[COLUMN] Begin the beguine with Vigan

(Continued from last week’s article…)
Vigan has pedigree. And tons of character. It was founded 436 years ago in 1572, a half century after Magellan first stumbled onto our shores and made the fatal mistake of messing with the feisty Lapulapu. But I digress and proffer my apologies for sounding flippant about history.

Vigan’s name is derived from “bigaa”, a tuberous root plant related to the edible “gabi” with big, bright green fronds common to the place. Vigan is the third Spanish city to be built in the Philippines, after the first one in Cebu and the second, in what is now Manila.

Once in Vigan, you can take a calesa just for the experience but a hale and hearty visitor equal to the task, can do a walkabout in comfy sandals, shorts and T-shirt, an anahaw fan, a bottle of water, a camera, a cellphone and a wide-brimmed hat.

Nearly all the points of interest, are within walking distance of each other: the St. Paul’s Metropolitan Cathedral; Plaza Salcedo; the Burgos House—the best by far in the region—which was also called the Ayala Museum at one point for the family’s role in its preservation; the Archbishop’s Palace; the Crisologo Museum; Plaza Burgos, Syquia Mansion among others.

But the core of a visit to Vigan must be focused on the Kamestizoan district, also known as Heritage Village, along Calle Crisologo where one will find the few remaining ancestral houses on a street showing the classic lines of Spanish architecture. On the street level are shops and persuasive sellers peddling souvenirs, local crafts and antiques.

Of the goods available, the cotton Ilocano blankets locally woven in simple plaid patterns and in varying thread counts and quality deserve some attention. They are not as collectible as the hand-made, colorful Amish quilts that command top dollar but these are blankets that are meant to be used to give one a warm, fuzzy feeling, not unlike Linus’ security blanket, on a hot summer’s day or blustery winter’s night.

These pure organic cotton blankets woven the old fashioned way is breathable fabric that loses its form and sheen when washed but sure feels wonderful on the skin after repeated uses. Perhaps only India and other cotton-growing countries have something similar.

Burnay pottery in natural or stained earth tone colors has primitive appeal and is perfect for homes and gardens but quite cumbersome to lug around if you’re traveling light. Leave them for the locals instead.

Find delight in Ilocano cuisine. Like the people in the region, there is nothing bland or tentative about it. It either grabs that part of the brain that controls your taste buds or not at all.

A trip to Vigan is not complete without tasting its famous langgonisa, tiny bite-sized pork links with distinctive vinegar, garlicky taste that puts the kielbasa in the dust.

Then there is delicious bagnet, Ilocano chicharon, deep fried pork meat, best eaten with garlic rice, big red tomatoes with pure Sukang Iloko as dipping sauce while other food fanciers use freshly cooked bagnet crushed and sprinkled generously on top of any pancit recipe “to kick it up a notch”, as Emeril would say; chichacorn for snacking, tastes very much like the commercial Boy Bawang brand.

There is the crunchy empanada—Vigan style. It is not the regular empanada you know.

There is scrumptious okoy prepared fresh and deep fried in black woks in the many tiny food stalls in Plaza Burgos. It is something you have to check out while sitting on the park benches as you chow down on your order hiding behind huge Jackie O sunglasses. You pretend to be oblivious of the townspeople openly gazing at you with wide-eyed curiosity.

Counterbalance all that fat by dipping everything dripping in fat that you put in your mouth in genuine Sukang Iloko much like Drano’s action to clogged plumbing. Or chase it down with jasmine or green tea as the Chinese do after a 10-course lauriat banquet.

For added measure, be sure to sweat out all that fat with aerobics exercise. If not, eat in moderation following the RULE OF PALM, which the dietary experts say, is to eat only what you can fit in the palm of one hand.

You can dine alfresco on a moonlit night at Café Leona. The café is named after Leona Florentino, the creative dame who lived centuries ahead of her time. She has the distinction of being a noted poetess, the product of an educated, illustrious family headed by Isabelo delos Reyes, with a verifiable claim to being a distant relative of Jose Rizal. Her statue with a sprig of laurel on her head and garbed in native “saya” sits pensively in front of Max’s Restaurant.

The famous fried chicken restaurant which has gone global following the hordes of Filipinos who have left the country for greener pastures, is housed in a modern, stylized version of a Vigan House right down to the capiz windows—a deliberate effort to blend in with the Vigan character— but more than likely, in compliance with a mandated city ordinance.

For those leery of leaving the tech world for protracted periods of time, it is comforting to know that Max’s Vigan is a wi-fi zone, combining the best of the old and new worlds. Transients like myself and my techie daughter, who need to go wireless to periodically check on work, school or personal matters online, while vacationing halfway around the globe, definitely welcome this tech access that acts as a portal with swing doors between two divergent worlds.

Of course, you can find the omnipresent MacDonald’s, Jollibee’s, Greenwich Pizza and a few well-known restaurant chain branches that jockey for position and market share in Vigan. Many visitors with less than adventurous taste buds and a hankering for what’s safe and familiar, can simply go to these restaurants for predictable, affordable fast food fare and come out happy.

Be sure to include Vigan and the surrounding areas in your itinerary when you go North of Manila. It is a small glimpse of our history as a people.

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The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of the Asian Journal, its management, editorial board and staff.
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Nota Bene: Monette Adeva Maglaya is SVP of Asian Journal Publications, Inc. To send comments, e-mail monette.maglaya@asianjournalinc.

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