We climbed up the bell tower of what has been noted as the largest basilica in the orient. What we thought to be an endless climb through flights of stairs and claustrophobic chambers were rewarded by a breathtaking landscape of a charming town straight out from Spanish Taal with blue Balayan Bay in the background.
Heritage best describes the townscape of Taal. Thronged around this old town’s narrow streets are structures dating back to the Spanish Colonial period. They were preserved and restored for generations to relive what we knew as stories written in textbooks about our history.
A leisurely walk through this bucolic town is taking a trip back to 19th century Philippines. This was the coffee-boom era when Taal became the premier economic center of the province of Batangas.
This was also a period when a wealthy and educated society began to embrace the idea of independence and revolution. In 1896, Batangas became one of the eight provinces to revolt against Spain. Taal was then home to a number of Filipino patriots.
The history of Taal is linked to the violent Taal Volcano. Stories of horrendous earthquakes that created wide gaps on the earth’s crust, houses engulfed in horrific flames and structures sliding into the nearby lake, and beastly crocodiles blasted several meters into the air have been reported since the volcano’s first recorded eruption in 1591 and its succeeding explosions. But since its foundation in 1572, the town has been relocated, rebuilt, and even became the provincial capital of Batangas in 1754.
Its church, the Basilica Minore de San Martin de Tours was transferred as the town was rebuilt and moved from San Nicolas near the Taal Lake to its present site. The massive structure with baroque architectural elements dominating the town plaza was constructed in 1858.
The Taal Basilica is considered to be the largest Catholic church in Asia. Its cavernous interior is decorated with trompe l’oeil murals that highlight the design of the grand main altar.
A simple but huge structure near the basilica’s main entrance is the Escuela Pia. This historic building serve as a reminder of the educational system brought to us by Spain.
Taal is amazing because it is one of the few places in the country where a good number of well-preserved ancestral houses called bahay-na-bato are still in use. We are fortunate that some owners of these antique houses turned their private spaces into living museums, showcasing the historical and cultural legacy of their ancestors.
The Marcela Agoncillo House is one of the oldest in Taal. Now a museum, it is a historical landmark dedicated to the making of the Philippine flag. It was home to the first Filipino diplomat Felipe Agoncillo and wife Marcela Mariño Agoncillo, seamstress of the Philippine flag.
Like most houses built during Spanish colonial period, the main living quarters of the Agoncillo house was on the second floor. We learned that the main rooms of the house still have the original wooden floorboards where an arrangement of antique furniture style known as Luis Quince and Carlos Trese, are mixed with Viennese bentwood pieces.
A few walks from the Agoncillo House is the Art Deco house of Don Leon Apacible. This historic house’s guests list would include Jose Rizal, Mariano Ponce and other Filipinos who received education in Europe. Leon Apacible became General Aguinaldo’s finance officer. He was also one of the delegates to the Malolos Congress representing Lepanto.
What is particularly interesting in this house is the art-deco design carved into the floors and inlaid into doors. Matching the antique interior are furniture, paintings, and heirloom objects revealing the affluent lifestyle of the Apacibles.
Across the Apacible House is the Ilagan-Barrion House which houses the first and only vintage camera museum in the country. The Ilagan -Barrion house was built circa 1870 by Domingo Ilagan and Maria Martinez.
The house had been totally neglected for several years until the great grandson of the house’s original owner Manny Inumerable painstakingly restored their ancestral home to house his extensive collection of rare vintage cameras in a musuem he named Galleria Taal.
Just like the Ilagan-Barion house, ancestral houses in Taal were being restored for adaptive reuse. Villa Tortuga, a bed and breakfast inn is houses in a huge bahay-na-bato. Its interiors and furnishings were designed by Camp Suki-fame Lito Perez.
Stepping inside this restored bahay-na-bato becomes more engaging because guests are encourage to wear period costumes while they dine and unwind in Villa Tortuga.
Two ancestral houses of Don Eulalio Villavicencio and Doña Gliceria Marella de Villavicencio have been preserved and restored as landmarks of our architectural heritage and as veritable shrines of bravery and patriotism. The older one is a pre-1850 bahay-na-bato referred to as Casa Villavicencio.
Casa Villavicencio belongs to the same league of the ancestral houses in Taal where its original owners took an active role in the revolution against the Spanish rule and as a place where important activities were held regarding the revolution.
Adjacent to Casa Villavicencio is the house known as the Villavicencio Wedding Gift House. The house received this sobriquet because the house was built as a lavish wedding present of Don Eulalio to his wife Gliceria on their nuptials.
Although the wedding gift house has the same architectural elements of houses built during that period, we find its look and feel to be more cheerful and feminine than the adjacent ancestral house.
At the corner of Casa Villavicencio is a street leading to San Lorenzo steps. The 125 steps in this path were made of thick solid granite called piedra china. We took this path on our way to the Caysasay Church.
Before reaching the church, we made a side trip to the Sta. Lucia Arch that holds the sacred wells where it is believed the Blessed Virgin made an apparition in the 1600s.
The Sta. Lucia Arch is a popular pilgrimage site where devotees believe that the water from the left well cures head injuries and the right well heals the body. Devotees usually pray at the nearby grotto and light candles before drawing water from the well.
Enshrined in Caysasay Church is the image of the Nuestra Señora de Inmaculada Concepcion de Caysasay. The story goes that in 1603, the image of the Immaculate Concepcion was caught in a net while the town chief, Juan Maningkad was fishing near the mouth of the river channel. It is said that the image would disappear from its shrine and common folks would claim seeing the image atop a tree, guarded by a kingfisher, or casaycasay.
Climbing up the 125 steps, we walked back to the narrow street on our way to the palengke. The walking tour made us hungry. Perhaps this is the reason why we overspent in buying kilos of special tapa and longganisa. That supply of Taal specialties lasted for a week in our breakfast table.