Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Sagada to Vigan via Baguio

In which love saves a city, St Paul’s is not St Paul’s and Tchaikovsky makes things very awkward.

Starring a procession of kids celebrating Santa Ninio, and Joel, Cartayo and Saluman who wanted to have their picture taken. 

It’s quite an effort to get to Vigan and most people couldn’t be bothered – in fact I saw only two other Westerns in the days I was there.  The problem is that the road from Sagada to Baguio goes along a pass that instead of running up a mountain and down the other side, seems to go along the top of the range for pretty much all of the six hour journey.  The views are jaw dropping – rice terraces perched so precariously on the steep hills that it looks like you might need climbing gear to get to them – and huge storms billowing in across the distant ranges.  Most transport only goes in the morning so you take a morning bus from Sagada to Baguio and arrive around 3pm and then hang around for the night before getting on another bus the next day up the coast to Vigan (another 6hrs). 

I decided to spoil myself after all the damn night buses and checked into a very expensive hotel in a converted hill station built in 1905. It was full of antiques but most importantly lovely sheets that were free of bed bugs.  When I went down to dinner in the proudly advertised ‘Miele Guide Listed’ restaurant there was a little sign on my table saying: “Reserved for Miss Sally”. 

Baguio has little to recommend it – another bustling over-crowded city choked with jeepneys and hustlers.  I excused myself from any sightseeing (having tried to go and see a Filipino film at the cultural centre next door but the only one with subtitles wasn’t showing for another three days) other than a quick trip to the enormous pink cathedral and a taxi ride out to a silver shop (the area is renowned for cheap silver jewellery).

Vigan is a gorgeous old colonial relic – the architecture is a curious mix of Spanish and Chinese styles with local influences like sliding shell window blinds and decorative ventilations.  The buildings from the 17th and 18th centuries are still mostly intact though covered in mould, sprouting plants at their joints and shedding rendering and roof tiles.  It’s survival through the heavy bombing of WWII was largely attributed to the Japanese Commander in Chief for the area, who having fallen in love with and married a Filipino woman, disobeyed his orders to burn the city.  The main street is still cobbled and closed to “traffic” which means that only tricycles and the horse pulled carts are allowed to clatter up and down. 

The first place I set off for was Cristologo House which belonged to one of the former Governors.  I was expecting it to be a recreation of the interior of an old house but it turned out to be more of a memorial to the family.  Exhibits included his wife’s collection of 1980s perfume bottles (Charlie!!) and all her clothes, still in their wardrobes.  There was a yellowing photo album of his election campaign and a whole series of incredibly graphic photographs of his assassination – he was shot in the St Paul’s Cathedral (the one in Vigan not in London).

Just as I was coming out the street was shut and a huge procession of children made their way past most of them clinging to ropes to keep them in line and carrying flags and banners.  I was told that this was a procession to celebrate Sant0 Ninio who the museum attendant assured me was the patron Saint of children. Actually, (thanks again Wikipedia) Santo Ninio is the baby Jesus.  The rear was brought up by a marching band and a large statue on a tiered dias wrapped in red and gold cloth – like an enormous fabric cake.  As I walked alongside them in the opposite direction they all called out ‘Hello’ and waved like crazy. 

There are lots of local speciality foods in Vigan – a spicy sausage called Longganisa that is often served for breakfast, some kind of weed mixed up with garlic and spices and the best I had -  empanadas which is a sort of crispy tortilla filled with vegetables, egg and shrimp.  They come with a little bowl of local sugar cane vinegar that you dip into and there are a whole row of stalls selling them on the edge of the main square.  The place was packed out with teenagers in their school uniforms when I popped by so spent most of my lunch saying “I am fine, how are you?”  “My name is Sally, what is your name?” etc.

By far the strangest thing I did in Vigan was a go on a river cruise that the local authority have set up to teach people the history of Vigan.  You turn up at the tourist office and they order you an “electric jeepney” (basically a giant golf cart) that drives you out of town and delivers you to a boat dock on the river.  Once again, I was the only person around, so me, the boatman and a guy whose only job seemed to be to push us away from the bank with a large pole. The minute we set off the driver pressed play on a tape deck thing and tinny music started to blare over some speakers that had seen better days, totally shattering the peace and quiet.  The soundtrack started off rather Spanish casternet but then quickly blended into Tchaikovsky (quite a mix there DJ!) the volume of which dipped only slightly every now and again for a voice to regale us – and all the local fisherman going about the day to day business on the side of the river – with facts about Vigan.  The river bank was also dotted with large concrete platforms on which painted statues played out key historic scenes.  They were so completely out of context I nearly burst out laughing.  Between facts it was an extremely awkward sensation putting down the river with roaring classical music while everyone on the banks stopped their spear fishing and stared as passed.

Vigan is also famous for its pottery so I made my way to the main pottery centre where the clay is trampled by caribao (water buffalo) and they fire the hand thrown pots in huge wood-fired kilns.   The wheels are set on huge round stones (possibly marble) that get going by repeatedly swiping it with their feet. The weight of the stone seems to keep the wheel rotating for a very long time – I made a whole pot on one spin.

There’s a lot of good wandering to be done in Vigan – down the less trodden streets, around the two big squares (which are both pretty much just giant children’s playgrounds) and through the Cathedral, which unlike St Paul’s in London was pretty full of people praying both times I went past and has some endearing little birds living in it.   On a bridge somewhere I met three little boys who introduced themselves as Joel, Cartayo and Saluman (I think!) and asked to have their picture taken. 

It was a long night bus back to Manila improved immeasurably by some sampling of the local wine by before I got on it.

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