Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Dumbfounded by Dumaguete City (Part 2)

A friend advised me that a visit to Dumaguete isn’t complete if I miss out on the lovely promenade by the waterfront. So I explored one of its distinctive landmarks, arguably the city’s replica of Manila’s Baywalk. Facing the blue waters of Dumaguete Bay, the promenade is located alongside Rizal Boulevard—that’s why it’s popularly but inaccurately called the Boulevard. 

Day in, day out, the Boulevard, stretching roughly 780 meters from end to end, never fails to attract dwellers and drifters alike. Anyone who goes there will surely be fascinated by its old-world charms—colonial light posts, cool marble benches, cobblestone paths, comely trees swaying to the gentle rhythm of the sea breeze. Who wouldn’t feel nostalgic seeing such things?

Rizal Promenade a.k.a The Boulevard

Dumaguete Bay
One morning, I went to the promenade where I joined a motley crowd of early risers who either came to sweat it out thru jogging, stroll leisurely from one end of the baywalk to the other or just sip their morning drink while enjoying the scenery. For me, it’s a wonderful place for snapping seascapes and all, and much later, for just sitting and staring at the sea and the sky. Geez, it’s nice to be idle once in a while…

While strolling along the Boulevard, I noticed something I’ve seen in many Facebook walls lately—the huge, free-standing letters that read: “I ♥ Dumaguete”. I quickly took out my Nikon and had myself snapped with the sought-after signage. Minutes later, three vehicles stopped nearby, disgorging a bunch of tourists—a noisy mob of Koreans and some local visitors armed with DSLRs and smartphones.

I knew what they came for so I hurriedly put back my stuff into my backpack and exited the scene. Hardly had I left when the Korean eager-beavers took center stage and had their pics shot. Soon, the other tourists were flocking near them, impatiently waiting for their turn to pose in a frenzy of selfies that I bet would find their way into Facebook, Instagram, Blogger and other social media applications. LOL! 

History has it that Dr. Jose Rizal, en route to Manila from his exile in Dapitan, made a brief stopover in Dumaguete. He’s said to have found time to take a stroll in what used to be Calle Marina, the promenade by the bay, which is now the baywalk/boulevard bearing his name. Also, a marker I saw at Quezon Park mentioned that he met with some classmates and even performed an eye operation in Dumaguete!

Speaking of Quezon Park, the sprawling plaza also boasts of its own colorful version of the much-loved sign at the baywalk. This time, it knocked out the egotistical theme of  the baywalk signage with its communal truism: “We ♥ Dumaguete”. Well and good for the city by the bay, I should say—for who wouldn’t fall in love with the serenity that makes Dumaguete the perfect seaside hideaway for this bum?
On my second visit to the baywalk, people from all walks of life—young  and old, couples and singles, locals and foreigners—were there from end to end. Quite a number of them were assembled at—you guessed it!—the “I ♥ Dumaguete” signage! LOL! Contented with my share of selfies the other day, I walked away from the crowd and headed towards the eastern side of the promenade.

Along the way, I chanced upon another historical treasure—the monument depicting the arrival of the seven nuns belonging to the Sisters of St. Paul of Chartre. From Saigon (today’s Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam), they safely reached the shores of Dumaguete in 1904. Their mission: establish the first Paulinian school in Negros Oriental or what is now known as St. Paul University (SPU) in Dumaguete. 

Later, I sank into one of the marble benches. While people-watching, I noticed two local young women clinging to their men—I mean dirty, old, foreign men! The Caucasians looked like tourists or expats who must be living in Dumaguete now, enjoying the company of their much younger partners. Whew, whatta PDA (public display of affection, that is) by the bay on a Good Friday! LOL!

As darkness began to swathe the Boulevard, street lamps lit up. Night owls started to fill the place. Hawkers selling street food like tempura, chicherias and drinks opened their stalls, packing the promenade from end to end. It’s truly one delightful hideaway for hanging around without hurting one’s pocket, a haven for numbing the senses from the cares of the world—even for a few carefree hours. 

Searching for a place to grab a bite, I crossed the street and headed towards the row of hotels, inns, restaurants, cafes and bars lining Rizal Boulevard. Together with banks, offices and shops, they’ve turned that part of the city into a hip hotspot. Despite these trappings of urbanization and progress, the capital of Negros Oriental has retained much of its laidback character and rustic charm.

I’d consider my sojourn to Dumaguete a big disappointment had I missed seeing the centuries-old cathedral dedicated to St. Catherine of Alexandria. Built between 1754 to 1776, the house of worship is dubbed as “the oldest stone church in Negros Island”. Known to the locals as the Dumaguete Cathedral, the church underwent major improvements in 1885 and 1936. 

