When I first launched my #ExploreManila project years back, I did expect to learn more about Metro Manila beyond its traffic, malls, and its noise. What I did not expect was discovering history in the midst of its crowded streets and alleys. Every city had a story to share that surprised and amazed me.
The stories in my next Metro Manila spot has been written over and over in Philippine history. This is where our country started to become our own. Its walls have been a mute witness to the grandest celebrations and to painful devastations. Walking within its walls is like walking through textbooks where you get to see and feel history unfolding.
The location of Intramuros was once a pre-hispanic trading community. Its strategic location along shores where the Pasig River and Manila Bay meets made the location an ideal spot for trading. It was during the occupation of the Spaniards that the stone walls were built to protect the capital from moro pirates. The walls were completed in the 18th century, enclosing the colonial and beautiful city of Manila.
Puerta de Isabel II
The gate was the last to be built in Gate and was also part of the tranvia route. Its chambers were used as medical quarters and storehouses and remains inn the walled city and was opened in 1861. It was part of the solution to decongest the pedestrian traffic outside the Parian gate. The gate's chambers remained intact despite being damaged during World War 2.
The gate was named after Queen Isabel II, the reigning monarch at that time. Her statue now stands in front of the gate as its permanent home. It was originally installed in Plaza Aroceros and infront of Malate Church before it was installed in its present location in 1975.
Intendencia (Aduana Building)
Standing a few meters away from the Puerta de Isabel is the ruins of a Spanish-period structure - the Intendencia. The building was once the home of the Intendencia General de Hacienda (Central Administration) and the Casa de Moneda (Mint). It was designed by Tomas Cortes and the current structure is the second to be built.
Again, the Intendencia was damaged during World War 2 and was restored to house the Central Bank, the National Treasury, and the Commission on Elections. However, it was de-commissioned after a fire severely damaged it in 1979. But do not fret as efforts are on the way to restore the structure to house the National Archives of the Philippines.
Plaza Mexico is a small historical park on the northern side of Intramuros, The square is a landmark that celebrates the close relation of the Philippines and Mexico because of the Manila-Acapulco Galleon Trade. This unique cultural tie spans centuries and is the longest trans-Pacific trade route that has resulted to over 300 trips between the two nations.
The public square is also the site where one of the north gates of Intramuros once stood - the Puerta de Aduana. The gates were torn down by the Americans in 1903 to open an access road going to Intramuros. Interestingly, a new bridge is under construction adjacent to Plaza Mexico. The Binondo-Intramuros bridge will connect the two historical districts of the city.
Plaza de Espanya and the Old Site of the Sto. Domingo Church
Plaza de Espanya is a small triangular “square” that recognizes the deep relations between the Philippines and Spain. The park has been previously known as Plaza Aduana and Plaza de Martires before it was formally recognized as Plaza de Espanya in 1902. A statue of King Philip II was erected in 1998 to become the plaza’s centerpiece.
Right across the Plaza de Espanya is the old site of the Sto. Domingo Church. The church was one of the 7 churches located within the walls of Intramuros and was the first casualty at the start of World War 2. The church was never restored and was transferred to Quezon City. The present site is now occupied by one of the largest banking firms in the country.
Plaza de Sto. Tomas
The rectangular plaza of the Plaza de Sto. Tomas stands in remembrance where the University of Sto. Tomas was established and once stood. Established in 1611, it was first known as the Colegio de Santisimo Rosario and was elevated to a university status in 1645 as University of Sto. Tomas. The sprawling campus in Sampaloc was opened in 1927 but the WW2 damage on the original site prompted the full transfer of the university to its Sampaloc campus.
The plaza still bears the memory of the old campus with a statue replica of UST’s founder’s, Archbishop Miguel de Benavidez, as its main piece. An octagonal marker was also installed that bears the National Historical Institute marker and old pictures of the original campus. On the other side of the plaza is an obelisk that bears the name of the authors of the 1899 Malolos Constitution where 54 of them are Thomasians.
At the heart of Intramuros is Plaza Roma - a historic and sprawling public square. Originally called Plaza Mayor, it is where community events are usually held during the Spanish period, including bullfights. It was later later on converted to a public garden and, in 1824, the monument Carlos IV of Spain was installed as a tribute to him for the introduction of the smallpox vaccine in the country. It was only in 1961 that it was renamed Plaza de Roma as a gesture to the Sacred College of Cardinals after the elevation of the first Filipino cardinal.
The plaza can no longer accommodate public events in the area. It serves as a rest or viewing spot for visitors of Intramuros where you can enjoy a cold drink or a nice serving of dirty ice cream. On the left side of the plaza is the Ayuntamiento - a Spanish-period structure that is now home to the Bureau of Treasury. The Palacio del Gobernador is on the right of the plaza. It used to be the former state residence and is now home to the Commission on Election and other government offices.
