If you think traveling back in time is impossible, then you evidently haven’t traveled to the heritage city of Vigan just yet. A world-renowned wonder, Vigan City is, but what makes it different to our country’s most popular tourist destinations like Boracay, Palawan, and Bohol, is the exhibit of stories and proof of our long history showcased in the cobblestone streets, monuments, churches, and even delicacies.
It seemed like it was just yesterday, though it had been three years since my last visit, that I stepped out of the tricycle in front of the Ilocos Sur Provincial Capitol, and across the street was the giant “Ilocos Sur” signage beside the statue of Elpidio Quirino, the sixth President of the Philippines and a proud Bigueño. There it was, the dancing fountain, the old churches and buildings, the sound of townspeople chattering and charming tourists, and the smell of home. Truth be told, I’ve only gone to this beautiful place four times, the first time when I was only a year old so I don’t remember it, once for a two-day vacation during Christmastime, and twice over short Holy Week breaks, which are also appropriately the reunion of our relatives in our hometown, Bantay, the town just a tricycle’s ride north of Vigan. This was the place where I first witnessed the wondrous dramatic performances of the Panunuluyan, Senakulo, and my personal favorite, the Salubong.
Before my last visit, which was way back in 2019, if you asked me what comes to my mind at the mention of Vigan, my answer would only be the dozen bazaars lining up the streets during Semana Santa, the dancing fountain at night in Plaza Salcedo, aunts, uncles, and distant relatives doting on me and my cousins, and angels floating in mid-air when my parents brought five-year-old me to watch the Salubong for the first time. Since that day, naïve little me believed that angels existed, and I started associating Vigan with the concept of my personal heaven on Earth. However, on April 2019, this magical correlation changed. I saw Vigan City as the place that it truly was, not heaven on Earth, but the gist of the history of my country presented in front of me to remember, to appreciate, and to preserve. Somehow, that notion was far better and comforting than heaven.
Vigan began as a trading center and was popular among Chinese settlers, whom referred to the area as “bee gan” which directly translates to “beautiful shores” as the city is surrounded by bodies of water, such the Mestizo, Abra, and Govantes rivers, and most prominently, the South China Sea. The waterways provided the earlier settlers with food, trades, and even protection from territory invaders. This is the reason why there are a number of Chinese-descendant or Filipino-Chinese families in the city even to this day. The influence of the history of the maritime tradeswork can also be seen in the arts and crafts in the city, such as the presence of burnay jars that are sought-after by foreign and local visitors alike, and abel weaving. Of course, the one of the more nationally familiar Filipino culture is the abundance of souvenirs and “pasalubong” delicacies. The famous Calle Crisologo and the two grand plazas that are the center of Bigueño life would attest to how the city is still known as a thriving trading center.
What Vigan City is most known for is being one of the remaining towns that preserved the colonial Spanish architecture and ambiance, as recognized by UNESCO as a “World Heritage Site.” It is a true testament to the Spanish colonization period, and that big portion of our history is evident everywhere you look if you’re in the busy central of the city. Behind the colorful dancing fountain that performs every 7:30PM was Saint Paul’s Cathedral, better known as Vigan Church. It is one of the prominent cathedrals, not just in the Ilocos Region, but in the whole country, since it was built in the 16th century. It was initially a humble chapel, constructed under the command of Juan de Salcedo, to whom the plaza where the cathedral is situated was named after. Since the final reconstruction of the cathedral in the 1800s, which was caused by the moving of the seat of power of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Nueva Segovia from Cagayan to Vigan, the architecture of neo-Gothic, pseudo-Romanesque and Chinese craftsmanship were reserved. However, the cathedral was damaged during the 7.0 magnitude earthquake back in July, just earlier this year. Another damaged monument in Plaza Salcedo was the historic Catholic Obelisk in the middle of the fountain that was struck by lightning just a couple of weeks before the earthquake.
However, there are still a lot of significant buildings and commemoration in the plaza such as the Archbishop’s Palace, Museo San Pablo, Museo Nueva Segovia. It is also worth mentioning that despite this plaza being filled with memorabilias of Spaniards and their most notable influence to us—Catholicism—Vigan City is still for Filipinos at its very core. Plaza Salcedo was the site of the execution of first woman leader of the Philippine revolution, Gabriela Silang. It was in September of 1763 when she was hanged publicly to serve as a warning for revolutionaries.
Walking past Saint Paul Cathedral’s Bell Tower and down Jacinto Street, we have Plaza Burgos, the other major plaza in the heart of Vigan. The plaza was named such to honor Father Jose P. Burgos, one of the GOMBURZA (Gomez, Burgos, Zamora), and his martyrdom and for being a clergy reformist. Plaza Burgos is the place to witness the culture of Bigueños, and by extension, Filipinos. I remember being up in the stage that has beautiful European pillars, and just watching locals spend their leisure time: teenagers skateboarding in their low make-shift ramp, the children playing in the playground, and manangs and manongs talking about the latest news by the stone benchsteps that served as seats. In the middle of the plaza was a monument for Padre Burgos, on which were stone placards to read about his life and his contribution to our country. More about him and the Filipino's revolution against Spaniards were showcased in Padre Burgos' home that was converted into what is now known as Father Burgos Museum.
Most festive occasions are held in either of the two major plazas, such as Saint Paul’s Festival (more popular as Vigan’s Fiesta) celebrated on January 25th to commemorate the city’s patron; the much-anticipated Viva Vigan’s Festival of the Arts on the first week of May (my favorite activity during this festival was the calesa parade); the peak tourist season Semana Santa, where the whole city prepares a full experience of the Holy Week; and other events that let the bazaars, night markets, and pop-up eateries scattered around the city shine.
Take a right turn from Jacinto Street going to Florentino Street and you will see dozens of stalls with monobloc chairs and tables lining on the side of the street, across the building of the Girl Scouts of the Philippines, offering the iconic Vigan cuisine such as longganisa, okoy, and, certainly, Vigan empanada. My personal favorite Vigan delicacy is the city's Royal Bibingka, especially the ones sold at the verge of Calle Crisologo, a famous pasalobong delicacy store called Tongson's. Beside Tongson's is the Ilocos Sur Provincial Tourism Office, and then the café dedicated to a woman in my personal list of great influences, Café Leona.
Calle Crisologo is the top tourist attraction that most of us would most likely conjure in our minds when we thought of Vigan, but before venturing the cobblestone street filled with antiques, souvenirs, and classic Bigueño cuisine, we will first be greeted by a statue separating Calle Crisologo and Calle Plaridel. It is the statue of Leona Florentino, a proud Ilocana and the mother of Philippine women’s literature. As described in the city's informational placard for her, she is "foremost Ilocano poetess, subtle satirist, and playwright." She is a distant niece of Rizal on her mother's side and, like her ancestor, made a mark in the Philippine literature as a poet since the age of ten.
Vigan City has a townscape without parallels anywhere in the world. The city itself witnessed centuries upon centuries of living, and withstood the passing of the times. Other places also have mansions, cathedrals, museums, and monuments that are heaven for travelers, but if you want to travel back in time and see gists of our own country’s history, then Vigan is the perfect place to be.
Jillianna Reign B. Paat (21), writing under her pseudonym Vastriane, is currently an undergraduate student in University of Sto Tomas in the Philippines. She is majoring in Bachelor of Arts, Creative Writing, and is pursuing the art of poetry. She is an aspiring novelist and poet, greatly inspired by POC musicians, authors, and artists. She recently placed second in a Spoken Poetry Performance Contest in her university with her original poem entitled, “The Seven Husbands of Mother Nature.”