Cathedral of St. Catherine of Alexandria

An eclectic mix of Baroque, Neoclassical and neo-Gothic styles, the imposing structure features a grandiose façade accented by the statues of Saints Peter and Paul standing on both sides. With its modern-looking, gilded and ornate altar, high ceilings and brightly-lit chandeliers, the church is a magnificent display of ingenuity and craftsmanship of Filipino artisans.

The cathedral is probably the ultimate venue for understanding the depth of the Dumagueteños’ devotion to God. Steeped in tradition, these gentle, Cebuano-speaking folks display their faith to the hilt. Since it was the Holy Week, the faithful flock came in droves for the masses and the traditional visita iglesia  (church visits). Many also took part in the Via Crusis (Way of the Cross) procession. 

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Dumaguete Belfry at night

Standing apart from the church is the Campanario de Dumaguete (Dumaguete Belfry). Originally built as a watchtower in 1881, it was used to alert the townspeople of impending attacks by Moro pirates from neighboring islands. Later, a huge bell was added. Three buttresses support the four-storey coral structure. Through the years, the lofty belfry stood as mute witness to the unfolding of events in the city. 

Left to my devices, I kept clicking my camera to capture as many images as possible of one of Dumaguete’s most photographed historical and religious landmarks. Good thing, the belfry survived the 2013 killer quake that hit Bohol and its neighboring islands such as Negros. Here’s hoping the heritage structure would be preserved by the authorities to keep it intact for generations to come.

Not to be missed if you’re in Dumaguete is the Provincial Capitol of Negros Oriental, said to have been patterned after the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C. Built in 1924, the provincial government building, with all those Ionic columns and bas-reliefs, reminded me of Neoclassical structures I’ve photographed in Bacolod, Oroquieta, Cebu and Manila, etc. So regal, so iconic, so distinctive. 

What makes Dumaguete’s capitol building such an interesting piece of heritage? For one, it’s the brainchild of renowned American architect Daniel Burnham. Does his name ring a bell? It should for he happens to be Baguio’s master urban planner during the American colonial era. Burnham Park, one of the most popular tourist destinations in the City of Pines, was named after him. 

Negros Oriental Provincial Capitol

Just a stone’s throw away from the provincial capitol is the Benigno Aquino Freedom Park, a sprawling expanse of well-manicured greens, old trees and lovely shrubs with a large stage for holding public activities. Named after the late senator who fought the Marcos dictatorship, I found the huge patch of green located right smack in one of the busiest parts part of the city an ideal sanctuary for relaxing and reflecting. 

All told, these are but a few of the slices of life in Dumaguete that I’ve seen, heard and felt during my Holy Week sojourn there. Having experienced life in the city even for a few days, I understand now why it’s dubbed the City of Gentle People. And rightly so because the gentility of its folks borders on the phenomenal. Now that’s one of the many things that left me dumbfounded about the unitown.

There’s an urban legend claiming that Dumaguete casts a spell on those who come to her shores, enticing them to go back again and perhaps stay there for good. Maybe that’s the case for those old expats who’ve been enticed to spend the rest of their lives there. Indeed, the city’s serene landscape and easy-going lifestyle make it the ideal sanctuary for rejuvenation and retirement. 

I’m much younger than those expats and this may sound dumb but I was spellbound by Dumaguete, too. This early, I’m already planning a revisit and perhaps a quick trip to the nearby cities and towns of Negros Oriental. Are Bais, Bayawan, Canlaon and Tanjay worth exploring? How about Bacong, Manjuyod or Zamboanguita? And of course, Apo Island!  Ah, the list of must-sees goes on and on…:D

Post script:

On my way back to Cebu, I decided to take the nautical highway from Dumaguete via Ocean Jet, one of the fast ferries plying the route. Much to my disappointment (and perhaps many of the other passengers, too), the ticketing staff said: “Sir, you have to disembark at the port of Tagbilaran and get a new seat number for the next leg of your trip.”  I asked her why. Then came the standard reply: “That’s the new policy, sir.”

Geez, different seats for the same passenger in the same boat? That meant paying Php15 more for the terminal fee on top of the one I’ve paid at my port of origin!  The last time I travelled to Siquijor, the ferry stopped twice at the ports of Dumaguete and Tagbilaran but didn’t require Cebu-bound passengers to disembark. I hate to think about this but was the new policy all about the money at the expense of hapless and helpless budget travelers?

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