What do you think of when you think of The Philippines? No, really, go ahead. I’ll wait. I’m betting the first image that popped into your mind was an island. Maybe Palawan, Cebu or Boracay, the three islands in the Philippines that regularly top ‘best in the world’ lists. While these islands’ reputations are justly deserved, there is SO much more than island hopping to do in the Philippines. On my trip with the Philippines Tourism Promotions Board through Southern Luzon, we explored a side of this country that not many tourists get to see: the heritage homes of Taal.
The history of the Philippines is marked by three different eras: Spanish rule, American rule, and finally independence in 1946. You can blatantly see the influence of the USA on the Philippines. It’s in everything from Filipino fluency in English to a love for American pop culture, and even the famous jeepney. Evidence of Spanish colonization from 1592-1898 is more subtle, but it’s ingrained even in the Tagalog language. From my observations, the Philippines reminded me heavily of Central America, another region of the world formally colonized by Spain.
Another remnant of Spanish rule is the architecture of the buildings that have been preserved. One pocket of these buildings remains in Manila, Intramuros, the walled former Spanish city where you can take a walking tour today. Another pocket still exists in Taal, a city near the Taal Volcano about 2-3 hours south of Manila.
Taal has another claim to fame besides its’ heritage homes, however. The largest church in Asia, The Basilica of St. Martin of Tours, stands here. A quick photo shoot and peek inside the cathedral was all the time we were allotted, but it was still an impressive sight. The interior has been recently redone in the old Spanish style, so it’s not entirely authentic. It was stifling inside of the church, and we were all thankful for the fans we had been given at the start of the day.
Taal is not a regular stop on the tourist trail of the Philippines, so they are working hard to promote their city as a place for visitors to come experience the Spanish heritage of the Philippines. The heritage homes exist here in various states of preservation. Our guide explained to us that there is no foundation in the Philippines dedicated to the preservation of these homes. Filipinos are now awakening to their potential tourist appeal. Therefore, the owners of the Heritage Homes (they are all still privately owned, and thus it is up to each individual owner to care for their property) have created ingenious ways of showcasing them for the public.
The Villavicencio-Marella House
Interested in learning about the Filipino revolution of 1898? One Heritage Home, the former residence of Doña Gliceria Legaspi Marella de Villavicencio, will teach you all about it. First, you will sit down to a short film about Doña Gliceria Legaspi Marella de Villavicencio (otherwise known as the ‘godmother of the revolutionary forces’) and all of her contributions to the revolution. Then take a tour of various rooms, all fashioned in the style of a wealthy family’s home in the late 19th century. Photos of the Villavicencio family appear on the walls and furniture, and our guide told us more about this family that was essential to the revolution.
Another enterprising heritage homeowner has turned their home into a camera museum! Full of cameras and photos from the decades, it was a fascinating peek into the development of camera technology. What’s more – each and every camera in this museum is a working camera. That’s right, even the oldest camera in this museum, a humongous stand-up camera, still takes photos. My favorite, though, was this gold Nikon. Any chance I could trade my Nikon D3200 in for this model?
So all of this information about the Spanish Colonial Period is interesting and all, but when do we get to play dress up? Never fear, Villa Tortuga is here!
As a former theater geek, my heart always swells at the mention of costumes. One Heritage Home in Taal Batangas catered to my make-believe fantasies. We entered to find racks of clothing from the Spanish Colonial era and were promptly clothed how Filipinos in the late 19th century would have dressed. Then we each got a chance to take photographs. I learned that my resting bitch face would have fit in perfectly with the style of the time, as a peek at the wall of authentic photos revealed that no one cracked a smile back then.
What do you think? Should this be my new style?
Feliza Taverna y Cafe
All of this sightseeing is bound to be making you hungry, right? Feliza Taverna y Cafe is a restaurant inside of a heritage home. The setting makes it a beautiful place to take a leisurely lunch, but the food is what will really win you over. Feliza’s is one of my top choices for food in the Philippines. Think traditional Filipino food is bad? Try chef Giney Villar’s take on it here, and your mind will be forever changed.
Hidden upstairs is another peek at Spanish colonial life, including a few relics from the revolution that will blow your mind. We were lucky enough to get a tour of the house from the chef herself! She kindly answered our questions about the revolution and subsequent American occupation.
After lunch, we were treated to yet another special display: a demonstration of traditional hand embroidery. The speed of these women’s fingers was unreal. I actually had to look closely to see HOW on earth they were embroidering so quickly. We learned about the dwindling popularity of embroidery as a profession. It started as a way for women to earn a small bit of income, but now that more and more young women are opting to go to university (a great thing!) the art of embroidery is dying out.
When your daily wages can be as little at $2-3 per day in this career, it’s no wonder that many women are opting not to follow in their mother’s footsteps. That’s why it’s important for tourists interested in buying embroidered goods to get them directly from the source, to make sure you’re supporting these women directly. We got to choose from many different beautifully embroidered table runners, ranging from 300 to 1200 pesos ($6-24). I bought my mother a white table runner with embroidered forget-me-nots for Chanukah.
The Famous Taal Balisong
Ah, the Balisong. Many people waxed poetic about this particular Filipino invention, and we got the opportunity to see for ourselves what the fuss was all about. The Balisong, also called a butterfly knife, is a fan knife that is concealed. Formerly used as a pocket knife and for self-defense, the Balisong is now mostly used for entertainment purposes. We stopped briefly to see the making of the Balisong, as well as the traditional usage.
I am not particularly interested in knives (or weapons in general, for that matter) but I can see how this stop would be fascinating for others. For my part, I did enjoy pretending to get speared to death by the world’s largest Balisong.
Paradores del Castillo
If you don’t feel like driving all the way back to Manila, you could always stay the night at Paradores del Castillo! This is one of the many heritage homes of Taal that have been converted into a hotel or bed and breakfast. We only got to tour the grounds, but I was super impressed. I could definitely have stayed a night or two here.
Happy Exploring, Wherever You Are!
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The Heritage Homes of Taal tour was provided to me by the Tourism Promotions Board of The Philippines as a part of the Southern Luzon Heritage, Wellness, and Culinary Trail. All opinions expressed are entirely my own.