The UNESCO World Heritage city of Vigan, Ilocos Sur, offers a glimpse of the Philippines’ colonial past. This is evident in the mixture of European and Asian architecture of the ancestral houses, churches and other structures that are well-preserved around the city. We travel here via a flight to Laoag, then a 2 hour bus ride south to Vigan, but make a quick stop to view historic Paoay Church.
Paoay Church is a UNESCO world heritage site famous for its oriental-gothic-baroque architecture, and construction that dates back to 1694. The bell tower also has historical significance as it served as a lookout point for the Filipino guerillas called Katipuneros guarding against the Japanese forces. The thick walls and buttresses that were constructed to withstand the earthquakes that frequently shake the country, are quite impressive!
Two hours south along the seaside highway we arrive in Vigan. Established in the 16th century, Vigan is the best-preserved example of a planned Spanish colonial town in Asia. Its architecture reflects the coming together of cultural elements from elsewhere in the Philippines, from China and from Europe, resulting in a culture and town-scape that have no parallel anywhere in East and South-East Asia.
The town is located in the delta of the Abra River, off the coastal plain of the China Sea, close to the north-east tip of the island of Luzon.
We will be here for two days, exploring and photographing the town. One of the unique features here is the use of the Kalesa. This was one of the modes of transportation introduced in the Philippines in the 18th century by the Spanish that only nobles and high ranked officials could afford. The Kalesa driver is commonly called as “Cochero” or “Kutsero”. When “Cochero” direct the horse to turn right he says “mano” and he says “silla” to direct the horse to turn left.
As if on cue, shortly after our arrival in Vigan, a brief rain shower provided a fantastic reflective sheen to the cobblestone streets. After taking cover under awnings temporarily until the rain let up, we emerged and began photographing the activity on historic Crisologo Street.
Along the historic streets of Vigan one can see the local style wooden houses, which are gently decaying here in town and in the villages all along the coasts of north-west Luzon. The woodwork is usually weather-worn to a soft grey color, and around the eaves and windows is often carved. The windows have sliding trellised shutters set with small square panes of capiz shell instead of glass, which makes them look as if they have been whitewashed on the inside. I always encourage my tour guests to look up and see if they can catch someone looking down onto the streets. In this respect, Vigan always reminds me a little bit of Cuba’s Havana Vieja.
Apart from Vigan’s historic and beautiful cobblestone streets and Calesas, the city is famous for Burnay Pottery: Jars made from Vigan are much sought-after by foreign and local visitors. This earthenware is called burnay. The industry that has grown from the making of burnay dates back to pre-colonial times when immigrants from China came to settle in Vigan. They practiced the craft of making earthenware using the grade A clay that was found in plentiful in the Western area of Vigan.
Nowadays, people buy them mostly to serve as decorations inside their homes and gardens. Miniature versions of the jars are also made in abundance because they have become a favorite souvenir item of foreign and local tourists.
The making of burnay is done with just the use of the potter’s skillful hands and use of pottery wheel and kiln. Fine sand is used to temper the clay, which, once fashioned into the desired shape, is placed inside high-temperature ground kilns made from brick and clay. Compared to terracotta, people say that the burnay is hardier.
Its earlier uses were for tea-drinking, and as container for salt, brown sugar, water, local wine (basi) and bagoong (fermented fish). It is even said that basi and bagoong taste much better when stored inside burnays.