A Haven for Heritage

As a travel writer, one can get used to everything being laid out for you just so. The press junkets and familiarization tours are all programmed to maximize what the sponsors and organizers would want you to see and experience, and then bank on their hopes that you actually write about it as positively as possible. All well and good, we all need to take a living. But when each stop is just another item to be ticked off on an itinerary somebody else thought up, what happens to the sense of adventure, of discovery, the thrill that comes from cleverly figuring out how to find that special place?

Those were the questions I was asking myself as I and three French first-timers to the Philippines were driving around twisty mountain roads in the near dark still tens of kilometres away from where we hoped to end up. As we curved around yet another tricky stretch, dodging goats and barrio lasses, one of my wards asked half-jokingly, half-nervously: “What if after all this, we get there and it’s not very nice?”

But I get ahead of myself. Tasked to tour a friend of a friend and his friends around during the year-end holidays, it was up to me to formulate our game plan for a road trip. I decided to go for broke and look for a destination that was unique, off-the-beaten-path, and one I had never been to before. I already had a pretty good idea where.

Like a city of myth, secreted away from the madding crowd, shrouded by the mists of time, I’d heard snatches about and caught glimpses of the legendary Las Casas Filipinas De Acuzar. Scooped by various websites and blogs, and even showing up as background scenery for the local production of Zorro, these tantalizing teases whipped me up into a must-go-there frenzy. This road trip was my opportunity, and I was gonna seize it, and I didn’t care if I had to drag three unsuspecting foreigners with me to satisfy my selfish whim.

One of my first beats ever as a writer was on architecture and design, and I was drawn to Philippine heritage architecture in particular. So knowing about a whole village composed of authentic 18th-19th century Principalia Mansions and original Bahay na Bato (Stone Houses), painstakingly restored and arranged around a cobblestone plaza and streets had me rabidly frothing at the mouth. Fortunately, I had fellow archi-enthusiasts and shutterbugs in tow, so they were keen on the adventure as well. I booked a room for four at the nearest deluxe resort, the rambling Montemar beach club, utilizing it as the starting point for exploring the region, and squeezing some R&R in between.

And that’s how we found ourselves in the dark, on the road, tracing our route on the map, hoping to get to Bagac in time for dinner. Mt. Samat, the supposed can’t-miss landmark to lead us to our destination, loomed to our left like an imposing black bogeyman. Thankfully, Montemar’s house restaurant El Meson just had its menu and wine list overhauled by respected chef consultant Ed Quimson, so we were properly sated and sloshed before turning in for the night.

After breakfast the next day, we decided to take advantage of our Bataan base camp and spend some time on the beach and in the sea. Though not lily-white, Bagac’s beach sand is fine, clean and algae free, and the clear water had just enough wave action going on to make swimming interesting. Swim out far enough though and you’ll be treated to an even more intriguing sight, the dome of the dormant Bataan Nuclear Power Plant surrounded by lush tropical rainforest. This prompted a few jokes about radioactive fish, but being the world’s top consumers of nuclear energy, my French companions were nonplussed.


For lunch we explored the center of Bagac town and decided to tuck into a simple meal of noodles and sandwiches in a small kitchenette right by the plaza. Barring the Burger Machine cart, it was our only option in the area, but a taste of hearty, down-to-earth local fare was just what the tourists hankered for. But the quaint shop fronts and modest homes of Bagac hardly prepared us for what we were next to see.

Now, beyond the physical effort of getting to Bagac, however scenic, what appeared to be the more insurmountable obstacle to gain access to Las Casas Filipinas De Acuzar was the seeming tight cordon around it imposed upon by its developer and management. From when I first thought of paying a visit to the site, letters, messages and phone calls flew at an increasingly furious pace between myself and various people in charge of different departments across two separate companies, just so I could guarantee my entry into this restricted area. There came a point where I almost surrendered and decided that no place would be worth the trouble, and another point where I imagined us having to sneak into the site like a Franco-Philippine impossible missions force. So when we finally hit the property’s gates, I was bowled over by two pleasant surprises.

Light streams through capiz windows in the U.P. School of Fine Arts building

One, despite our rather surreptitious arrival, the staff on-site were very welcoming. Our guide Mao, gamely toured us around the compound and even opened up some houses up for us to explore, offering some information about the development. Two, all the fuss was more than worth it, gaining a thumbs-up, even in its unfinished state, from my travel-jaded companions. This was a destination that was truly unique, beautifully thought-out, and exquisitely executed. If they can pull off the finishing touches, and all signs point to that coming to fruition, then not only Bataan, but the entire country, will have a resort that will put us on the must-see maps.

Las Casas Filipinas De Acuzar goes beyond the warm beaches, watersports, and charming country scenery that most Philippine resorts are content to offer. By bringing together this unquestionably stunning collection of heritage structures and ensconcing them in an equally dramatic setting, mastermind developer Gerry Acuzar proves himself a genius, with a passion bordering on madness. But if this is insanity, then we need more crazily passionate people taking on projects like this. Whatever you may think of the resort’s concept, it is definitely not uninspired nor mediocre. They really went all the way with this, and it shows, from the intricate details to the big picture postcard-perfect view. What started as a lone vacation house has blossomed into a 400 hectare complex complete with a deluxe hotel (housed in a recreated Escolta building), plus villas, shops, a bar and restaurant, all carved out from the gorgeously gilded heritage halls and homes that Acuzar has personally plucked from the cream of the country.