The plaza is also home to Book Stop Intramuros, a book exchange project that allows you to trade your books with other readers. The design of the book swap center is eye-catching that it has become an attraction in itself. But what stands out for me is the experience of being able to swap books and help promote reading among the younger generation.
The Minor Basilica and Metropolitan Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, or the Manila Cathedral, is the episcopal seat of the Archbishop of Manila. It is the center of Roman Catholic faith in the Philippines and the church has been a part of Philippine history. It is one of the major attractions in the walled city.
The current structure is the 8th to be built on its present site. The previous structures were ravaged by either fire or typhoons or was heavily damaged by earthquakes. The last was totally destroyed during World War 2 and had to be re-constructed.
The massive church remains to be a crowd favorite that a belfry cafe was recently set up to accommodate guests and tourists. Its imposing facade contrasts to the serene vibe once you get inside the church. So make sure that you drop by for a short prayer at the Manila Cathedral when you explore Intramuros.
Every Filipino is familiar with Fort Santiago. We’ve read about it on textbooks and discussed it in our history class. We have probably gave it as answer to a history exam.
Fort Santiago is a small fortress located along the banks of Manila Bay. Named after St. James, the fort is an important historical site that has witnessed the cruelty of war and prison and that includes the imprisonment of Dr. Jose Rizal prior to his execution in Bagumbayan. The park has a museum dedicated to the National Hero where his memorabilias are on display. Unfortunately, the museum is still closed during my visit.
Guests are first greeted by Plaza Moriones - a sprawling open space park complete with manicured lawns, park benches, and a fountain. Flanking the plaza on both sides are ruins of old barracks with some of these structures being adaptively re-used as cafes and souvenir shops. At the center of the plaza is a dancing fountain.
Further down the park is the reconstructed gates of Fort Bonifacio. You would have to cross its narrow stone bridge to get to the actual gates. You can walk around the fort and explore its dungeons, Baluarte de Sta. Barbara, Rajah Sulayman Theater, or its walls. Fort santiago also offers an amazing view of the Pasig River and the skylines of the nearby districts of Binondo and San Nicolas. The vibe inside the fort is very relaxed and laidback in contrast to its atmosphere centuries back. Now that makes me wonder if Fort Santiago is haunted.
Fort Santiago was severely damaged after the liberation of Manila from the Japanese forces. It was declared a “Shrine of Freedom” after the war and its restoration started a few years after. The fort now stands as a bastion of Philippine history where you get to see how “living” within its walls was like.
POST TRAVEL NOTES
Metro Manila is like a mystery box where one gets surprised with what one would discover. Exploring the metro got me to walkthrough stories, meet people, and discover heritage spots in places where we usually just walk by. Intramuros is a tad different because you go there bringing with you the basic knowledge of our history and you walk like you are sifting through a history book page per page.
Walking around Intramuros had my mind playing around with my imagination. I was trying to see and feel how days were like inside Intramuros centuries back. The “clip-clop” sound of the kalesa had me imagining the elegance and grand lifestyle of the Ilustrados. The amazing views along the banks of Pasig River had me asking how Binondo looked like during those days. History and imagination are perfect partners and, yes, we are just starting.
Check out the first part of my Intramuros video blog here: #ByahengOffTheGrid Intramuros
Getting there: You can take the LRT 1 and go down at the Central Station. Take the pedestrian tunnel behind the Metropolitan Manila and exit at the farthest exit. From there you can walk to the Anda gate of Intramuros.
Travel restrictions have given us limited options for travel. Although we have seen pocket destinations opening its doors, the added cost is one of the considerations that travelers need to consider when deciding where to go. It is not a surprise that popular destinations are those that are close to the metro because of the ease in restrictions, making it more economical for our traveling feet.
With nothing to do on February 14, I hauled myself out of bed to take a quick day trip to one of my travel goals this year, Pila, Laguna! Established in 1578 by Don Felizardo Rivera, the town is home to well-preserved heritage houses dating back from the Spanish and American occupation. The town gives you that old town vibe that gives you that feel of its colorful history. In fact, Pila is the only town in the Philippines that is recognized by the state and the church for its historical value. Tara, libot na tayo!
Simbahan ng Pila
The San Antonio de Padua Parish Church, more commonly called Pila Church, is the first Antonine parish church in the country and in Asia. Founded in 1578, the church was originally built in Pagalangan (now Victoria) and was home to the second printing press in the country. The church was later transferred in 1800 to its present location because flooding was a major concern in the old site.
