Ilocos Sur, Philippines. If you want to spend the rest of the day being drawn around the city in horse carriages (calesa or karitela in the local language), walk on cobblestone streets, see old Hispanic houses, and be offered bagnet and empanada by the sidewalk vendors every now and then, then you may want to pay this town a visit. Most tourists come here in order to “go back in time.” The place has the power to give you nostalgia, even if it is your first time there.

Ilocos Norte and Ilocos Sur are huge provinces that are both worth your time. Vigan is like a kind and warm aunt that welcomes you with a delicious snack before you set off to join your grandparents for a dinner feast.

Although the city can mostly be toured in a day, there is so much to take in. The entire city is filled with culture and history. It was not labeled as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for nothing. Vigan has also been rewarded as one of the New 7 Wonders Cities of the World. In order to enjoy the place before it gets too crowded, you may start the day early by visiting Calle Crisologo; breathe in the morning air, watch the shop owners open their windows, and lay out their goods, and listen to the hoofs of the horses as they quickly walk by you, but not in a hurry. Eat breakfast in one of the restaurants, and savor the conflicting mixture of Spanish-looking shops with Filipino menus. Check out Café Leona, Café Uno, or Pinakbet Farm – the choices are endless.

If you’re not a breakfast eater, try to catch a taho (made of soft tofu and sago pearl that is usually sold on the streets during early morning) vendor on the streets, and have your fill of this sweet yet healthy snack. Souvenir shops are also available here, from “I love Vigan” T-shirts to refrigerator magnets to miniature horse carriages.

My friend and I had a blast hopping from one shop to another while eating Flavor of the Road ice cream (locally made and sold in carts on sidewalks) and enjoying the warm sunshine on our faces.

Hail a calesa and ask the cochero (carriage driver) to take you to the Bantay Church Bell Tower. Most cocheros would suggest places to visit. You can let them lead the way if you don’t have an itinerary in mind. Bantay Church Bell Tower is technically outside the city, but it would only take a 10-minute drive to get there. What will welcome you is an old church and a bell tower located about 60 meters (196.8 feet) away from it. The view of the belfry from afar is rather picturesque, but aside from that, being inside it makes you think of all the history this tower has witnessed. This may sound cheesy, but it’s as if you can hear the walls whisper stories. It takes your breath away; the view and the feeling.

For architecture enthusiasts, St. Augustine Church is just a few meters walk from the tower. Built in 1590, this church with its deep brown, neo-gothic façade has seen and survived World War II, although it needed to undergo a couple of renovations in 1950.

Head to the Burgos Museum, Casa Caridad, Arce Mansion, Syquia Mansion, or Crisologo Museum; these places store exhibits of proof of things and people that lived and breathed here. It is enriching to know history, even if it’s not your own. As cliché as it may seem, knowing the past does really make us appreciate the present.

If you only know pottery by watching YouTube documentaries, and the only potter you know is Harry from Hogwart’s, Vigan gives you a chance to experience real pottery in action. Vigan’s Pagburnayan is the iconic pottery place in the city. Aside from taking unlimited photos for your Instagram feed, you will be allowed to mold the clay and showcase your creativity. They have ready-made pots available in different sizes and designs, so you can purchase one if you like.

Vigan is big on crafts. Aside from pottery, loom weaving is one of the things that Vigan is famous for. The weavers here in Vigan are mostly women, and have learned this art from their ancestors. They have mastered making sure both their hands and feet are in sync to properly use their makeshift wooden handloom. They do not use machines to weave cotton threads into cloth because according to them, weaving manually minimizes error. This is why their products are special – they are handmade.  While taking to the weavers, the word abel or inabel may come up way too many times. Abel is the Ilocano word for “weave,” and inabel means “woven.”

If you’ve had enough museums, churches, clays, and cloth for the morning, you can drop by the Hidden Garden. Aside from being a garden where you can enjoy the cool shade of the trees and bushes, as well as the scent of the flowers, you can have a sumptuous lunch here. Make sure to try out their special Vigan longganisa (Spanish sausage similar to chorizo) at the Lilong and Lilang restaurant conveniently situated inside the garden. Aside from bagnet, empanada, and chichacorn (corn ears cooked the same way as cracklings), longganisa is one of the food varieties for which Vigan is well-known. In this restaurant, you can see a wall filled with photos of celebrities who paid a visit.

If you’re up for a Jurassic Park experience after lunch, proceed to Baluarte. You will be welcomed by life-sized concrete dinosaurs. The most exciting things to see here are the live animals that you can pet with or run away from, such as the ostrich that chased my friend. Baluarte Zoo is home to tigers, camels, deer, miniature horses, impalas, ostriches, and so much more. The zoo also has food stalls, so you will not be hungry here. This is where I tasted sugar cane juice for the first time.

You will be spending so much time here, especially if you are travelling with kids, but I suggest that you head back to Calle Crisologo so you can witness the mesmerizing transformation of the place as soon as the sun starts to say adieu for the day. As the orange sunlight starts to fade, yellow lightbulbs are switched on, and the street with its cobblestone walkways and horse-drawn carriages slowly becomes a scene from a romantic Spanish telenovela. They call this the golden hour of Calle Crisologo. Tourists who retreated to their hotels during high noon start re-emerging. The restaurants are buzzing with hungry diners who have spent the entire day roaming around the city. If you feel like eating on the sidewalks, some restaurants set up tables outside. This gives the feeling of being on the streets of Italy or Paris. Expect the streets to get a little crowded at this time of the day, since the golden hour means good photographs.

After dinner, the crowd usually flocks to the town plaza, Plaza Salcedo, to watch the dancing fountain show. I have seen a couple of light shows and fountain shows before in Ocean Park, Hong Kong, and Vin Pearl in Vietnam, but the fountain show in Vigan was also something else. I guess what made it more fun for me was watching the little kids run around the fountain and get themselves purposely wet. After the first show, my friend decided to wait for the repeat performance in an hour, so we walked around the plaza and snacked on kwek-kwek (quail eggs) and green mangoes. The crowd seemed to double when the second show started.

Before heading back to our hotel, we rode a calesa one more time around the city. At past ten in the evening, most parts of the city were already sleeping – they probably had busy days ahead. We asked the cochero to stop by Calle Crisologo, our third stop on this street in just one day. Around this time, the shops were closed, and the fanfares had been packed up. The street was almost empty, except for a couple of tourists who either just arrived in the city or came back just like us in the hopes of being able to take photographs without other people in it. I came back because I already missed the place I’d just seen. Yes, Vigan has the power to do that to you. We sat for a while and watched people and carriages pass by. I took a mental picture of the place, while my friend opted to use her iPhone.

I wanted to stay longer, but we were headed north the next day, so we started walking back to our hotel at a little after eleven. I said goodnight to Vigan and its cobblestone streets, Hispanic houses, and sleeping horses with a promise to myself that I would come back.

Rea Mae
Rea Mae

Rea is a freelance travel writer from the beautiful island of Cebu, Philippines. She lives by the principle of 3 B’s- books, beaches, and brewed coffee. At sixteen, she started her first year in the university and moved out from her parents’ house. On weekends when she is not working on her thesis for her Master’s Degree, she is either exploring beaches, at home reading Murakami, or sleeping in airports on her way to backpack somewhere with her friends.

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