As supervised by Mexico-trained restoration architect Mico Manalo, the painstaking reconstruction of each heritage house, at least 14 by the time of our visit, with several more (and a chapel) in the process of being scoped out, is not some slapdash uprooting and pastiche job, but a careful, respectful integrated preservation effort. Once seen in situ, it’s easy to dismiss his detractors and accept Acuzar’s rationale for relocating these heritage treasures. With the government or their former owners unwilling or unable to properly safeguard these endangered structures from the ravages of time and greed, their best hope for survival is really behind the safety of Las Casas Filipinas De Acuzar’s fences. What he did was not a rape, but a rescue. Even the modern elements and fixtures that they unavoidably have to incorporate have been carefully designed or cloaked to harmonize with the architectural tenor. Anachronisms are avoided unless necessary. This devotion to authenticity can clearly be seen in the transplanted School of Fine Arts from Quiapo, the centuries-old columns have been left un-repainted, retaining the patina of age, while the new columns replacing damaged ones have been moulded from the originals and accurately display the original colors albeit in bright new enamel.

With the late afternoon sun slowly setting down into the sea, the lengthening shadows and warm light altogether cast an eerie glow on this enchanted village. As it was, with nobody around except for our small party, a few construction workers and random townsfolk who had wandered in for a stroll, we couldn’t help but imagine ourselves as temporal travellers stuck in a time warp, or ghosts come back to haunt the remains of their days.

text by Jude Defensor, photos by Olivier Milan, some rights reserved. first published in Expat Travel & Lifestyle magazine, 2010

Turning Swedish

…continued from Upp & About

view of Lake Malaren from Drottningholm Palace

With a free pass to almost every museum and attraction in the city, I managed to browse through a lot of fine art, antique curios, and royal knick-knacks over the next few nippy days. I got a sense of this Baltic state’s rich maritime past at the Vasa museum, an impressive purpose-built structure sheltering the wreck of what was then the Swedish Titanic (mortalities notwithstanding, the movie would have been more of a comedy than a tragedy however, as the warship sank after sailing less than a mile).

The risen Vasa occupies its own museum where one can marvel at its size and detailed carvings

At Millesgarden, the home-turned-museum of famed sculptor Carl Milles on the island of Lidingö, mythical figures stand and soar amidst lush gardens and fountains. While exploring the grounds of Drottningholm Palace, the private residence of the Swedish Royal family, I realized that I had flown roughly 13 hours far west for the chance to admire the Kina Slot, a Chinese-inspired royal pavilion built in 1753 when everything from the Far East was all the rage. One installation that stood out among the modern masterworks and architectural marvels at the adjoining Museums of Modern Art and Architecture, was a hot mess of ketchup bottles scattered around the floor, their sticky red contents sandwiched between 30 plates of glass.

views of Millesgarden

Waiting for the train is no dull experience at Stockholm’s art-laden subway stations. Each stop is designed around a certain theme

Edifying and interesting those worthy displays of high aesthetics may be, one eventually hankers for something edgier but still accessible. Fortunately a Swedish architect friend pointed out a must-see that was literally below my very nose – the Stockholm Metro. A number of stations are designed and decorated in very striking themes, making the subway lines some of the longest art galleries in the world. From Viking patterns at Rinkeby, a pastel-colored timeline of world history at Rissne, to a psychedelic mix of actual ancient castle ruins and pop art at Kungsträdgården (my favourite), there’s probably  a station to everyone’s tastes. But try not to get too distracted by the dramatic surroundings, especially at the more remote stops, or you may lose more than just your sense of direction.

Both Sweden and the Philippines celebrate their National Days in June, so because of these special occasions, I was able to peek into parts of Stockholm which would normally be beyond ordinary tourists. On Swedish National Day, the Royal Palace in Gamla Stan is opened to the public for free, with puppet shows and free hotdogs for all in its broad central square. Swedes swarm the streets to get a glimpse of the royal family as they parade through town. For the Philippine Independence Day reception I trooped to the city’s edge at Djursholm, a seaside private enclave for diplomats, pop stars and tycoons. Some stately residences occupied entire islands unto themselves, all the better to appreciate the beauty of the archipelago.

Malmö’s pride, Santiago Calatrava’s Turning Torso

But I ended up going even further out of my way, far beyond Stockholm, just to check out one bridge and one building. It may seem counter-intuitive to fly down to Copenhagen, Denmark to be able to go back up to Malmö, Sweden, then cross back south to Copenhagen Airport to catch a flight up north back to Stockholm. But that’s exactly what I ended up doing. All this criss-crossing was to marvel at (and photograph) Calatrava’s Turning Torso, the tallest building in Scandinavia, famed for its 90 degree twist; and also to go over (both ways!) the Öresund Bridge, the longest combined road and rail bridge in Europe and the longest border crossing bridge in the world.

Some natives of Stockholm and Copenhagen (among other places) may have none-too-flattering opinions of Malmö, but even they have to admit that the city has come a long way from its glum industrial past as a peripheral port. It stands as a lesson for Manila’s city planners (do they even try?) that an iconic structure that is part of a well-planned development can revitalize an otherwise moribund district and improve the image of a tarnished city with positive international buzz.

continued in next entry, Bye to the Baltic

The Oresund bridge between Malmo and Copenhagen

Stockholm When It Sizzles

…continued from Sweden: Almost Asgard.

Sporty Swedes go racing and riding around the fields surrounding the Kaknas tower

First stop was Kungsträdgården (Swedish for “King’s Garden”). Filled with lightly dressed promenaders making the most of their walking and tanning time, this sprawling central park has something for every season, an ice rink in the winter, cherry blossoms in the spring, concerts and events in the summer. The outdoor cafes were all open, offering refreshing drinks and snacks, and unappreciated shade to park-goers while the going was good. With the gentle sunlight and fresh cool breezes of early June, you feel like you can walk the whole city for hours with just an occasional break for meatballs.

