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

Advertisements

Bye to the Baltic

…continued from Turning Swedish

The tail-end of my trip was partly spent appreciating the simple mundane joys of Swedish life. I went to the church, library and market, and carbo-loaded with hearty everyday fare such as pyttipanna (a plate of pan-fried diced potatoes, vegetables and meats). The stored calories were then walked off around charming parks and neighbourhoods shifting from modern to medieval. In contrast to what may be deduced from the dark and depressing films Swedish directors are renowned for, and also the false myth of Sweden’s high suicide rates (actually lower than France and Germany), the best thing about Stockholm is just how pleasant everyone and everything seems. Even at its summer peak, it doesn’t seem over-run by hordes of package tourists and other itinerants. And you rarely come across the roving gangs of rowdy delinquents that have become worryingly common around some other European cities. Globalization and multiculturalism may have mixed up the city’s cosmopolitan colors, but they have yet to dilute the strong Swedish identity enough to make it seem like Anytown, EU.

Stockholm Stadsbibliotek

Danish sports fans in Sergels Torg

Yet all isn’t sunny in Scandinavia. Stockholm’s heart of darkness may beat in Sergels Torg, a 1960s-tastic plaza carved out by demolishing entire city blocks, the fever for modernity changing the city’s face far more drastically than any war could manage. Now the concrete crater plays host to a raucous collection of troublemakers and rabble-rousers – from militant pro-lifers, Native American and Amazonian tribesmen, Danish footie fans, and campaigning politicos, not to mention the odd grifter or gypsy (terms not mutually exclusive). But their openly flaunted freedoms show that at least in Sweden, socialism and democracy can coexist. It may not be the ideal Asgard for the ages, but while the sun shines it’s a brighter place than most.

Stockholm Arlanda Airport

Getting There: KLM flies between Manila and Stockholm via Amsterdam daily. For this trip, I was able to grab a preferred seat. This means that for only an additional 70 euros, you can choose a seat with extra leg room or a seat in a row of only two seats. On a 14+ hour flight, this can really make a huge difference in comfort.

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

Canals, Cannabis and Culture

…continued from High Time in a Low Country: Exploring the Netherlands 

At the Leidseplein, artists start stripping down for a public performance, one
of the wackier ones I’ve witnessed

Budding cannabis cultivators can grow their own stashes from seed or
shoots for a steadier supply. Lots of pot in pots line some smoky streets

From red we go green, and check out that other disreputable Dutch treat. The nose knows best in this case and it won’t take long to sniff out the fumes. A veritable haze hangs over some streets, as thick as Dutch pea soup. Red-eyed recreational trippers stagger out onto the sidewalks, giggling about nothing in particular. For those who’d like to imbibe as well as inhale, Holland is the birthplace of Heineken and jenever (gin’s more flavourful ancestor), and they flow into eager mouths much like the Amstel river feeds into Amsterdam’s canals. Party boats and beer bikes brimming with giddy, tipsy pleasure-seekers circle the city, sparing no corner from the high-spirited buzz of herbs and alcohol.

Among other substances, “coffeehouse blends,” cocktails, and candies with a kick can be freely had for a fleeting hit

The cycle from day to dusk to dark reflects on the canal water, a sight enough to explain some souls’ Amsterdam addiction

When the sun starts to set, the street lamps and neon signs flicker into life and the tone of the town shifts: Performance artists take over the Leidseplein, their antics growing zanier with the darkness. The main acts at the legendary Melkweg and Paradiso begin their sets, poised to enthrall another audience. And those still searching for that one elusive thrill to remember start moving on to riskier and more potent fare. Sadly, some lost souls never stop. Good thing the trams keep running right on time, or else there’d be even more led astray by Amsterdam’s notorious night.

