Saturday, October 4, 2014

Inspired by Iloilo City’s Impressive Imagery

I can count by the fingers the Philippine cities I’ve visited that have captivated me with their old-world charm and colonial elegance. Iloilo is one of them. With its centuries-old churches, awe-inspiring ancestral houses, mellifluous mother tongue, and delectable dishes, the city is nothing short of magical!

Iloilo occupies a special place in my heart since many of my relatives, including my parents, spent a good part of their lives there. This, I guess, is the umbilical cord that connects me to the fabulous city, prompting me to visit it whenever time and resources permit. Truly, the sojourns I’ve made there have deepened my affection for Iloilo.  

Iloilo's main thoroughfare, Benigno Aquino Avenue

Names of places in the Philippines have interesting tales behind them. So does Iloilo. From what I’ve gathered, the city derived its name from the local term irong, meaning “nose” in reference to the nasal-shaped outline of the flourishing pre-Spanish settlement, which is set in graceful repose along Iloilo River.

The mighty Iloilo River

In the old days before Spain came, Chinese traders who frequented the area mispronounced the “r” with “l”, popularizing the term ilong-ilong, which, through the years, evolved into the current name of the city. By the way, Iloilo was also the same name given to the whole province by the colonizers, with the city serving as its capital.

Once recognized by the Spanish queen as a “royal city”, Iloilo exudes a classic and chivalrous aura that always amazes, giving you a taste of European grandeur in that part of the world. Even a quick peek at its quaint districts—Jaro, Molo, Villa de Arevalo, La Paz and of course, Iloilo proper—would take you to a cruise back in time. 

Belfry of the Jaro Cathedral

In the 1800s, the historic city in Western Visayas rose to global prominence after its port was opened to world trade. Over time, it gained the reputation of being “the favored city of Queen Regent Maria Cristina of Spain” or simply the “Queen’s City of the South”, a title that is now attributed to Cebu after it eclipsed Iloilo’s economic supremacy.

Following its economic decline, Iloilo recovered in due course and has grown into one of today’s highly urbanized cities. At present, it is the capital of the whole province as well as gateway to the entire region. Located in the heart of the archipelago, the city is home to about half a million inhabitants who speak Hiligaynon.  

A veritable paradise for travelers, artists, scholars, and culture vultures, you’ll find difficulty describing the plethora of unforgettable imagery that the city projects in superlative terms. Iloilo is a delightful symbiosis of East and West, of old and new, of urban sophistication and bucolic charm.

The old city is an intriguing mosaic of contrasting images that would surely excite first-time visitors and thrill frequent tourists—centuries-old cathedrals and modern-day churches, pre-war buildings and sprawling shopping malls, Spanish mansions and humble shanties, modern steamers and scurrying native boats, and much, much more.

Ancient pottery from Isla Gigantes in Northern Iloilo

Stepping into charming Iloilo is like making a trip down memory lane. You’ll get that strange feeling of the glorious past being fast forwarded into the present for everyone to see and appreciate. You’ll find yourself seemingly transported to some strangely familiar scenes from a bygone era.

Geez, the city simply seizes the first-time visitor’s heart and soul. You’ll find yourself under a mystifying spell. Must be those ancient churches. Inside them, you’ll find the rich cultural heritage of the Ilonggos. If they could talk, they would have lots of stories to tell to those who’ve made it to their awesome confines.

Upper facade of Molo Church

Interior of Molo Church
Drop by any of Iloilo’s magnificent cathedrals, which seem to have the power to inspire reverence even in the unbeliever, and, I bet, you’ll be in a time warp. Apart from capturing the charm of old Iloilo, these edifices stand as solid proofs of the early Filipinos’ architectural ingenuity. 

Although war, fire, earthquakes, floods and other vagaries of nature had damaged portions of these religious landmarks, these have failed to extinguish the Ilonggos’ religious fervor that has remained strong over the years. 