Sporty Swedes go racing and riding around the fields surrounding the Kaknas tower

I had yet to partake of a proper meal by then so I besought my guide to bring on the balls! We crossed the bridge to Gamla Stan, the city’s olden heart, where I was determined to make my hunger hold out until I could stuff my belly with the Swedes’ roundish meaty specialty (and I don’t mean babies this time). Unfortunately, we’d missed the lunch hour and so the kitchens of the more illustrious eateries had gone cold. But just down the main tourist drag, tucked in between shops selling postcards and horned Viking helmets, lay a charming little café that beckoned invitingly. In we went and their staff beamed with the pleasure of serving us. It was just the place for my first real meal in Sweden. The leather-bound menu was filled with Swedish-sounding dishes and the woodhewn interiors accented with Swedish-looking décor. Only one minor thing seemed slightly off. Based on their tight camaraderie and strong family resemblance, all the cooks and waiters seemed to hail from the same town, which by my best guess would be somewhere closer to Shanghai than Stockholm. As I enjoyed the yummy spheres of animal matter, I couldn’t help but wonder if they would do just as well wrapped in dumplings and dished out as dimsum. But dining there, deep in the ancient core of the Swedish capital, I was sure that when served with some gravy, lingonberry and the ever-present potatoes, these were balls that not even tennis legend Bjorn Borg would toss away. Reinvigorated by the meal, I had the energy to cross more bridges and climb a hill up to Bastugatan on Sodermalm, where I was treated to more lovely views from on high of charming Swedish architecture and sunbathing Swedes in various states of undress.

A film crew on a break from shooting a period scene at one of Skansen’s preserved traditional houses

Swedish meatballs

shrimp sandwich

With the weather getting hotter the next day, we tried to cool down by taking the ferry to Skansen. This extensive park is designed like an open-air version of “It’s a Small Sweden After All”, with transplanted historic houses and buildings from all over the country artfully arranged around typical Swedish flora, fauna and even craftspeople in traditional dress doing traditional things. I was impressed by the hugeness of the reindeer and the cuteness of the brown bear cubs, and couldn’t help but pay my respects to a majestic Siamese cat named (of course!) Bjorn Borg. But a lucky treat was stumbling onto a period film being shot right in the park. A heavy educational undercurrent runs through Skansen. Full of honest healthy fun it may be, but it’s also just not possible to walk through this outdoor museum without having learned something either scientific or historic. Most excursionists bring a picnic lunch or grab snacks from fast food stands but there’s a smartly appointed restaurant right in the middle, where you can gorge on smorgasbord or fussier cuisine, which is exactly what we ended up doing. Sipping cool sparkling water as the sun sweltered past the shade of the awnings, I made a quip about how much warmer it was than I’d wished, prompting my Swedish host to shush me in alarm. Apparently, such comments are heard as taunts by the Nordic Gods, and we would soon be in for it.

A potter at his wheel at Skansen

continued in next entry, Upp & About

text & photos by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in Expat Travel & Lifestyle magazine, 2009

Layover in Limburg

…continued from Canals, Cannabis and Culture

The Lange Grachtje street snakes along a section of the city’s oldest walls

This converted church in the award-winning Entre Deux shopping area has been hailed as one of the world’s most beautiful bookshops

My proper introduction to the Netherlands was not through the better-known part of the country familiar to the world as Holland, but through the southern province of Limburg, a tongue of territory sandwiched between Belgium and Germany. From Brussels I was fetched by my Dutch friend Peter, a Limburg native. As we exited the Belgian capital in his hybrid car, navigating with the help of its Dutch-speaking GPS, I began taking a few snaps of buildings and scenery during the drive to the border. Peter patriotically suggested that I set aside my camera until we’d crossed into the Netherlands, teasing that it was where I should really start taking pictures.

As we toured Limburg, I saw his point. The province’s capital is Maastricht, one of the oldest settlements in the Netherlands, dating back to the Celts and Romans. A massive urban renewal effort is currently making its mark on the Maastricht cityscape, bringing the medieval town with its ancient walls into the 21st century. The trend has even extended to individual heritage buildings – I spotted an old church that was now a beautiful bookstore and another that had been transformed into a night club.

Students on break sun themselves on the lushly manicured grass of Aldenhofpark in Maastricht as ducks waddle through the water and chase

Pilgrims pray to St. Servatius in the millenium-old
basilica bearing his name and remains

Renowned for its university and graduate schools, Maastricht’s streets and spaces are full of youthful students from different countries. As we lunched at the Vritjhof, across the Basilica of St. Servatius and close to where the treaty which formally created the European Union was signed, the whole world seemed to come together at that square. But Peter handily trumped that moment by driving us the short distance to Driepuntland (Three Point Land), the spot where the borders of Belgium, Netherland and Germany converge. In these Schengen-ized times it may seem a bit cheesy and irrelevant to pose on the point and be in “three places at the same time,” but I did it anyway. Political boundaries never seemed more arbitrary to me than at that moment.

continued in Bikes and Dikes

-text & photos by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in Expat Travel & Lifestyle magazine, 2008

Far From The Madding Crowd

…continued from Post-modern Pilgrim

the road to the village of Epineux-le-Seguin

I took a cross-country TGV (high speed train) from Aquitaine up to the Loire Valley, connecting through the cities of Tours and Angers then getting off in Sable-Sur-Sarthe from which I would be fetched by motorcar before finally arriving at the tiny commune of Epineux-le-Seguin (population 170) and Le Domaine, my final French haven on this extended excursion.

the masters of Le Domaine

When I first introduced myself to my hosts Edward and David, they nodded, “Ah, Jude, like the Thomas Hardy novel.” It was an oddly appropriate welcome, not because it seemed like a series of unjust tragedies were to befall me, but because I felt like I was transplanted to Wessex, the “partly real, partly dream-country” imagined land in which Thomas Hardy set his stories of rural life.

