It’s the week before All Hallows Eve, or Halloween. Vigan, a Unesco Heritage town in North West Luzon, is humming. It is Raniag, or the Twilight Festival, and the streets are overflowing with large family groups – locals and visitors, mostly Filipinos – eating, chatting, taking selfies, smiling, laughing, shopping for souvenirs, riding in kalesas pulled by anxious ponies skipping across the cobblestones, or squeezing into the not-so-roomy tricycles that burp and buzz around the city streets.
Every evening this week there have been special events all over town: a candle floating ceremony, (similar to the Thai festival of Loi Kratong) on the Mestizo River to cleanse the community of bad luck and negative vibes, and thanks God for his gifts from the river and the sea. Then there is the flight of the sky lanterns – I imagine that scene from ‘Tangled’ when hundreds of lanterns flood the night sky like a papery Milky Way. A parade, a costume party, a dance competition, a Zombie fun run: it’s party week and the city is thrumming with excitement. And it all culminates at the cemetery on All Souls Day.
All Souls Day is as important as Christmas for Filipino family gatherings, although the focus this time is not on a birth, but on the dead. The cemeteries on Saturday night are choc-a-block with families gathering around the tombs and graves of their loved ones. Traditionally a religious day of observance, even in the grave yards – perhaps especially in the grave yards – it seems more of a celebration, as Filipino families gather to visit their dead relations, clean and repaint family tombstones and cover them in candles, flowers and prayers. Plastic chairs and picnics abound. It is a family reunion that extends to all the deceased family members too, with all the traditional accoutrements of a feast day: food; community; party. The cemeteries are surrounded by stall holders cooking chicken and pork on sticks, corn on the cob, empanadas, ice creams, while the kids scuttle among the gravestones.
All week the restaurants are packed with tables for ten, twelve, twenty. Where ten or twelve are gathered together there will be merienda, lunch, dinner, food… but we are only two. So when we wander in for lunch, a deux, we inevitably end up feeling like a Nigel-No-Friends, or looking like Baby, inevitably stuck in the corner. It is, nevertheless, fascinating to simply sit and watch the proceedings.
Vigan is a particularly pretty setting for all these festivities, with its broad squares, a towering church and numerous
Spanish colonial houses that are now protected by UNESCO World Heritage. One long, cobbled street, Calle Crisologo, is lined with houses over two hubdred years old, in various states of disrepair, but finally, miraculously on the mend. A few have been gutted and beautifully renovated, often into stylish hotels, like the glorious hotel Veneto de Vigan we discovered in the centre of town. It only opened this year, and it is a gorgeous renovation. Broad, highly polished wooden floorboards squeak chattily underfoot. Mosaic tiles swirl and twirl across the lower floor and courtyard. Bright green leafy vines scattered with purple flowers have been stenciled lovingly onto the ceilings. The staff is numerous and welcomes us joyfully every time we pass, as if they are really pleased to see us after a long journey, not just a half hour stroll to the antique shop at the end of the lane.
Around the corner, the Syquia Mansion, once the home of sixth Filipino President, Elpidio Rivera Quirino has been well maintained in its original form, and is now open to the public as a museum in remembrance of one of its first families. It is fascinating to wander amongst the wide, shady rooms filled with Venetian glass mirrors, enormous family portraits and antique furniture of centuries past. A family chapel in the centre of the house puzzles peering tourists with its reflective windows. A roof top garden welcomes the sun.
Similarly, the Crisologo home across town has been converted into a museum to the memory of assassinated local Congressman Floro S. Crisologo, shot in the head during a Sunday service at the local cathedral. Guides take you proudly through rooms full of memorabilia belonging to this famous politician and his equally renowned wife, Carmeling, once Governor of Vigan. A rather gruesome exhibit in Crisologo’s office shows photographs of the corpse, newspaper clippings about the attack, and the bloodied clothing of the late congressman. You may also wish to examine the family car in which his wife survived an earlier assassination attempt while she was pregnant with their fifth child. The little boy was consequently nicknamed Bullet in recognition of this prenatal flirtation with death. While there is some focus on the obvious family dramas and tragedies, the house is also a fascinating example of life in a Spanish colonial house: the Governor’s changing room containing many of her frocks and shoes; the pair of high chairs near the open window where the Congressman and his wife would sit and watch the passing street parades. The kitchen is rustic and simple, with a table so low, staff would have squatted on the floor beside it to eat. The walls are black from the smoke of the open cooking fire, and the lavatory consisted of a bench with three different sized holes that dropped through to buckets below.
Thanks to the prominent waterways and proximity to the sea, Vigan has a long history of trading with Japan, Malaya and China. Many foreign traders eventually settled here, and there is still a strong Chinese influence in the region. The Spaniards, arriving in the 16th century, transferred the archdiocese of Nueva Segovia from Lallo to Vigan in September 1758, at which time Vigan was also elevated to city status by royal decree. At that time the immigrant Chinese were pushed to the outskirts of the city, but they continued to produce and trade in goods such as the pottery wine jars, indigo, tobacco and the local woven textile called abel. Their tenacity produced a class of wealthy, powerful Filipino Chinese families who would ensure the economic growth of Vigan into the twenty first century. That same wealth also helped to support General Emilio Aguinaldo and his band of revolutionaries, who would defeat the Spaniards at Vigan in 1896, and raise the Philippine flag above the Archbishop’s Palace, which, ironically, became the General’s headquarters after almost four hundred years of Spanish theocracy.
Back in the twenty first century, the streets of Vigan are still bustling, but the sun is beating down on our heads and we need to escape the midday sun and find some lunch. Café Leona, named for the local poetess Leona Florentino, is located by the fork in the Calle Crisologo road where a statue of the poet presides in stately calm. The café has been recommended by our escort from the airport. Just a skip and a jump from our hotel, it will be our regular eatery over the weekend, with its menu that ranges from pizza and pasta, to crispy pata to Japanese cuisine.
“Granpa’s Inn” along Bonifacio Street is a two-in-one dining option: Uno Grillo is outdoor dining in a pretty courtyard opposite the Inn, while Café Uno is tucked away inside the inn. We choose the former, and sit quietly at a vast slab of wooden tabletop that could seat a dozen, while our waiters bring out an assortment of local specialties, including a large bowl of pinakbet teaming with okra, ampalaya and string beans, pork and bagoong. The bitterness of the ampalaya is unexpected and challenging, but fascinating. We taste and chew, sip, dip and drip sauce down our chins in a gluttonous feast of ribs and prawns, eggplant and kangkong.
We spend three glorious, self-indulgent days roaming through this very walkable town, absorbing its history, its food and its inimitable atmosphere. We consider the plethora of potential tourism opportunities: the likes of Carlos Celdran could provide a fascinating historical walking tour; a foodie tour or cooking classes for learning about local dishes; a pottery class with one of the local potters.
Meanwhile, we clutch our maps, quiz our museum guides, sip iced tea, eat, chat, shop for souvenirs, squeeze into pigmy tricycles, smile, laugh, eat some more…
*With photos from the cameras of both my One & Only and me!