Interior of Molo Church
Aside from their aesthetic qualities, these heritage churches have another thing in common: they were the fruits of human sacrifices. It is said that men, women, and even children were forced to work to build them. They were made to look for stones and other construction materials and assist the laborers.  (For more about Iloilo’s heritage churches, visit

Twin spires of Molo Church

Anyone visiting Iloilo should spare some time doing the rounds of its churches. A good place to start is St. Anne’s Church a.k.a. the Molo Church, said to be the most beautiful of its kind in the region. Both sides of its nave are adorned with sixteen life-size statues of female saints, earning for it the reputation as a “feminist church”.

Rizal, who had visited it, was said to have commented: “The church is pretty outside and the interior is not bad, considering that it had been painted by a lad. The paintings are mostly copies of biblical scenes by Gustave Dore.” 

Facade of St. Anne's Church

Gothic in style, St. Anne’s Church, which faces the public plaza, was erected in 1831. Its high pointed spires striving upwards into the sky symbolizes faith that reaches heavenly heights. Two massive belfries, containing around thirty bells, flank its façade. 

Visiting Molo seems to mitigate my misgivings about life. This may sound mushy but true. This memorable enclave has a way of mollifying me! Must be those meditations I do whenever I visit its old church. Or perhaps that marvelous soup with yummy dumplings—the eponymous pancit Molo!—that somehow drowned my miseries. 

Molo's eponymous dish

Ah, whatever! This incorrigible meanderer is always mirthful whenever he makes it to Molo. Here’s hoping my most recent visit won’t be my last!

Located about three km northwest of the city proper is another Ilonggo enclave which I visit whenever I have time: Jaro, the biggest among Iloilo City's seven districts. What’s so special about it? Well, I can cite at least three things: fabulous architecture, fascinating contribution to history and flavorsome goodies.

Our Lady of Candles Church a.k.a. Jaro Cathedral

A mural on the ceiling of Jaro Church
There’s the 140 year-old Jaro Cathedral, the Gothic-inspired church whose red-brick beltry is among the few religious structures in the Philippines that were constructed separately from the main church. Known as the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Candles, it was recently named the National Shrine of the Marian image. 

The original cathedral was built in 1874 by Jaro’s first bishop, Mariano Cuartero. An earthquake ravaged the church  in 1948 but it was not until 1956 that it was rehabilitated by the first Archbishop of Jaro, Jose Maria Cuenco.

History buffs will be delighted to know that one of Jaro’s most prominent sons is the great orator and journalist, Graciano Lopez-Jaena, who edited La Solidaridad, the official organ of the Propaganda Movement during the 1880s. The newspaper featured articles about the economic, cultural, political, and social conditions of the country.

Every June 5, the people of Iloilo (both the province and city) commemorate the birthday of one of Jaro’s most notable sons through the celebration of the Lopez-Jaena Day. A statue of the hero can be found at Jaro's public square.

Lizares Mansion now houses the Angelicum School of Iloilo

Whenever you’re in Jaro, take time also to gad around the place and see those old colonial houses of sugar barons and Hispano-Filipino mansions of the elite that still stand today. One of the most interesting palatial homes there is the Lizares Mansion, which now houses the Angelicum School of Iloilo.

Finally, Jaro is home to delicious goodies courtesy of Biscocho Haus, which are perfect for pasalubong. Indeed, dropping by this thriving locality will leave you more exalted, more inspired and more sated.

Delicious treats of Biscocho Haus

Tourists roaming around downtown Iloilo should find time to visit San Jose de Placer Church (St. Joseph Church), said to be the birthplace of Dinagyang, the city’s most popular festival. The church itself rose to prominence when Iloilo was proclaimed an ayuntamiento (municipality), becoming the center of devotion among the Ilonggos that time.

Facing Plaza Libertad, the church, with its Corinthian pillars and cross-shaped dome, houses a precious Marian icon: Nuestra Señora del Rosario (Our Lady of the Holy Rosary), which was discovered during the Dutch’s invasion of the city in 1616. 

Sto. Niño de Villa Arevalo Church

Third oldest icon of the Holy Child
Its other notable resident is a replica of the Sto. Niño de Cebu that was brought to Iloilo in 1968. The arrival of the Holy Child's icon in Iloilo is being celebrated annually by Ilonggos through the Dinagyang Festival.

