The Heritage Village at Vigan, Ilocos Sur is considered as the best-preserved example of a Spanish colonial town in Asia and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. For Metro Manilans however, it’s a good 400 kilometers or about 11 hours of driving up north. Despite that we’ve visited it 3 times in the past. However a similar historical site, albeit on a smaller scale, is located within 2.5 hours driving distance from our home, one that we discovered almost ten years ago.
Last week was our third visit to the Taal Heritage Town, a collection of Spanish colonial era-ancestral houses declared a heritage landmark by the National Historical Institute. Formerly the capital of Batangas province, Taal used to be located along the shores of its namesake lake until the 1754 catastrophic eruption of Taal Volcano forced its move to the present location.
Most of the prominent colonial houses are located along the main street through town – the Calle Marcela Mariño Agoncillo. There is a pay parking lot near one of the houses but we ended up parking our cars at the Casa Real. Built in 1945, the Casa Real has been the town’s Municipal Hall and seat of government since.
Just across Casa Real is the Basilica of St. Martin of Tours – the biggest church of its kind in Asia. This imposing structure was first built in 1755, but like other old churches in the country, had to be rebuilt after it was destroyed by an earthquake a century later. This church building is the highlight of a tour of the town.
From the basilica, the colonial houses are just a short walk away. The 18th to 19th century structures are constructed in pretty much the same fashion as the houses in Vigan, using stone masonry at the ground floor and wood on the second floor. Many of the windows are made of Capiz shells. The houses here are also the birthplace of Philippine Revolutionary heroes from the Villavicencio, Agoncillo, Apacible and Diokno clans.
The Doña Marcella Agoncillo Museum used to be the ancestral home of Marcella Agoncillo. Doña Marcela is best remembered for hand-sewing the first ever Philippine flag right at this very house. First built in the 1780s, the house was donated by Doña Marcela’s heirs to the national government, and is now a museum for public viewing.
Adjacent to the Agoncillo Museum is the Taalena’s Antique Shop. Formerly called Bazar de Taal, this place was the former home of Gov. Vicente Noble.
Villa Tortuga is an ancestral home restored by fashion designer Lito Perez. At its ground floor is a gift shop and photo studio where guests can have their photos taken while dressed in period costumes. There is a P50 entrance fee while photos with period costumes sets you back by P250.
The Galleria Orlina or Casa Gahol is the ancestral house of a famous Filipino sculptor, Ramon Orlina and features an art gallery of the artists’ works. If you’re into photography an interesting place to visit is Galleria Taal. Formerly the ancestral home of the Ilagan-Barrion family, it was converted into a camera museum that showcases Manny Inumerable’s camera and photograph collection.
Also along the Calle Agoncillo is the former house of Don Leon Apacible, a revolutionary fighter, President Emilio Aguinaldo’s Finance officer and a delegate to the 1898 Malolos Congress. The brick-red and white house is now the Don Leon Apacible Museum after the Apacible heirs donated it to the national government. A peek into the home’s remarkable interior reveals intricately-carved antique wooden furniture pieces, 18th century chandeliers, Ming dynasty pottery and beautiful narra flooring giving one an idea about the lifestyle of upper-class families during the late Spanish colonial period. Interestingly, the house was remodeled in the 1920’s to incorporate Art Deco elements popular during the time.
There are many other colonial houses besides those at the Calle Marcela Mariño Agoncillo. The Gregorio Agoncillo Mansion, a heritage museum also known as the Agoncillo White House, is the birthplace and home of Gregorio Agoncillo, the husband of Doña Marcela and another revolutionary hero and a diplomat. The stately white colonial American house is at the junction of Calle Marcela Mariño Agoncillo and Calle Jose P. Rizal.
The Casa Villavicencio (Eulalio & Gliceria Marella Villavicencio House) is owned by a wealthy and influential clan. This is the ancestral home of Doña Gliceria Marella de Villavicencio, known as the Godmother of the Philippine revolution against the Spanish. Adjacent to this houses is the Villavicencio Wedding Gift House, built as a gift to Eulalio and Gliceria’s daughter. The house is also open for bed and breakfast. Nearby is the Goco Ancestral House, another bahay na bato that was built by Juan Cabrera Goco and Lorenza Deomampo in 1876.
Other Attractions and Where to Eat
Taal has long been famous for its Barong Tagalogs. There are several shops right around the market area near the municipal hall selling the beautifully embroidered traditional male attire, usually made from piña. Some shops are also selling embroidered fabrics for native gowns here.
Another famous product in Taal is the balisong or fan knife. There are several balisong shops just outside the town center and along the national road.
Visiting many of these houses entails some walking and after a while we were hungry and ready for a good lunch. The Don Juan BBQ Boodle House at the back of the municipal hall (also near the barong tagalog and embroidery shops) serves several of the region’s unique fare. We ended up trying their adobo sa dilaw, tapang Taal (it turned out to be pork, rather than beef), sinaing na tulingan and fried tawilis. We also bought some tawilis to take home – small, dried freshwater fish from nearby Taal Lake that becomes really crunchy when fried.
For coffee and dessert we originally planned to visit the Tampuhan Café also along the Calle Marcela Agoncillo but discovered it was now only open from Fridays to Sundays. We were about to try the Feliza Cafe y Taverna but decided to go to a nearer establishment – the Café G where we had our brewed Batangas barako coffee along with an array of nice cheesecakes. We missed trying the crispy suman (rice cake) in Taal, however. This is something we vowed to prioritize the next time we visit the place.