After our visit to that part of the City of Manila between City Hall and Jones Bridge we were itching for another walking tour – this time to the walled district of Intramuros, the historical section of the city. We would not infrequently pass by Intramuros eons ago when we were both working in Manila but since the early 1990s we’ve rarely gone back and only once visited a museum in the area in 2005.
During 3 centuries of Spanish rule the 0.67 square kilometer Intramuros (Latin for “within the walls”) was considered the entire City of Manila and served as the political, religious, educational and economic center of the Spanish East Indies. The walled city was constructed in the late 16th century and included the official residence of the colony’s governor-general – the Palacio del Gobernador which has been reconstructed and now houses the Commission of Elections. (The old Palacio del Gobernador was destroyed by the 1863 earthquake; subsequently the governor-general’s residence was moved to Malacañang Palace, now the official residence of the country’s president.)
The Palacio del Gobernador sits astride the Plaza de Roma, (formerly the Plaza Mayor) the city’s main square while the Ayuntamiento – the old municipal hall of Manila – lies across on the opposite or east side of the square. Now housing the Bureau of Finance, the Ayuntamiento was reconstructed in 2013 to resemble the old building of 1884 inside and out.
A somewhat disappointing characteristic of the structures here in Intramuros is that practically all are reconstructions of centuries-old Spanish colonial structures or were built after World War 2 with only one exception. The reason for this is that Intramuros was almost completely leveled following heavy street fighting during the Battle of Manila in 1945. Fanatically-resisting Japanese naval troops chose to make their last stand here and American forces used heavy artillery to reduce Japanese strong points – which often were centuries-old historical structures including the city walls.
Consequently, Manila became the second most devastated city of the war, next to Warsaw, Poland. One of the most prominent casualties of the Battle of Manila is the Minor Basilica and Metropolitan Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception or the Manila Cathedral for short.
Also situated at Plaza Roma, the Manila Cathedral was originally built as a wooden structure in 1581. It was destroyed or heavily damaged by fire and earthquake 5 times until almost flattened during heavy fighting in 1945. Every single time it was painstakingly rebuilt – a characteristic that parallels this city’s establishments and the lives of its inhabitants.
Besides the Manila Cathedral there were 6 other churches inside Intramuros that Spanish religious orders built over the centuries. All were destroyed in 1945 and were either rebuilt in another location outside Intramuros or never reconstructed – with one notable exception.
The San Agustin Church was the first church to be built in Luzon in 1571. After two previous structures were both destroyed by fire a third building was completed in 1607 after a 21-year construction period. This structure withstood numerous strong earthquakes with the most serious damage necessitating the removal of the east bell tower which cracked during the 1880 earthquake. It was the only building in the walled city that wasn’t destroyed during World War 2 and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1993 as one of the 4 Baroque Churches of the Philippines. A gutsy survivor indeed.
Many of the original landmarks that were destroyed in 1945 are still lost today although the Intramuros Administration continues the process of reconstructing and reviving the cultural heritage of the district. One of the ways this is being done is by establishing or converting older structures in the district into museums. One example is the Museo de Intramuros, an ecclesiastical museum built on the site of the destroyed San Ignacio Church and Convent. The church itself is undergoing reconstruction within the complex.
The museum we last visited in 2005 is the Intramuros and Rizal Bagumbayan Light and Sound Museum which traces the history of the Philippines from the early days of Spanish colonialization to independence from American rule in 1946. And then there is the Bahay Tsinoy which is home to the Kaisa-Angelo King Heritage Center, a museum that showcases the history, lives and contributions of ethnic Chinese in Philippine history. As with other museums elsewhere both are still closed due to Covid19. We would have visited the museum if it was open since we both have Chinese blood. Our lineage includes ancestors who came from Fujian in southern China in the 18th to 19th centuries. (Interestingly there were early Spanish colonial era Chinese immigrants – some of mixed Arab and Iranian descent – from Canton who were called Sangleys.)
Also temporarily closed is Fort Santiago, one of the most important historical sites in Manila. First built in 1593 as a defensive citadel, it is now part of a popular historical park which also includes its bastions, a dungeon for prisoners during Spanish colonial times, Plaza Moriones and several ruins. We’ve been to Fort Santiago a few times in the past so we weren’t really that thrilled for a revisit. In the southwestern corner of Intramuros is the Baluarte de San Diego, a circular fort that was likewise destroyed during the Battle of Manila and later restored.
Few Filipinos probably don’t realize it but Manila came under British rule from 1762 – 1764 when British forces stationed in India attacked and captured the walled city and nearby Cavite as part of the Seven Years War. British rule didn’t extend beyond Manila, however, as the Spanish and Filipino volunteers under Simón de Anda continued to resist. The British eventually withdrew after the end of the war. A monument was later erected in 1871 inside Intramuros to honor Anda. Heavily damaged in 1945, the Anda monument was later moved to its present location at the rotunda at Bonifacio Drive (named Anda Circle) just outside the Intramuros gate at Soriano Avenue. Last October 2020, the Anda Circle was rehabilitated and restored to its original colors and a fountain with LED lights installed.
A significant part of the effort to restore Spanish era architecture was focused on the block called Plaza San Luis which lies across General Luna Street from the San Agustin Church. In the 1980s the Intramuros Administration built a cluster of colonial era replica structures at Plaza San Luis including Casa Manila, Casa Blanca, Casa Urdaneta, the White Knight Hotel Intramuros, Barbara’s restaurant and Casa Azul.
Casa Manila is a recreation of a typical colonial era residence called bahay-na-bato where the ground floor was built of masonry and the upper floor of timber. Not exactly however. Curiously, Casa Manila is 3 stories high but a typical bahay-na-bato is just 2 stories tall. It was based on a house that originally stood in nearby Binondo. Featuring life during Spanish times, Casa Manila is a lifestyle museum showcasing colonial furniture and artworks collected from ancestral houses. It comes with a courtyard surrounded by art galleries and souvenir shops.
Adjacent to Casa Manila is Barbara’s Heritage Restaurant which serves Filipino cuisine in a colonial setting with old furniture, wooden finish with delicate carvings and crystal chandeliers giving visitors a feel of dining in the 19th century.
Casa Urdaneta is a replica of a Victorian-style house with neo-classical architectural features including stylish brackets and Ionic columns for window posts. Its design was based on a house that used to stand in the Ermita district of Manila. Casa Urdaneta may be rented for weddings and other events.
Casa Blanca is another events place that is suitable for wedding receptions with a vintage or nostalgic theme. So named because of its white finish this hotel is connected to the adjacent White Knight Hotel Intramuros, another structure in white. Casa Azul (blue house in Spanish) sits next to Casa Blanca along Real Street. It is a replica of a 19th century house that was seen in an illustration in a book that featured the festivities that took place in 1825 when Spanish King Ferdinand VII visited the country.
But for his pandemic it would have been great to visit the museums in Intramuros and experience a taste of the walled city’s 3 centuries of colonial history. And who knows how this tour would have turned out had this historic place not been ravaged during the Battle of Manila in 1945. But life is what you make out of the cards you are dealt with and we’re learning to appreciate what Intramuros has to offer despite its tragic past.