Like Hardy, the two Brits have apparently set out to create a mythic territory of their very own. With the daftness worthy of mad dogs and Englishmen, they both decided to spend their semi-retirement revamping a centuries-old country estate into a domain fit for royalty, or at least two respected academics. The compound has undergone a major overhaul, from the roofing to the grounds. But a lot of work remains to be done to bring it up to snuff and the renovation has been far from smooth or cheap. The pair sometimes admits to asking themselves whether it’s all worth it. I can assure them that it is.

While strolling around the property, I kept hearing Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony in my head, and was reminded of the novel by André Gide it had inspired. The two ardent gardeners vow that the flowerbeds turn gaudily vulgar with color in the spring and summer when the buds bloom. Yet even with most vegetation hibernating for the winter, their grounds and views effortlessly charm despite the chill. On a tour around the compound accompanied by my hosts’ earnest commentary, every room and rock was determined to posses both an historical past and a higher purpose for the future. In the main house, the room I occupied (which had been christened the “Princess Margaret Suite” after an eccentrically deluded friend) was discovered to have served as a chapel centuries ago.

the lake at Le Domaine

David, a keen historian, related how the region had always been a bastion of the church and aristocracy, even after the French Revolution had rendered both unfashionable. More recently however, the arrondissement has been undergoing a subtler invasion by well-heeled transplants. Drawn by the pleasant weather and scenery so pretty it makes you wish your eyes were cameras that took snapshots with every blink, high ticket real estate has been booming, and with it a surge in such genteel pursuits as equestrianism, river cruising, antiquing and horticulture.

coffee/cocktail nook by the lake

The English expats do bemoan the gradual encroachment of suburbia, with cookie-cutter housing developments, strip malls and chain stores sprouting unchecked in the margins. As much as possible, these idealists prefer to patronize traditional public markets and shops in old town centers. Exploring their environs for delicacies, design ideas, fixtures, furniture and vestiges of history is another activity they enjoy and for which I literally came along for the ride. The vicinity is still bucolic enough that they don’t even lock their doors when leaving the house. The post office is still the commune’s buzz central and everyone knows the neighborhood cat. Le Domaine is truly a model retreat for modern romantics, which I hope to return to when in its full glory.

-text & photos by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in Expat Travel & Lifestyle magazine, 2008

Post-modern Pilgrim

…continued from Border Break

the shrine at the Sanctuary

I went to Lourdes for the water. But when I got there it was falling from the sky. Like a blessing from heaven, the rains had come to Lourdes, washing most (except for the staunch faithful) of the tourists away. With grand plans set for the 150th anniversary of the apparitions this year, I was glad to have visited in the dead of winter. The hush and haze that shrouded the town set a contemplative, pious mood. Walking in the crisp air through the quiet streets made me realize how Lourdes was really just a small, simple town, but one that had been completely transformed by a momentous event. At peak pilgrimage time in warmer weather, millions of tourists saturate the hamlet, a veritable frenzy of the faithful. Whatever form your faith may take, there is no escaping the Madonna’s presence.

the grotto at night

The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes covers 51 hectares, this includes the grotto where the apparitions occurred, the taps and baths of Lourdes water, and 22 places of worship of differing designs and dimensions ranging from neo-gothic to 20th century modern. Catching a few minutes of the mass at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, again I was reminded of the ever-shrinking scale of the world). It’s like Benneton meets Bernadette. Here I was, a Philippine pilgrim, at a church in the Pyrenees, at a mass celebrated by an African priest. Both my French companions were suffering from a bad case of the sniffles though, prompting me to ask, since they lived around Lourdes with easy access to the healing water, shouldn’t they be fortified from the flu? They could only shrug and smile. I guess even with miracles, one’s mileage may vary.

foie gras plate at Le Magret

views of Lourdes town from the castle

But there’s more to Lourdes than religion. Its fortress has borne witness to a millennium of conquest and control by the Moors, the Bigorre counts, and the British, and now houses a museum dedicated to the region’s fascinating history and culture. And surrounding the town like an inescapable embrace is the spectacular beauty of the Pyrenees mountains. Pretty little villages speckle the landscape, with mountain and winter sports among the many activities attracting tourists. The warmly welcoming and obliging Lourdes tourism board had put me up at the cozy Beausejour hotel, supposedly the best hotel in Lourdes operating in the off-peak winter season. I was also treated to a superb dinner of delicious French Pyreneean cuisine complemented by a fine Bordeaux at Le Magret, one of Lourdes’ top restaurants.

skating rink at Pau, before a statue of Henri IV

Pau’s 100-year-old funicular railway climbs up to the Boulevard des Pyrenees

the Pyrenees between Spain and France

Moving westwards to the Atlantic stands Pau, a charming city that boasts of the Château de Pau, birthplace of King Henry IV of France and Navarre, and a favorite summer home of both Napoleon and Marie Antoinette. The century old Funiculaire de Pau is free to ride and links the Chateau and the famous Boulevard des Pyrenées to the Pau railway station in the valley below. Pau’s Belle Époque streets sparkle with smartly dressed students and shoppers ducking in and out of fashionable boutiques and restaurants. A relaxed evening at the chic Brasserie Des Pyrénées just by the Hôtel de Ville (City Hall) was the perfect endpoint to my jaunt through the region.