The present-day church was completed in 1849 and followed the baroque style of architecture. The three-level facade of the church is highlighted by an image of St. Anthony at the top-most, choir-loft windows on the second level, and the images of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Immaculate Heart of Mary adjacent to the church doors. The Franciscan Seal is installed on the church’s arched doorway.
Standing adjacent to the church on the left is the octagonal bell tower of the church. The original bells of the church, the third oldest in the country, is on display at the front of the church. The bells were spared from the British when the townsfolk submerged it in Laguna de Bay. The convent sits adjacent to the right of the church which is now home of the Liceo de Pila.
The simple church interior’s centerpiece is its two-tiered retablo. An image of St. Anthony is the main highlight of the altar in honor of the saint. The church was elevated as a national shrine in 2019.
Pila Town Center
Pila is one of the few Philippine towns that has kept their Spanish-period town structure system where the plaza is at the center of the town. The sprawling park at the heart of Pila is a beauty to see and enjoy. It is a favorite spot of locals where they enjoy a lazy afternoon.
Heritage structures surround the sprawling plaza. The church, the church convent, and the municipal hall also form part of the town center. The Pila Museum is also located within the town center. Heritage houses also line the streets around the perimeter of the plaza. An old Spanish well is also located in one of the corners of the plaza.
Pila Municipal Hall
The Pila Municipal Hall is one of the heritage structures that form part of this historical town. It was built in 1931 and followed the American-period architecture. It has a small
balcony that overlooks the town plaza.
The Municipal Hall is one of the well-preserved structures within the historical district of Pila. It also serves as the center of governance of the town.
Iglesia Filipina Indepiendente Church
Located along Mabini Street is another church heritage structure - the Iglesia Filipina Indepiendente Church. The church is a local Filipinized version of the Catholic church. The structure was built in 1932 and was also dedicated to St. Anthony of Padua.
The church facade is very simple with a small belfry on its left flank. The emblem of the church is located atop its entrance. The church interior is simple highlighted by a simple altar.
Pila Ancestral Houses
The main attraction of the town of Pila are the well-preserved ancestral houses that dates back to the Spanish and American period. A portion of the town, Sta. Clara Norte, has been declared a National Historical Landmark in 2000 and has since been known as the Pila Historic Town Center. The church and the municipal hall is part of the declared historical area.
You can start your town exploration around the town plaza where you would already see a number of heritage homes that line along the streets of Rizal, Rivera, and Burzagom Streets. The Agra/Villarica Heritage House was very impressive with its bahay-na-bato design and its azotea that faces the town center. I was also impressed with the Agra-Alava heritage house on the corner of Rivera and Burzagom streets because of its beautiful staircase leading to its doors. Some of these houses were re-purposed for business with the first floor being converted into commercial spaces with minimal impact on the architecture of the house.
Pila’s heritage houses are spread out throughout Sta. Clara Norte. Take the time to walk around the town and discover the many heritage houses in Pila. The Madrigal House, built in the 1920’s, is one of the well-preserved houses a block away from the plaza. Some of the houses have shown its age like the Fuentes-Santiago house and the Angel Natividad House. Another beautifully kept house is the Clinica Napil house along Rizal Street.
Walking the streets is both nostalgic and romantic. Pila oozes with history and gives one that old town vibe during early times. I completely enjoyed going around town enjoy the beauty of the past. I was in my element the whole time that I was wandering around, wishing I could live in Pila in one of its old houses.
POST TRAVEL NOTES
Walking the streets of Pila was a travel goal achieved this year. The old soul in me enjoyed the nostalgic vibe of the town. It brought me back in time and had me imagining the bucolic Laguna town life in its early years. It was great to see that the LGU and the locals have worked together to keep the pristine beauty of Pila and keeping its heritage alive for everyone to wander and experience.
The news on a more relaxed travel requirements got a warm reception from travelers like me. As an advocate of local travel, this is a good start towards moving forward and doing our part in helping revive the country’s tourism sector. This is a great time to explore the Philippines, whether it means going around your hometown or checking out the more popular Philippine destinations. Always remember to be a responsible traveler by following new normal protocols and by abiding to travel requirements of the local destination you are heading to. So, buckle up because we are now rolling.
Pila, Laguna Youtube video blog: #ByahengOffTheGrid Pila, Laguna
Getting there: You can take a Sta. Cruz, Laguna bus at PITX in Paranaque and you can ask the driver to drop you off at Pila. You can take a tricycle to the town center from the national highway. Walking is the best way to explore the town. If you are heading back to Manila, you can take a tricycle and ask to be brought to the bus stop along the highway where you can take a bus back to Manila.
Marc del Rosario
I believe in education, entrepreneurship, and caring for the environment.