It seems best to reminisce and write about Amsterdam while slightly intoxicated, if only to help recapture the heady feel of hedonism that runs through the grachts and straats of this small but significant European capital. Stone sober prose just doesn’t cut it. But then it’s probably easiest (and cheaper) to get high on culture than any other substance around. Getting an “I Amsterdam card” (which affords entrance to nearly every major museum, a canal tour, and limitless use of public transport for up to 72 hours) practically forces you to see as much as you can. From walls pulsing with avant-garde graffiti to museums stuffed with Old Masters and Modern originals, saturating your eyeballs is easier done than saying Stedjelik three times fast. Galleries for every taste parade a staggeringly eclectic range of artistic wealth. The visual variety on display is a testament to how one’s view of the Netherlands can easily change with the light, the weather, or choice of intoxicant.

Taking a photo of the Iamsterdam sign fronting the Rijksmuseum is one of the
top touristy things to do. As expected, several random Asian tourists pounce
on me to snap their pictures as they pose

continued in Layover in Limburg

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

High Time in a Low Country: Exploring the Netherlands

Working windmills near The Hague continue to help regulate water levels.
Highly sought-after as homes, people can live in the roomy structures as long
as they can maintain them

My first brush with the Netherlands was probably the same as most international travelers, passing through Schipol airport while waiting for a flight to another city. The facility seemed to embody the vaunted Dutch ideals of organization, efficiency, modernity, but with a bit of a twist to keep things interesting. I was through passport control in mere seconds and no lines greeted me at the security checkpoint. As I readied my carry-on bag for the requisite x-ray machine, the security guy good-naturedly asked if it contained a laptop computer. I nodded and proceeded to unzip my bag. While I was doing so he prodded me with a chuckle, saying “Go on, take out the bomb.”

Jo the lonely bear sits on a bench in Aldenhofpark in Maastritch. His right
paw looks creepily like the bones of a human hand

I froze, but everybody in the security crew just smiled and took his “joke” in stride. I was already past their purview by the time my thoughts about how we civilians couldn’t get away with saying things like that had time to sink in. And so with black humor at its most unnerving, I was welcomed into Holland…

Sex, Death and De Stijl

“Apocalyps” stands in the otherwise serene garden of the Bible museum, a relatively undiscovered quiet corner converted from two canal houses

Little bits of dark Dutch wit dotted the rest of my jaunt through the Netherlands: In Aldenhofpark in Maastricht there’s a statue of Jo, the last bear who lived in the park and died there, depressed and alone. This sad sculpture is actually part of an installation called ‘the half automatic consolation machine,’ where morbid figures of extinct animals mingle among the young students sunbathing. Not far from Amsterdam’s heavily-promoted Torture Museum, in the garden of the Bible Museum looms “Apocalyps,” a moss-covered monument crowned by the disembodied heads of beasts mentioned in the book of Revelation. In Dam Square, bounded by the Royal Palace, the New Church and a monument to the victims of war, I saw Darth Vader hold court with Poseidon. In Delft, a pack of bikers in black leather prowled Markt Square under the shadow of towering Nieuwe Kerke, home to the Dutch royal burial vault.

In Amsterdam’s Dam Square, performers costumed as Darth Vader and Poseidon vie for attention (Vader is the clear winner)

It’s this (almost) anything goes atmosphere that makes the Netherlands the poster child for progressive attitudes. Ever pragmatic, the Dutch were ahead of their time in doing away with silly superstitions and stifling social mores. But with this enlightenment also came a certain austerity. Most post-reformation architecture in the Netherlands, from churches to palaces, seem rather stark in comparison to their more baroque brethren. Centuries later, this artistic asceticism would eventually be elevated to its zenith with such Dutch-led modernist movements as the Amsterdam School and De Stijl.