continued in Far From the Madding Crowd

text & photos by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in Expat Travel & Lifestyle magazine, 2008

Border Break

…continued from previous entry, Gad About Gaul

Bordeaux from the Pont de Pierre

Driving down the Autoroute to Bayonne one gets to see everything else that France is about beyond Paris – farmlands alternate with high-tech campuses and industrial complexes, forest plantations, vineyards and the occasional quaint town or fair city. Then the further southwest we go and the sea slowly starts to reveal herself. We make a pit stop at the picturesque and progressive city of Bordeaux, where it’s de rigueur to sip a glass of their eponymous wine while looking over the stunning waterfront.

the tramway de Bordeaux

With some of its streets enslaved to a spiffy new cable-less train system, motorists are compelled to get down from their cars and wander on foot. No big bother considering the lovely weather and architecture on view, although the byzantine street plan makes it rather easy to get disoriented here.

Donostia – San Sebastian


Past the wine country lies the land of the Basques, a fiercely proud people with a rich, ancient culture whose territory extends from the western Pyrenees mountains down to the coast of the Bay of Biscay, spanning the border between France and Spain.

Bay of La Concha

I had been invited by a Basque friend to attend the Fair of St. Thomas so we sped down to Donostia-San Sebastian, the Basque city famous for its bay, Tamborrada procession, and International Film Festival. From there it was a quick jaunt through verdant country dotted with sheep-strewn hills and duck-filled streams to the town of Azpeitia, birthplace of Saint Ignatius of Loyola. The Fair of St. Tomas, regarded as the harbinger of the Christmas season, is when the best products of the season are exhibited. According to tradition, every year on the 21st of December the farmers of Azpeitia would venture to Donostia-San Sebastian to pay the rent of their hamlets to their landlords. As a present, they would offer a pair of capons, and in exchange, the landlords would invite them to lunch.

txistorra wrapped in talo

To celebrate the fair, people from all over the region, some garbed in customary Basque attire, descend upon the town to watch traditional Basque rural sports such as aizkolaritza (wood cutting), drink sidra (cider) and eat txistorra, the Basque version of chorizo, which is served wrapped in talo, a thick pancake of maize. The txistorra was the freshest, yummiest chorizo I’ve ever eaten, made from pigs that had been slaughtered that very morning, and the puffy, hearty talo was the perfect foil to its greasy goodness

Basque kids in costume for the Fair of St. Tomas

Another remarkable note to the revelries however, was that the town plaza were adorned not just by festive decorations, but also with banners and posters espousing Basque solidarity. Amidst all the merrymaking was a conspicuous police presence and a certain tension. It’s a real conundrum how in this era of the European Union, separatist groups like ETA continue to cast a shadow over the Basque country, undeservedly tainting its reputation as a hotbed for unrest.

But then this fertile and scenic land almost seems fated to be fought over for ever, the enduring conflict further strengthening its people and spawning more legends.

stream through Azpeitia

continued in Post-modern Pilgrim

text & photos by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in Expat Travel & Lifestyle magazine, 2008

Gad About Gaul

Tucked into my comfy seat on a Lufthansa Airbus (plying their now dearly departed Manila to Europe route), an Audrey Tautou movie on the personal video screen, Pimsleur’s French course in my MP3 player, and Michelin’s Green Guide in my carry-on bag, I was literally flying by the seat of my pants. I had no fixed plans and no clear agenda, just an entire country to explore and a whole month to do it.

Prowling Through Paris

Champs Elysees a-sparkle for Christmas

Upon exiting the Charles De Gaulle airport terminal, the winter wind hits you like a slap in the face, but then you step out into the open and finally get hit by the light. The same pale yellow light of Paris that inspired the Impressionists to pointillize with their paintbrushes and billions of shutterbugs to point-and-shoot with their cameras. Alive and active, dangerous and decadent like only a big bad city can be, the City of Lights may be full of museums and monuments, but it never feels like a theme-gineered showcase or a dormant relic. I’d read stories about some naive tourists having nervous breakdowns after having gone to Paris and not getting the storybook experience that they may have originally imagined. Emerging into the streets or submerging into the Metro, the city swallows you, enveloping you with Parisians of all shapes, sizes and temperaments, clustering about in a diversity of cosmopolitan configurations sure to unnerve the xenophobic. Bearing in mind that you aren’t exactly in Eurodisney (that’s 32 kilometers to the east), one just has to take the sordid with the sublime.

crossing the bridge from the Ile de la Cite to the left bank

Most relatively modern train systems (including Manila’s) seem like a straightforward cakewalk compared to the menagerie-in-a-maze configuration of the Paris Metro. It may be crowded and not all that clean in parts, but if you want to feel Paris you have to take the Metro at least once and jostle with the locals. But if you want to seeParis, you have to move aboveground, take a bus, cab or carriage, or bundle up and walk tall. Go down an unfamiliar street and try to get lost. If you’ve got even the feeblest sense of direction, it’s not easy. At worst the River Seine, a Metro station or a major landmark is usually just a few blocks’ walk away. The closest I got to losing myself was while student-watching around the Sorbonne. After blithely loitering about the many schools and libraries of the labyrinthine Latin Quarter, I ran smack into the Pantheon before I could even start to panic.

snaking up to the Sacre-Couer

Each arrondissement or district of the city has its charms, and devoted residents and fans will promote their favorites with typical French fervor. I thought it best to take their word for it, and with my Parisian posse plumbed the rabbit hole of Le Marais, a storied district on the Right Bank of the River Seine where alchemists, Knights Templar, royal mistresses and Victor Hugo himself once walked, and where the city’s Jewish and gay communities currently keep an avant-garde peace (the neighbourhood has been receiving special attention from the current mayor of Paris, who happens to be both openly gay and Jew-friendly). From the red lights and red windmills of Pigalle, we clambered up the hill of Montmartre, its steep streets filled with art and music, clowns and cats, culminating in the Basilica du Sacré-Cœur and one of the best views of the city.

