Weekends in the metro can be as exciting as going out of town for a quick break. I am not talking about hitting the malls but more of doing an “urban hike” to explore the hidden city wonders and the story that go with these spots. The fun part is having no trail to follow but navigating through the city via google map. This was exactly what happened when I decided to “hike” around the district of Paco in Manila.
Paco is one of the oldest districts in the metro, established in 1580 by Franciscan missionaries. It was originally known as “Dilao” and there are two versions as to why it was called as such. The first version was in reference to the plant “Amaryllis” that grew in abundance in the area while the other version was in reference to the Japanese migrants and refugees who created an enclave in the district. It later adopted the name San Fernando de Dilao with religion fusing into the local culture and then eventually to Paco, short for Francisco. Join me as I got lost in the streets of the district to get a more personal look in its rich and colorful history.
Paco Park is the district’s tourism icon. It is one of the popular city destination by travelers and photography enthusiasts in Metro Manila because of its beautifully landscaped garden. It has a rich history and is one of the prominent venues that showcases Filipino artists and artistry.
Originally referred to as Cementerio General de Dilao, the park was a municipal cemetery in Manila built by the Dominicans as a response to the Cholera Epidemic. It was inaugurated in 1822 to cater to the rich and affluent families that lived in Intramuros. The 3 Martyred Priests, GomBurZa, and Dr. Jose Rizal were initially laid to rest here. It is said that the remains of Rizal was secretly buried here and was discretely marked with “RPJ”, with only the century-old Acacia trees as mute witnesses to the burial. Interment in the cemetery ceased in 1912. It was used as a supplies and arms depot by the Japanese in World War 2. It was declared a National Park in 1966 by President Macapagal.
Paco Park was designed in a circular shape with its walls serving as niches and the top of the walls served as promenade areas. A small chapel, the St. Pancratius Chapel, was originally its simborio and is now a fully functional church. The design of the cemetery and its niches were retained during its restoration, with its occupants transferred to other cemeteries, giving it a unique eerie and beautiful vibe. Presently, it is a popular venue for weddings and cultural shows.
Paco Park is one of the few open spaces that we have here in Manila. It has managed to keep its tranquil vibe despite the urban buzz outside its walls. It is great place to escape from the urban jungle within the jungle. You may hear a soft sigh or whisper while there but I guess that adds to thrill of being there.
Located along Pedro Gil, the Paco Market is one of the oldest markets in the metro. It sits by the banks of the Estero de Paco which made the market accessible to commerce, during early times, via boats. It was one of the modern markets opened in 1912 with Manila Hotel architect William Parsons at the helm of its design. It was home to more than 500 vendors for centuries until it was renovated in 2011.
The Paco Market is still under renovation as of this writing. The renovation is in question by heritage enthusiasts as it working on a new design, keeping only the original facade of the old structure. Once inaugurated, it would be a good subject for my “Palengke Attack”.
San Fernando de Dilao Parish Church
The first church in Paco was built in 1580 made of bamboo and nipa, in honor of the Our Lady of Purification. It was in 1601 that a stone church was inaugurated and, since then, it had centuries of rough history that left it damaged by man-made and natural calamities. The present structure is a pre-WW2 edifice and one of the structures that survived during the liberation of Manila.
Its neo-classical design towers over the skyline of Paco with the two belfries standing over the district like a guardian. Inside the church, you will be amazed by its simple interiors highlighted by its gold-beige altar with a Crucified Christ at its centerpiece. The church has a long-standing devotion to Santo Entierro, the encased image of the dead Christ, located on the left side of the altar.
The church is probably one of the biggest Roman Catholic churches that I have seen in the metro. It is elegant and beautiful both inside and out. The structure stands dominantly showing the faith of the locals standing strong through the centuries.
Jose Laurel Ancestral House
Three blocks away from Paco Church is the ancestral house of Jose Laurel, the 2nd President of the 2nd Philippine Republic. The house was originally built in 1861 and it was acquired by Jose Laurel in 1926. This house was referred to as Villa Penafrancia where the former President lived from 1925 to 1955. It served as one of the three residences of the Laurel’s.
The house, that sits along the corner of Sto. Sepulcro and Penafrancia Streets, is a bahay-na-bato complete with capiz-shell windows. It was inherited by his son Sotelo, who then donated it to the Jose Laurel Memorial Foundation. The house was restored and was inaugurated in 1998 on the birth anniversary of Jose Laurel. Unfortunately, the house is still closed to public viewing because of the pandemic.
As mentioned earlier, Paco’s original name was Dilao and one of the associations to the name was the enclave established by the Japanese in the area. Plaza Dilao is one of the two open parks in the district and was the former site of the Japanese settlement under Blessed Dom Justo Takayama. Takayama settled in the Philippines in 1615 after he was exiled because of his Christian belief. A statue honoring the Japanese refugee now stands as the centerpiece of the open park.
Despite the main thoroughfares snaking around the park, Plaza Dilao serves as a sanctuary of freedom. It is one of the five freedom parks in Manila where peaceful gatherings can be assembled without needing permission from the local government. I just hope that the park will be able to retain its glory despite the developments around it.
Paco Railway Station
Just right across Plaza Dilao stands the beautiful and, hopefully, not forgotten Old Paco Railway Station. The train station was designed by William Parsons under a Beaux-Arts architectural style. It was opened in 1915 and was part of the Manila Railroad’s South Line. The station was also the site of a bloody battle between Japanese and liberation forces in WW2.
The old station was left in disarray and has deteriorated through the years after the war. Despite of its unglamorous state, one can still see the beauty and intricate details of its facade from the ground. It is a real beauty that is worth restoring and preserving. There are efforts to save the structure and I really hope that it does push through for the future generations to see our glorious past.
POST TRAVEL NOTES
The district of Paco may seem like your usual city neighborhood. Every corner is oozing with the sight and smell of the metro. But behind the chaos in and around Paco, there are pockets that show its strong connection to our colorful past. It gives us a glimpse of the grand beauty of Paco during its heydays and how it immortalizes history in its own unique way. I just hope that we could restore the beauty of its heritage sights, the same way that we were able to restore and preserve Paco Park.
As restrictions are slowly being lifted by the government, let us keep our guards up. Remember that we are opening up, not because the pandemic is over, but because our economy and livelihood need to recover. Let is continue to follow safety protocols and remain vigilant as we explore more in the coming weeks. Let us all make sure that we keep ourselves and the people around us safe and COVID free while we try to help revive the tourism industry. Keep exploring SAFELY, mga Viajeros!
Getting there: You can take the LRT1 line and go down at UN Avenue Station. From the station, you can walk to Paco Park. You can take a trike from Paco Park to the Paco Church. All other destinations are just a couple of blocks from the church.
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Marc del Rosario
I believe in education, entrepreneurship, and caring for the environment.