Another interesting house of worship worth visiting is the Sto. Niño de Villa Arevalo Church, which houses one of the three original images of the Holy Child. Said to have arrived sometime in 1581, the image was brought by the Augustinians who were establishing La Villa Rica de Arevalo (Villa Arevalo) as a Spanish settlement.

For more about the iconic churches of the city and that of the whole province, visit my post at
Arroyo Fountain

Mind you, old churches aren’t the only attractions that make the city such an interesting tourist magnet. Downtown Iloilo also oozes with many historical landmarks. At the capitol complex,  you’ll see both new and old capitol buildings. Nearby, you’ll find the Iloilo Museum, overflowing with fossils, artifacts, traditional pottery, and old photos of the city.

Visit the historic Arroyo Fountain, which also serves as a rotunda where important streets, including Calle Real, converge. The fountain is said to have been named after Senator Jose Maria Arroyo, a well-loved politician in Iloilo during his time (who is also the grandfather of the former First Gentleman).

The iconic S. Villanueva Building along Calle Real

Go window shopping in stores housed in old buildings at Calle Real and imagine seeing Rizal, who, on his way to Manila from his exile in Dapitan in 1896, bought a hat in one of the stores there. Vintage buildings still dominate this popular strip which also happens to be a shopping mecca of sorts among the locals.  

Now known formally as J.M. Basa Street, Calle Real is one of the iconic symbols of Iloilo City when the strip was a thriving business and cultural center outside of Manila during the late Spanish colonial and American periods. Incidentally, the street has been recognized as a heritage zone by the National Historical Commission.

 Batchoy, La Paz's homegrown, mouth-watering dish

Laze around La Laz and savor a steaming hot bowl of the original batchoy, which is said to have originated from that part of Iloilo. Batchoy, a local noodle soup made of pork organs, chicharon (crushed pork cracklings), chicken stock, beef loin and round noodles. You’ve never totally made it to Iloilo if you missed tasting this local delicacy. 

Siete Pecados, a group of seven islands found on the way to Iloilo

Stroll around Plaza Libertad and picture yourself as part of the crowd who witnessed the raising of the First Philippine Republic’s flag, signaling our victory after Spain surrendered Iloilo, her last capital in the islands, to the Filipino revolutionaries led by General Martin Delgado on December 25, 1898. 

At the plaza stands a monument of the national hero, Dr. Jose Rizal, which was inaugurated on December 30, 1917. Trivia: the National Historical Institute had declared Plaza Libertad as a national historical landmark more than a decade ago.
Iloilo Strait
Take a cruise over Iloilo Strait to the neighboring island of Guimaras from Muelle Loney (pronounced as Mool-ye Loney) or Loney Waterfront, the name given to the river wharf and the street at the western side of the river. The river wharf became a favored port because it is naturally protected from strong winds and tropical monsoons.

The wharf is used today as a port for inter-island vessels such as ferries and “roll-on roll-off” (RORO) boats plying the Iloilo-Bacolod route. Day in, day out, thousands of passengers, pedestrians, and motorists pass by this important landmark, many of whom are unaware of its historical significance.

A portion of Muelle Loney where Iloilo's Customs House is located

One of Iloilo’s unique landmarks, it was named after Nicholas Loney, the British businesman and vice-consul to the Philippines whose efforts greatly helped turn the local sugar industry into a major player in the world market between the 1800s to the 1900s. Muelle Loney played a pivotal role in launching the said industry into heights of international success.

Iloilo's Customs House and Muelle Loney at night

Heritage churches attesting to undying faith. Old landmarks of historical significance. Stately homes of yesteryears. This is Iloilo’s imagery that has left indelible marks in the consciousness of this culture vulture of a bum. Impressive images that would surely lure travelers and adventurers to take a peek at this royal city of yore.

Believe me, your meanderings around Iloilo would not only give you a powerful inspiration to stimulate those creative instincts but also help widen your understanding of the Ilonggo’s participation in the weaving of the fascinating tapestries that make up Philippine history, culture and arts. :D

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