Yup, I had not one... not two... but seven of those empanadas which Ilocos is most famous for! For urban denizens like myself who rarely make that long trek up north, I might as well savor as much of the local flavors as my stomach could handle.
I left for Ilocos 9 p.m. last Friday together with an Arch 17 (Philippine architecture) class I was sitting-in with. Good thing the heritage conscious professors are friends of mine - Jojo Mata, Paolo Alcazaren and Nonoy Ozaeta. So to make the long story short, I got to tag along.
The schedule was quite tight. We intended to leave the night before but since most of the students had a physics lab class they couldn't miss on Friday, we had to cut the trip short by a day. Our first leg on the itinerary was a 3 a.m. stop at La Union's Oasis Resort Hotel to continue our brief sojourns in dreamland while the bus was stopped. Our tour organizer Tracy explained that sleeping while the bus was in a complete halt had a different effect. Breakfast was at the same place. So we all got up at 5 a.m. for the usual 'silog morning meal.
The first real stop was just a few kilometers away. Popularly known as the Pindangan ruins, these are remnants of the first church of San Fernando, built of coral stones in 1674. The area was actually the old center of a settlement that was to become today's San Fernando, La Union.
Upon seeing the ruins, we quipped, had these been in the City of Manila, Lito Atienza would have had it demolished under his so called "Buhayin ang MayniLA" program, maybe turned into another park & ride facility or another school building he could actually place elsewhere. For more on Atienza's infamous heritage destruction movement, you can visit the Heritage Conservation Society (HCS) blog.
The Pindangan ruins are themselves an example of heritage issues between players such as the church, state and concerned groups. The ruins are owned by a Catholic organization, as they are within the grounds of a convent. The issue here is how the local goverment could manage the ruins from a heritage conservation point of view given that the ruins are on private property, belonging to a private religious institution.
Right beside the ruins is Balay ni Atong, residence, studio and home gallery of Ilocano artist Al Valenciano. After college in Manila's De La Salle University, Al had already "started working on his desk as an auditor at the Philippine Commercial International Bank in Metro Manila’s Wall Street District, [when] his past tugged at him incessantly that to ignore it would have been impolite."
His write-up continues, "By this time his family maintained a second residence in La Union south of Laoag City and still four hours away from Manila. The La Union home is at the corner of the rice field. Adjacent to it is the ruins of a church built by the Spanish friars in the 1700s. What are left are ramparts overgrown by tall weeds, some of its sections, the favorite nesting place of expectant sparrows. The church has been a marker of many symbols. This is where Atong resolved to go back to his interest in painting."
With this done, it was back to the bus, back to sleep and back to lala-land
An hour or so away was our next destination, Sabangan Cove in Ilocos Sur, known for its abel Iloco loom-weaving industry. What greeted us at this once beautiful beach was an Atienzic local government project! Atienzic is a term which heritage advocates quip when they see projects with the Atienza penchant for destroying spectacular views and heritage sites. The sorry sight was a concrete boardwalk with numerous hideous concrete commercial huts lining the beach.
A few minutes north was a UNESCO World Heritage site. As Toti Villalon puts it, "The uniqueness of Filipino church architecture was honored by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee by inscribing four churches in the UNESCO World Heritage List as the Baroque Churches of the Philippines." And for Ilocos Sur, it is the Church of Nuestra Señora de la Asuncion in Sta. Maria. The National Historical Institute also declared the church, used as a fortress during the Philippine Revolution of 1896, a National Landmark.
According to Villalon, "Built in 1765 under the direction of the Agustinian order, the ensemble resembles a citadel sited on the crest of a solitary hill rising above one side of the Santa Maria town plaza. The architectural ensemble presents its side and detached pagoda-like bell tower rather than its façade to the town. Thick contrafuetes (buttresses) are attached to the walls, reinforcing the structure against earthquake damage. The bell tower is constructed a distance away, protecting the main church structure from possible earthquake damage. Approached on foot by ascending a long, wide flight of piedra china, steps that rising from the edge of the town plaza, the small, cramped plaza at the top of the steps is bounded by the church façade that faces the convento, enclosed by an arcaded bridge that connects both structures."
Most people don't know that the UNESCO site stretches to the other side of the hill, where the ruins of a hidden cemetery could be found. Trekking to the place was a blast from tomb raiders since we had to brave the tall weeds and foliage that covered most of the path. But we weren't disappointed with what we saw.
What disappointed us was that several large trees were cut, allegedly on orders of the vice-mayor. In front of the stripped part of the hill were a group of men with shotguns. We let the authorities in the NCCA know about it since this is a UNESCO declared site.
That was up the hill to the church, and down the hill to the cemetery. And then back up the hill and down to the bus... pant, pant, pant! We were off to another UNESCO World Heritage site, the Historic Town of Vigan.
The photos from Vigan could speak for themselves. But let me point out that this beatiful heritage city is not without faults. And McDonald's, Jollibee and Chowking are among the culprits. The ruins of a magnificent seminary were demolished to give way to these "signs" of progress. If you were to ask me, the solemnity and elegance of Plaza Salcedo should have been preserved. Now, these three fastfood chains stand side-by-side with the Metropolitan Cathedral of St. Paul, the Arzopispado de Nueva Segovia, the Ilocos Sur Capitol, the City Hall of Vigan, and other important heritage structures in the vicinity. The people responsible for this desecration of heritage should be burned at the stake!
While the students enjoyed (or despised) the "amazing race" planned for them in Vigan - they had to look for a painting of the Basi Revolt in the Burgos Museum, mold a clay pot the traditional Ilocano way, have a photo taken at the Quema House, measure the perimiter of Plaza Salcedo using a one-foot wooden ruler, draw the retablo of the Vigan Cathedral and identify all the santos, and eat five Vigan empanadas and a bag of chichacorn among others... hehehe! - I went straight to the market to buy woven blankets.
Back to the bus, back to sleep, and off to Batac where we were to spend the night. Batac is said to produce the best Ilocos empanada. So after dinner, we went to downtown Batac to savor the fried delight Batac is proud of. Heaven indeed!
Time to disect the famous fritters with empanada anatomy 101... the shell is made of rice flour with orange food color to make it "attractive." The bright orange color makes it look artificial though and coupled with the oil, can turn-off any health-conscious individual. But together with a filling of grated green papaya, mongo sprouts, garlic, longganiza and an egg, this delicacy fried to a crisp is scrumptuous and irresistable! And don't forget to eat it with the vinegar-chili dip made from pure sukang Iloco.
After having two that night and taking a short walk around the plaza, I realized that there was an empanada variety unique to one of the shops. We all know about the double special - that's two servings of egg and longganiza in one empanada. But one shop had a jumbo - the usual ingredients plus crushed hotdog! So I just had to try it, which raised my empanada tally for the night to three! Simply superb!
Lot's of school work. To be continued...
For the meantime, you can visit my photos at http://photos.yahoo.com/ivanhenares