The usual sightseeing suspects are still going gangbusters. The Louvre teems with gawking art appreciators, the Champs Elysees bustles with harried shoppers, the Eiffel Tower stands as the scene for many a photo-op. But the chill of winter acts as a crowd-controlling force that thins the yielding herd. Spring is for sissies. Summer is for slackers. At temperatures barely above freezing, it takes a fierce fire in one’s belly to brave the cold, get out, paint the town, and take snapshots while your fingers go numb. But all you need to do is just down a few glasses of French wine, a crepe or two, and a bowl of hot onion soup and you’re set. In my shivering wanderings I stumbled upon countless stories, most of which I’ve resolved to keep to myself (particularly the ones involving gypsies and laundromats), but then secrets always make for the best souvenirs.

Strange Things in a Strange Land

Rusty-red iron plates and rambling patches of rough foliage spread out from under the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, marking the unconventional structure that houses Paris’ controversial new museum, the Musée Quai Branly (or MQB). A showcase of indigenous artifacts from Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas, much debate has been provoked by the museum, from its conception and content, to its arrangement and architecture, made more contentious by the current heightened awareness of issues regarding race and migration. But then the French do love stimulating tete-à-tetes, which is probably why the MQB has been a smash, drawing in crowds of both jaded museophiles and virgins to the museum scene, and in a reversal of the usual situation, more French than foreign tourists.

Constance Monbrison, curator of the Insulinde collections, in La Rive (the riverbank) at the Musee Quai Branly

A meander through the MQB’s dramatically lit and sculpted halls is like drowning in a French fever dream of all they consider to be the world’s darkly unfamiliar, enigmatic beauty. I may not exactly share the sentiments of the museum’s critics that the savannah /jungle ambiance yet again stereotypes non-European art as primitive and unsophisticated, although granted that the imposed atmosphere does play up the exoticism (by conventional Western sensibilities) of the pieces, some of which take on a rather ominous appearance in the half-dark. There’s a studied savagery to the tightly controlled lighting, curving organic surfaces and twisty pathways that makes you feel as if you’re walking through an eerie twilight-scape far removed from the urban sprawl just outside. This effect encourages one to move away from the shadows and huddle close to the glow of each display, like explorers drawn to a fire in the wilderness at night. It almost forces you to pay attention to pieces that you could easily walk past in a more conventionally arranged and illuminated space.

the musee’s green wall, designed by Jean Nouvel

In a struggle between style and substance, the museum highlights the artistry inherent in relics which may not have been meant to have ever been admired as “art” (or the Western concept of art) to begin with. Museums are spooky spaces in general but the MQB can really get under your skin and play tricks with your head. I couldn’t help but ponder how ironic it was for me to have traveled to a whole other continent to see and appreciate artifacts that come from my own. I found myself marvelling at a collection of silver jewelry from the royalty of Mindanao, their history and significance explained to me by the curators, two French ladies who shared more passion for my country’s ethnographic treasures than I could muster at that moment. Coming full circle was disorienting, and succumbing to the Stendhal Syndrome seemed imminent. Fortuitously, the MQB’s roughly textured gardens, lush even in winter, are just what one needs to clear your head of thematic overload.

continued in next entry, Border Break

text & photos by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in Expat Travel & Lifestyle magazine, 2008

Nostalgia in Negros Occidental

Sandwiched between larger and older Iloilo City across the Guimaras strait, and younger and more scholarly Dumaguete across the Kanlaon Mountain range, the city of Bacolod somehow manages to distinguish itself from its sister cities through sheer attitude. The more devoted denizens of Bacolod proudly maintain that their beloved hometown is more antebellum than Atlanta and more genteel than Geneva. And they’re not really all that far off. At its peak, the province of Negros Occidental, of which Bacolod is the capital, lay claim to a glittering social scene revolving around the incredible wealth generated by the vast plantations or haciendas that blanket the boot-shaped island. From this milieu materialized a rarefied bubble in which float sugar barons, debutante balls, and opera nights, which neither history nor entropy have completely burst.

Respect and Remembrance

As a community, the Negrenses hold their heritage in high esteem, maybe more so than most Filipinos. This is most evident in the attention and care given to the museums dedicated to the province. Located in the old agriculture building close to the capitol building, the Negros Museum is an unusual historical and humanities museum in the sense that, instead of displaying antiques and artifacts, it showcases the ongoing saga of the people of Negros Occidental. The tale begins with the main and permanent display of a reconstructed batil, a wooden sailing vessel used for passengers and cargo at the turn of the century. The batil contains artifacts and reproductions of the type of goods that were exchanged between Negros, nearby islands and foreign lands.

