Before this pandemic we would never have imagined doing a tour of the old city of Manila. Whenever visiting friends from other countries would inquire about what place to visit in the Philippines we wouldn’t dare mention Manila, even though we live in the greater metropolitan area named after the city. Overcrowded city blocks, dirty thoroughfares, air pollution and chaotic traffic would turn off any first-time visitor for sure. Covid19, however, has a way of forcing us to reconsider long-held assumptions as we recently discovered.
Just before the pandemic hit last year we were sufficiently intrigued about the rehabilitation of historic Jones Bridge downtown and improvements being done in adjacent areas to plan a tour. That was inevitably put off for several months until we decided to finally pay a visit on the second weekend of 2021. We asked Steve and Arnie, two longtime friends who have their business office near the area, to have coffee with us at Kapetolyo (a new café near the Manila City Hall) and to guide us around.
Arriving near the Manila City Hall at just past 4PM we headed out to historic Intramuros (Latin for within the walls), the walled area within the city that was considered at the time of the Spanish rule to be the entire City of Manila, the seat of government of the Spanish East Indies. It would have been fun – and nostalgic – to do a walking tour of Intramuros but with several other places in Steve and Arnie’s itinerary waiting to be explored, that would have to wait.
Skirting the Manila City Hall on our way to Intramuros we came across the Bonifacio Shrine (also known as the Kartilya ng Katipunan Park), a monument by sculptor Eduardo Castrillo that showcases the life of revolutionary leader Andres Bonifacio, a native of the city. Unveiled in 1998, the shrine turned into a filthy and foul-smelling sanctuary for illegal vendors, vagrants and drug users. The vendors and makeshift stalls and other obstructions were removed and the place cleaned up in 2019.
Continuing on to Intramuros from the Bonifacio Shrine meant crossing Taft Avenue by traversing the Lagusnilad Pedestrian Underpass which we were quite familiar with back in the late 1980’s to early 1990s when we used to work in the old city. Back then and in succeeding years the thoroughfare had become clogged with vendors making it look like a public market that had taken on a rundown appearance. Last August the city government in a controversial move cleared vendors from the underpass and undertook a massive cleanup and renovation work with the help of private groups and individuals.
The underpass now has 24/7 security with CCTV cameras. Hopefully gone are the days when we were terrified to venture into Lagusnilad late at night. A mural that showcases the city’s history and which was inspired by the works of national artist Botong Francisco now graces the walls of the subterranean passageway.
Emerging from Lagusnilad we headed towards Intramuros through Calle Victoria. Rather than have coffee at Kapetolyo near the City Hall (which would surely have been crowded) Steve thought it would be better to lounge at the Skydeck of The Bayleaf Hotel Intramuros with its unobstructed 360-degree views of the city including the famous Manila Bay sunset. Unfortunately the Skydeck was fully booked (advanced reservations and a limited number of guests are the norm here due to safety protocols) but we were still allowed to enter and take photos. The sweeping views made us realize we had not seen Manila this way before despite living near the city for much of our lives.
We crossed back under Taft Avenue through another underpass that emerges into Mehan Garden, a Spanish colonial-era garden, on the opposite side of Intramuros. This garden, the underpass and the Plaza Lawton area in front of the Manila Post Office are all still undergoing renovation. (If you’re wondering about the origin of the English names of some of these places: these were christened after personalities during the American colonial period from 1898 to 1946.)
Our chosen destination in this area is the William A. Jones Memorial Bridge, more commonly known as the Jones Bridge, an arched steel girder bridge that spans the Pasig River. Completed in 1920, it was demolished by retreating Japanese troops in 1945 and rebuilt two years later. However the rebuilt bridge lost the original 4 sculptures that guarded both ends of the bridge as well as its beautiful lamp posts resulting in an unaesthetic-looking span. In 2019, the City Government of Manila began a rehabilitation project to “restore” the Jones Bridge to its near-original design using Beaux-Arts lamp posts similar to that of the Pont Alexandre III in Paris. It also retrofitted the steel girders of the bridge among other repair and restoration works.
Walking back over the Mehan Garden we retraced our steps towards the Bonifacio Shrine. It was now well past sundown and a crowd had gathered around the Dancing Fountain, recently installed in February last year. As the song “Manila” by the pop group Hotdog blurted out, colorful jets of water arched towards the sky, a fitting end to our tour of this part of the old city.
Manila was once dubbed the “Pearl of the Orient” and until the start of the Second World War, it was considered one of the most, if not the most beautiful city in Asia. Then World War 2 happened and the heavy street fighting between American and Japanese troops that followed turned Manila into the second-most-destroyed city of the war after Warsaw. It was rebuilt but much of its former glory would be lost forever. Still, Harper’s Bazaar in 1963 portrayed Manila as a kind of tropical paradise that contributed to making a visit to the country a delight.
Today Manila is often merely considered as a place you have to go through to get to the country’s world-renowned tropical islands and beaches. It’s one of the busiest, most urbanized, most densely populated, difficult to navigate cities in the world so much so that travel guides recommend bypassing the city altogether to get to the rest of the country. We had the same approach too in the past 3 decades but this recent tour is making us reconsider our attitude towards the city as it tries to get back on its feet. Our warmest thanks to friends Steve and Arnie for helping make that possible.
What we’ve experienced in our journeys through Manila since the 1970s is best summed up by writer Nick Joaquin: “The history of Manila can be put in three words: challenge and response. It almost seems as if every problem, every crisis, arises just to prove the aliveness of this city: continually destroyed and continually rebuilt, ever decaying and ever re-greening.”