Monday, July 18, 2005

Ilocos Norte & Ilocos Sur: Empanada binge!

Dsc_7557Yup, 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.

Img_4363Img_4364The 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.

143_4365The 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

Img_4369An 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.

143_4382143_4372A 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.

Ivan_in_sta_maria_churchAccording 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."

Img_4387Most 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.

143_4398What 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.

Img_4402Img_4404Img_4410The 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!

Img_4417Img_4415Img_4420While 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!

Dsc_7558Time 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


  1. Anonymous26.11.06

    Hi there! I was born here in Vigan ilocos sur. And it's been ages since i've seen this place. Thanks for posting pictures. I really miss vigan a lot esp their empanadas hehe. The last time i've seen this was when i was 12. I wish i can visit the philippines someday. Im proud of you for visiting a lot of places esp in P.I!!!
    ~Gud luck in yer journey! Keep it up!~

  2. Anonymous30.11.06

    I discovered your space by accident while surfing for hotels or B&B type of accomodation with more traditional characteristics other than concrete & swimming pools in San Fernando,Pampanga. The search was unsuccessful but I ended up reading your travel journals which I found very interesting. Reading about your side trip to Sabangan Cove and your comment about its current makeup brought back my initial reaction upon seeing those concrete huts built like a cheap necklace placed around a neck of an unwilling being. I was from this town of Santiago and we always called this beach Santiago Cove then with Sabangan being just one of its few coastal barrios. I believe we need more cultural leaders to magnify the simple grandeur of the land instead of allowing temporary ones whose short term ambitions are to build sad monuments for their self glory. I miss the thrill of digging my bare feet into the once-powdery white sand, the excitement of seeing colored fish swim around me on the shallow waters or just get mesmerized by the beauty of watching a maginificent sunset. These things are still there but they somehow have been interwoven with man's careless attitude. I salute you and your group for taking on this cultural crusade. I hope the assignment of a new priest to a town somewhere would not mean for him to bring out his eraser and change the facade of a church to whet his appetite for his own private memorial, too. We still have lots to learn about preserving our heritage and polishing our sentimental sophistication like the way our Mexican conterparts do...or the Europeans and Americans and even our neighbors in Thailand or Bali to cite a few.

  3. Anonymous14.12.06

    In Vigan the usual dip for the empanada is sukang iloco with fresh "lazona" (small onions). I don't know if they do have chili in other version of the dip.

    When i was young we eat these onions raw. empanada is likewise eaten after dipping it in the suka and filling them with the onion that comes with the suka. i suggest you try it. it is the way ilocanos eat these empanada.

    good luck on your journey.


  4. Anonymous6.1.07

    hi Ivan
    great website! being an Ilocana born in Narvacan, Ilocos Sur and seeing how you went on about historical sites being trashed...I just had to comment.

    my grandfather's house was the tallest house "balay nga dakkel" there. It was used as the Japanese headquarters and later on then Pres. Quirino used to drop by and talk to my grandfather. it was spacious and the tower on the 3rd floor overlooked the whole town. I had a lot of good memories vacationing there and despite stories of it being a "ghost town" as everyone closed shop and went home at 5PM cos of politically motivated ambushes was back then, it still brings back the best memories. Like a deep well "balon" in the back of the house where we bathed and maids pulled up water, my grandmother Sergia feeding all of her "apos" in a long table with breakfast of tenderloin pork strips in in broth with herbs called "lomo", cooked in her big kitchen downstairs by aunts or uncles who lived with her. My grandfather was the town mayor, Andres Cordero, and his house was the house I was born in and went to live every summer of my life until I was a teenager. that was until a relative of ours, a Cordero at that!, bought the place and tore it down. now all that's left is rubble and a lot of private memories. for what reason I dont even know! how unfortunate that I could not save it from being demolished by no other than another Cordero, bringing to its end a once proud era.

    please keep up the good work and hopefully we all learn from our past mistakes before its too late and the people in government do something about it! Dios ti Ag-ngina! "God Bless"

  5. Anonymous5.2.07

    hi you might want to check out:

    Fonzy's Special Ilocos Empanada
    located at the Native Delicacies Stand
    (near the parking lot), METROWALK,
    Meralco Ave., Pasig City

  6. Anonymous6.3.07

    hi there! interesting blog. my ancestors are from ilocos (santiago/sabangan) and it's nice to see it here. my grandma's cousin has a house just in front of the beach. the place is really nice that is why we go there every year for our reunion. instead of rock, the pathways are small shells. at the back of their house, they have a kubo and a fish pond. went there last year and there are a lot of changes. good thing it turned out to be more attractive.

    i also have some relatives in vigan. so, after visiting our relatives in sabangan, we go directly to vigan and the place changed a lot talaga. went there last year and i was really amazed by the changes.

    thanks for sharing these. hope to see some more soon. god bless!

  7. Thanks to all for your comments! This is a very old post and I was pleasantly surprised to see a lot of comments here. :)

  8. Anonymous23.4.07

    Excellent work, Kababayan!
    Thank you so much for sharing!

  9. Anonymous28.4.07

    If you really want to understand the more authentic Ilocano lifestyle, then I suggest you go to the mountainous areas of Ilocos Sur, which the Ilocano lowlanders refer to as the interiores. That's where you get to see a really unspoiled kind of culture with hints of a more ethnic or tribal past.

    I stayed in the remote town of Gregorio del Pilar, which is where the famous Tirad Pass is found. To reach it you need to go through really dusty gravel roads and ford rivers a couple of time, but it's worth it. I couldn't believe the scenery there, with beautiful rice terraces, not so steep as Banaue, but hugging the mountains nevertheless. The houses were all in primitive Ilocano style with hardwood posts and weathered window panels, not the brick types found in Vigan. Around the ricefields were different alang, the small granary houses on stilts with motifs that border on Kankanai tribal designs. And you will still see old folk wearing palm frond raincoats while toiling the fields.

    It is actually this kind of environment that made the Ilocano famous for his hardworking nature. The coastal towns from Tagudin to Vigan have their charm, but it's quite commercialized already.

  10. Anonymous8.8.07

    Unfortunately you were misinformed. Prior to the present buildings of the fastfood chain you mentioned there were commercial buildings that were already built by the Archdiocese (church). The facade is not like the present - they were just ordinary two storey buildings one of which caught fire. The buildings prior to the present ones were eyesores. So how can you even curse the present buildings which gave the area "life"? All around the plaza caught fire except the eastern part and the church. So the present structures around the plaza are all new - including the CAP building, Girl Scout Building located on the Northern Side.

  11. Ordinary or not, heritage buildings contribute to the cultural fabric of the community. I am cursing the McDonald's design. It's stupid because its tower competes with that of the church. Please ask their architect to get further education in restoration. Thanks!


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