The story flows onward by highlighting the province’s role as the “sugarbowl” of the Philippines, with displays depicting sugar production, the role of the ordinary plantation worker, and even the lifestyle of the legendary Negrense haciendero or plantation owner. There are also exhibits focusing on such themes as the Chinese in Negros, the Catholic Church, and the folksongs and folktales of the island. Smaller galleries flank the main hall: the Cinco de Noviembre exhibit highlights the Spanish colonial era, the Sports Hall of Fame, and a gallery for changing exhibits. In the museum’s north wing is the Jose Garcia Montelibano Toy and Folk Arts Museum, the only one of its kind in the Philippines. Containing about 2,000 toys and folk crafts collected by Mrs. Montelibano all over the world, many of the toys are in mint state. The display is arranged anthropologically with each section telling a story, from simple, basic toys to the most complex mechanized creations.

Nostalgia buffs can get their fill of family heirlooms and religious relics at the Museo Negrense de La Salle. Maintained by the prestigious private Catholic school, the museum preserves vital documents, photographs, and cultural artifacts related to the history and culture of Negros that have been donated by its most prominent families. During our visit, the museum was featuring the legacy of the illustrious Vargas family, particularly the mementos of their late matriarch, Lourdes “Nena” Vargas-Ledesma. From there, we were then warmly welcomed to the estate of her son Eduardo Vargas Ledesma Jr., which prides itself on maintaining one of the world’s largest breeding farms for fighting cocks, and also an interesting display of centuries-old urnas, colorful religious figures collected from all around the Visayas.

Sweet Sojourn

As the sun began to set, we proceeded to the picturesque town of Silay, home to no less than 31 heritage houses of varying degrees of grandeur and antiquity. The dwindling twilight lent a rather spooky air to the storied town. It was easy to imagine the ghosts of Silay roaming the stone streets and ancient structures, haunting the vestiges of the sugar boom’s belle époque, biding their time till the next spectral ball. Thankfully, the Romanesque domes of Silay’s San Diego Pro-Cathedral were ablaze with light and life, as the devout townsfolk giddily prepared for a religious procession, much like their ancestors must have done for generations.

As we sped back to the city for the evening, sweeping tracts of sugarcane spread out on both sides of the highway, inescapably reminding us of the backbone on which the island’s society rests. Although the pace may be slow and the pleasures simple, things still seem to be carried out with a certain sense of style. Even the local dialect of Hiligaynon, unquestionably the Philippines’ gentlest-sounding language, has a sweetly romantic lilt to its cadence.

The sugar baron’s swagger that profoundly permeates the city’s lifestyle is never more obvious than after nightfall. Like exotic nocturnal creatures, the Bacoleños break free from their daytime responsibilities (or lack thereof) and flit into the lively clubs, cafes, and casinos that all cater to the appetites of a town that has learned how to live well and live high and never forgot its lessons. Where else but in Sugarland can you expect a smorgasbord of the most scrumptiously elegant pastries and desserts? And the Ledesma’s fighting cock farm notwithstanding, the Negrenses do love their chicken, grilled to perfection preferably in the traditional Bacolod inasal (literal translation: “cooked over the fire”) recipe which entails a lot of garlic, calamansi juice, and annatto. Once stuffed with sweets, brewed coffee, grilled meats, and liquor (not necessarily in that order) Bacoleños customarily take a leisurely stroll round the rectangular reflecting lagoon in front of the capitol building, or down the main thoroughfare ofLacson St.

Bacolod is a city that likes to keep its mysteries shrouded, and the decadent goings-on at the private parties thrown by some of Negros society’s finest are the stuff of international legend, and interested visitors should dearly hope to be invited for a glimpse into this privileged circus. Or wait till October, when in an ironic display of public passion, the city hosts the yearly Masskara Festival, like a rowdier version of the Venice Masquerade with a Filipino twist – all the masks come with a big smile. But knowing the Negrenses, the faces concealed behind the masks are sure to be smiling even wider, safely smug with their sweet secrets.

Getting There:

Bacolod is located 45 minutes South of Manila by plane. Commercial flights are available daily. If flying in to the Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila you will have to change planes for the 45 minute hop to Bacolod. A new airport of international standards opened in Silay in 2007.

-text and photos by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in What’s On & Expat newspaper, 2007.

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Horizons Lost and Found: Architectural adventures on the heritage isle of Bohol

Most tourists to the island of Bohol normally go for its natural and aquatic attractions. Snorkelling, diving, and hiking are the must-dos, while the Chocolate Hills, dolphins, whales, corals, and tarsiers are the must-sees. However, Bohol is also fertile ground for the equally rewarding and no less strenuous sport of heritage-hunting. In this adventure, the quarry might be a bit easier to track down but are just as endangered. Species range in size from the petite urnas to gigantic cathedrals, and in age from Baclayon church, one of the oldest in the country, to the freshly woven buri and bamboo baskets of Antequera.

Making your way around the province, one can embark on a fascinating journey through the evolution of Philippine art, architecture, construction and design. The wealth of prospective prey can be bewildering. Fortunately, the NCCA has published two very important field guides for the budding heritage hunter. There is Visita Iglesia, Regalado Trota Jose’s painstakingly comprehensive guide to Bohol’s churches, and Tubod, the Heart of Bohol, a book embracing the entirety of Bohol’s cultural legacy. We also managed to ask Instituto Cervantes director, Dr. Javier Galvan, an architect by profession and ardent heritage conservationist, to lend some enlightening post-hunt commentary.

Not far from the tropical playground of Alona beach, right in front of “the biggest plaza in the province of Bohol“, stands the imposingly solid Panglao Church, and a few paces towards the seafront rises Bohol’s tallest stone watchtower. Dr. Galvan finds the hexagonal tower of Panglao particularly interesting because of its curved silhouette, reminiscent of chinese pagodas. “The angle of each section is different, it changes, leaning more and more inward, thus creating a curve out of straight lines. It shows how careful the construction was, that the people who made this building have aesthetical values that were quite elaborate for the time and place,” he rambles in his trademark tongue of Archi-Spanglish (here translated).