Some buildings and other structures in the Netherlands have been completely painted in garish graffiti

But all this still didn’t manage to explain to me the Dutch predilection for having large glass windows, which they then leave clear to view by anyone walking past on the street. Differing hypotheses abound: A Dutch friend explained how before gas and electricity, people would burn fires indoors for light and warmth. This necessitated high ceilings to allow the smoke to rise above breathing level, and high-ceilinged homes needed tall windows to let the sun in. A British friend posited how glass must have been expensive even during the Dutch Golden Age, and wealthy homeowners would have grand glass windows installed just to show off. But the most psychologically interesting theory comes from a Belgian friend. A Catholic, he explains how the Dutch, who were predominantly Reformed Protestants, adopted the convention of putting in big glass windows to show to everybody that they weren’t doing anything reproachable in their homes.  Closed shutters or drawn curtains just mean that something wicked was going on within. And with all that’s legal in the Low Countries, that’s a whole lot of wicked you can get away with. The Dutch themselves take it for granted that it isn’t polite to peek inside, and those who do are either crooks, voyeurs, or tourists who don’t know any better.

Shops catering to a wide array of fetishes brazenly display their wares in the streets on the fringes of the red light district

But this unspoken rule doesn’t apply to Amsterdam’s most famous window displays – the prostitutes in the red light district. Safe (and mostly bored) behind glass, you can look at the hookers all you want. But “touching” them will cost you (around 50 euros for a few minutes) and snapping photos can get you in big trouble with the pimps. Better catch the show while you still can. After eight centuries of brisk trade, the government is planning to ease out the world’s oldest profession to make way for fashion boutiques.

continued in next entry, Canals, Cannabis and Culture

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

Standing Tall for Sweden: Ambassador Annika Markovic

Her Excellency Annika Markovic’s imposing blonde presence reminds one of no less than the Valkyries of Scandinavian legend. But her warm smile and gentle manner quickly melted through any feelings of intimidation during our conversation. And it was an enchanting process indeed to see past the dignified diplomat’s statuesque form and discover the idealist’s heart and adventurer’s soul that beats and stirs within.

Amb. Markovic 3rd from left, seated. Photo by Pat Dy.

Unlike the abovementioned battle-maidens however, Ambassador Markovic is a passionate pacifist, which is appropriate considering her role as the representative of the country which gave birth to the Nobel Peace Prize. “One thing I’ve been most interested in here is to help with the peace process,” she shares. “I think there is no other singular issue that could affect the Philippines and its development more. If there will be peace in Mindanao, the whole picture will change. In Europe, the general perception of the Philippines is that it’s a dangerous place and you should go somewhere else to invest. I wish the different parties realize that they have a golden opportunity now and that they should really work hard to try to achieve something sustainable. I just hope to see some progress before I leave the Philippines.”

A Passion for Mediation

The envoy readily divulges that her heart is deeply into doing multilateral work. “I find it very rewarding to be working with different countries, facilitating negotiations to agree on something difficult, working to find a common solution that is acceptable to all so we can move ahead and establish something that is a good basis for the future.”

Despite her lofty position, the ambassador remains very humble about the role she plays and the influence she wields. “You try to see what you can do to prevent war from breaking out and supporting peaceful development, to assist in alleviating poverty and to really try to help, make this a better world,” imparts the envoy. “These are big words and I know that what I can do as a human being and as part of the Swedish diplomatic corps is very limited. But at least I can feel like I can make my small contribution to achieve something better for all.”

Ambassador Markovic initially determined and developed her knack for diplomacy during her stints in the Swedish foreign ministry and when she was posted to the Swedish mission to the UN in New York. But she admits to have always been very interested in other cultures and other people. “This job gives me the opportunity to travel around the world, to learn and see things for myself,” states the ambassador. “I’m very interested in foreign policy, how countries relate to one another. What you realize very quickly is we can have so much in common even if we come from different corners in the world. The Philippines and Sweden are very far from each other, but we are very much alike because we have the same basic values. It’s easy for me to relate to what is going on because there is a common ground,” she affirms. “I think my most interesting discovery during my almost 4 years in the country is that our contacts are so broad and extensive: from the grassroots level to political parties and business. It’s been very rewarding to be part of that and to help establish a closer relationship.”