Journeying onward, past the previously featured Cloribel house, just before we cross the causeway to Tagbilaran, is the town of Dauis. Its church is one of the fanciest and most Gothic in the province, the project of an ambitious Recollect parish priest who also had the adjacent bridge constructed. In contrast to the suggestively Oriental Panglao tower, the tower of Dauis has a cantilevered roof with wooden trusses more evocative of buildings in Medieval Europe. “They are on the same island, very close but they are very different,” notes Dr. Galvan.

At Dauis is also where we first encountered the alarming impact of every heritage hunter’s nemeses, the dastardly architectural salvagers, and their crooked comrades the relic thieves. The church was closed to the public as protection against these nefarious elements. Unfazed, we were still able to sneak into the back and catch a glimpse of the guarded treasures. Dr. Galvan grieves for the many santos and artistic artifacts that have been removed or stolen. “You can find more santos in the antique stores of Malate than in the churches. It’s understandable how they need to close them because it’s an unavoidable necessity in these modern times to keep the antiques and relics out of reach from people who may steal them. But it’s a pity because the church is something that belongs to a community.”

Antique dealers have shamelessly plundered Bohol for years. From its venerable churches and houses have come countless holy images and icons, hardwood furniture, and the ornately carved and gilded urnas, miniaturized altars unique to Bohol. The island’s rich trove of treasures may have been remarkably spared from the devastation brought about by war and natural calamities, but greed and apathy is now threatening to keep them from being properly exhibited for all to rightfully admire. However, it is not just these portable objets d’art that are in danger of disappearing from view. Even its enduring monuments are not safe from destructive hands. Ironically, the curious history of Bohol’s churches may be partly to blame.

“An interesting feature that you only see in Bohol are these porticos that were added to the original churches by the Recollects after the Jesuits were expelled from all the territories of the Spanish crown,” Dr. Galvan explains, “Most Filipino churches did not have a portico, so as you cross the main gate you come under the hot sun or pouring rain. I think it’s very clever to have a portico in the Philippines because of the weather.”

What has happened is that recently in many old structures they have built modern canopies or concrete awnings that seriously hamper the view of the facade at the very least, and completely ruin the original architecture at  the very worst.

“In the beginning, the buildings were made by artisans who knew how to cut the stone. But these construction skills have been lost by society. With the arrival of concrete and steel, there came a particular moment in the 20th century when there was a divorce. All these skilled people, carpenters, fandejos, and guilders, were lost,” mourns Dr. Galvan. “The alterations are normally done in very bad taste because they are made by people who are not professional. They don’t have the sensitivity, the feel for how architecture was before. So the results in most cases are terrible.”

But Dr. Galvan does not rule out renovation work altogether. “I agree that it is necessary because a building in use is a living organism. You cannot freeze it and put it in a box. But restoration is a discipline, you need trained and skilled people. Not just anyone can do it. You can’t hire a contractor who only knows how to work with concrete and has never even heard about lime mortar which is fundamental for this work. You cannot put concrete on old stones, the pressure will destroy them. It is necessary to stop these people before they try to do any renovation work.”

With every church and tower we encounter, we hear about yet another forgotten craft secret and unveil even more lost building skills. Scrutinising these mighty edifices, one has to admire their methodical construction, the details of which we can only speculate on. As far as we know, pillars of hard molave wood formed the framework around which the stones were laid. To produce the mortar, known as la mezcla (the mix), that held the stones together, lime from powdered coral and seashells were mixed with beach sand washed of its salt. And then a secret ingredient (different in every region) was added to fortify the mix. In Bohol, tradition states that egg whites and molasses were used. Glass was expensive at the time so for most windows, translucent squares were cut from the shells of lampiro clams, or what we call capiz. Aside from their age, the care and detail that went into these structures should be enough to ensure their continued preservation, but that does not always hold true.

“There are many cases where there are people who have destroyed structures because they have thought that it is old and they want something new. You destroy a monument, something that has lasted centuries, to construct a new building without any character, absolutely similar to any building anywhere with no connection to Filipino history. That is a pity,” Dr. Galvan sighs.

And yet Bohol has fared better than most regions in the Philippines. Neglected in favor of more populous and popular provinces for decades, Bohol’s natural and cultural resources have managed to escape the blight brought by industrialization. The grandeur of their surviving heritage structures is where the humble Boholanos have an edge over their haughtier neighbors. “In Tagbilaran, the Presidencia is one of the very few civil buildings standing from the Spanish period, and that’s quite outstanding,” agrees Dr. Galvan. “There is awareness. The community has a sense of heritage, of the value of old things. Also, Bohol has a comprehensive inventory of its monuments, which other provinces lack. So the role Bohol might play for illustrative purposes, as a model for other provinces, is very important.”

For now, with a dutiful community on watch, Bohol’s great stone ladies stand safe, their painted ceilings and tiled floors welcoming parishioners every Sunday, their carved facades, colorful gardens, and varied configurations captivating all who pass by. Like the whales swimming through the waters off Pamilacan, these beautiful behemoths glide gracefully through time, seemingly aloof from the problems plaguing their precarious existence. But if the whalers of Bohol were able to abandon their centuries-old hunting traditions and serve as stewards of the sea, then we can hope that it will be much easier to encourage more Filipinos to become protectors of our patrimony. So fellow hunter, think twice before buying that next rebulto. The past that you save is your very own.

-text and photos by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in Manila Bulletin, 2004

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