One of the challenges that the ambassador admits to facing here in the Philippines is building a better understanding of the European Union, and the 13 member countries that are here working together as a group. “The individual countries are very well known, but that we form something bigger is not,” she relates. Her embassy has been trying to help explain and promote the European Union to the Filipino people by participating in the Cine Europa Film Festival and in European trade exhibitions.

Nevertheless, the ambassador acknowledges that the challenges are what keep her career interesting and fulfilling. “I’ve been really very happy in this job, so I’ve never had any regrets or thoughts if I should have done other things,” she avows. She does confess that some issues are tougher to sort out than others, particularly those that involve her personal life. “It’s always a challenge to be an ambassador, and maybe even more to be a woman and have a family, and get all the pieces together. You have to cope with your family, to make sure that they are happy, that they also have good opportunities. At the same time you have to focus on your job and do well in it, and still save some little time for yourself so you can also rest and develop. I think that it is something that all women who are in leading positions in society have to deal with.”

Family Matters

Complications aside, the envoy reports that the Markovic family is really enjoying their stay here. The ambassador also hopes that this experience of travelling to and living in different countries affords her kids a broader perspective. “In the future when they have to decide what career path to start and what to do with their lives they would think they’re not just confined to staying in their hometown,” she explains. “They know they have opportunities everywhere. They don’t need to be afraid and think it difficult to move to the other side of the world to find a good job.”

She is proud that her children already possess an advantage in learning languages. They learn English in school but at home they speak only Swedish. “We brought a Swedish nanny to the Philippines even if some people were telling us before that there was no need to,” the ambassador relates. “My youngest was only a year old when we moved to the Philippines but he speaks both fluent Swedish and English. And you cannot tell that he has not lived in Sweden. He wouldn’t have been like that if he didn’t have a Swedish nanny. So that was an important decision we made and I think a very good one.”

Ambassador Markovic would like to think that she has stood as an example for her younger colleagues that it is indeed possible to be a woman and an ambassador and still raise a family. “I think they see that and think that: ‘yeah, if she can do that then I can do it too’,” the envoy asserts, sharing more wise counsel for her fellow female diplomats. “The earlier the better I think you have to realize that you cannot be 100 percent on top of everything. You have to lower a bit your own ambitions so that you can live a healthy life. Because if you want to be the best boss, and the best mother, and the best spouse, I think you’re going to get depressed and frustrated very fast. So you just have to realize that maybe you don’t need to be the best all the time. You can just relax and achieve what’s enough.”

Beyond her dual roles as mother and ambassador, Her Excellency proves how gender should pose no impediment to both professional and personal fulfilment. “A very determined policy of the Swedish government is to promote gender equality and give equal opportunities for men and women to develop and do whatever they want in life,” the envoy contends. “So the different competencies that we bring are really utilized and put to good use. I’m not so sure that you can pinpoint specific areas where women contribute more than men. You can’t say that the either men or women are always a certain way. But it’s always good to have a mix.”

Shared Journeys

Even among this group of women ambassadors, the envoy notes that there are so many interesting personalities. “I think we all are individuals and have our own backgrounds and we are what we are right now for different reasons,” says Ambassador Markovic, who then reveals that they all try to get together once a month or two. “It’s a great opportunity to share experiences, talk about the developments of the country, and learn from each other. Sometimes we also travel together and it’s very interesting to see the Philippines from the point of view of someone you don’t normally travel with.”

This is what inspires her message to any newcomer to the country: “Don’t miss out on travelling around the Philippines,” the ambassador emphasizes. “That has been the most rewarding thing I’ve done. You find fantastic people who are very instrumental in their own small communities in trying to be advocates for change. You also realize that this country is still quite poor, that there are many challenges to its development and the alleviation of poverty. It’s only by leaving Manila, travelling to the different corners of the country, meeting with the people, and trying to understand what’s going on with their lives, that you’ll see what this whole country is all about and the opportunities and possibilities that are here.”

-text by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in Expat magazine, 2007.

%d bloggers like this: