Sunday, July 26, 2015

Taken with Taal, the Heritage Town of Batangas

Talk about Taal and, chances are, a lake and a volcano (said to be the world’s smallest) would easily spring into any Pinoy traveler’s mind. These two interesting must-sees in Batangas are what I‘ve come to associate the name with until my recent exploration of one other Taal, the heritage town, that is, and got taken with it during a short but stirring visit.

Stepping into Taal is like taking a sojourn into the glorious past. This town is regarded as one of the very few charming historical destinations in the whole country, a distinction it shares with the historic cities of Silay (in Negros Occidental) and Vigan (in Ilocos Sur) which are also known for their well-preserved ancestral houses.

Batangas Provincial Capitol

President Jose P. Laurel Highway links Taal to the rest of Batangas 

Unknown to many (that used to include me!), there lies in Taal a plethora of historical and cultural wonders that would make any history-loving Pinoy traveler truly proud of his heritage. Here’s another charming old town where time seemed to have stood still; where the past seemed to have amalgamated with the present.

Something about Taal intrigued the wannabe historian in me. I’ve visited the province about a couple of times before but I haven’t made it to that part of Batangas. Somehow, I felt that it was time to explore the place and rediscover its numerous historical treasures which are integral elements of our identity as a people. 

So, one cloudy Sunday morning, I left Lipa City—my home away from home during a long weekend in July—and headed for Taal. From the bus terminal near SM City Lipa, I hopped into one of the PUJs plying the Lipa-Lemery route. Taal’s closest neighbor, Lemery used to be part and parcel of the old town until it became a separate municipality in 1862.
Welcome to Taal!


A little over an hour down the road, the PUJ drove past the huge stone landmark that welcomes visitors to the town. Seeing my cue, I hopped out of the vehicle, brimming with eagerness to scour the place.  Soon, a row of vintage two-storey stone houses (known as bahay-na-bato that were common during the Spanish era) started to come into view. 

Don Gregorio Agoncillo ancestral house

One of the must-see homes in Taal is the one owned by Don Gregorio Agoncillo, which is flawlessly painted in white with matching green roof.  Open to the public, the heirs of the owner have gone to great lengths to restore the two-storey house to its former glory. Unfortunately, it was closed when I came. 

Geez, it would have been a visual feast to gaze at the furniture, fixtures, statues, chandeliers and other artifacts found inside it!

At the front garden stands a bronze statue of Felipe Agoncillo (Gregorio’s uncle), the astute lawyer who represented the country in the negotiations in France that led to the crafting of the Treaty of Paris that ended the Spanish-American War. Felipe is known in history as the first Filipino diplomat.

A few steps away from the Agoncillo home lies another old house that caught my fancy because of the Philippine flag prominently hanging up its porch at the second floor. From what I’ve gathered, the house was owned by a popular lawyer and educator in the late 19th century who belonged to the Ylagan-de la Rosa clan.

The Ylagans were prominent members of Taal’s rich society during that time. One of the clan’s prominent daughters is Maria Ylagan Orosa, the eminent chemist, pharmacist and entrepreneur who’s said to have invented banana ketchup, soya milk, and pineapple vinegar, etc. A street in Ermita, Manila has been named in honor of Maria.

There were other equally interesting ancestral houses in Taal that are worth visiting but I skipped them as I wanted to spend more time exploring the Taal Basilica. Named in honor of the town’s patron, St. Martin of Tours, the massive church is touted as the largest Catholic church not only in the Philippines but the whole of Asia!

Minor Basilica of St. Martin of Tours a.k.a. Taal Basilican

One of the oldest Spanish pueblos in the county, the town of Taal was originally founded by the Augustinians in 1572 near the banks of Taal Lake (which is the present location of the town of San Nicolas). Three years later, the missionaries began constructing a church dedicated to St. Martin of Tours, the town’s patron, which was rebuilt in 1642 using stronger materials.  

When Taal Volcano wrought havoc in 1754, the town and the church were destroyed. This prompted the Augustinians to abandon the place and transfer the town (including the church) away from the volcano to its present location, which is facing Balayan Bay. 

Asia's largest basilica

A historical marker I saw has it that the Augustinians constructed another church in 1756 in that new location (also the site of the present church) but an earthquake in 1849 and Taal’s eruption in 1852 severely damaged much of the structure.

In 1856, the construction of the existing Baroque-styled church took off and was inaugurated in 1865 (even if it was unfinished). It took two decades before the church  was fully completed in 1878. Bearing some resemblance to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome (particularly its Doric and Corinthian columns), the cruciform structure is the largest house of worship I’ve ever laid eyes on!

Standing prominently on a hilly portion in the middle of the town, it holds the distinction of being the “largest Catholic church in the Philippines and the whole of Asia”. Under the jurisdiction of the Archdiocese of Lipa, the humungous house of worship spans 88.60 m (291 ft) long and 48 m (157 ft) wide. Its imposing façade is about 28 m (92 ft) high while its copula (dome) is about 44.5 m (146 ft) high. 

Icon of St. Martin of Tours, Taal's patron saint who was the merciful bishop of Tours, France

The humungous basilica's main altar and retablo

Seeing it from afar, I was immediately drawn to the massive façade, which features 24 classical columns in pairs and lined up two rows of six on top of the other. It has ten windows and five doors. Topping the huge structure are two gables on each side and a dome with a cross at the center. Looking incongruous, the belfry rises on the left side. 

The basilica's spacious nave

Entering its hallowed ground for the first time, I was dumbfounded by the plethora of awe-inspiring artwork found all over the place, such as the ornate retablo, the ancient pulpit and the awesome choir loft, elaborate side altars and domed ceilings embellished with three-dimensional paintings known as trompe l’oeil.

Why, a replica of Michaelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” on the ceiling above the choir loft could be mistaken for the original!

A replica of Michaelangelo's "Creation of Adam"

The church’s retablo and main altar, which measures 24 m (79 ft) high and 10 m (33 ft), has three Doric columns lining up on each side of the centerpiece where a statue of the Crucified Christ hangs prominently at the middle. These were said to have been added in 1878, along with the baptistry which was made of imported European tiles.

The basilica's ornate retablo and main altar

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A number of holy icons also adorn the altar’s balustraded area. The basilica’s transept features side altars filled with images of saints. Light coming from the windowed dome above illuminates these altars. 

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Light piercing from the glass windows illuminates the basilica's interior

In 1953, the Baroque church underwent massive restoration in preparation for the canonical coronation of the Our Lady of Caysasay whose shrine is also found in Taal. The following year, the church was elevated to the status of a minor basilica, the third in the country to be given such honor. 

Again, it was restored in 1972 in time for the town’s 400th founding anniversary. About four years ago, the basilica underwent a major facelift, with sections of its interior restored to their original form, particularly the trompe l’oeil adorning its ceilings. 

It seemed like I was caught in a time warp for roughly a couple of hours as I explored the cavernous basilica, taking snaps of anything that caught my interest. Whew, it was truly a visual treat gazing and snapping at the treasure-trove of religious wonders inside the monumental church!

Taal Basilica's giant bell 

Outside of the basilica lies another equally “large” object that is only dwarfed by the massive structure—the gigantic Taal Bell. The bell stands about 1.96 m (6.42 ft) with a circumference of about 5.79 m (19 ft) at the lip and 2.84 m (9.33 ft) around its crown. 

During the earthquake that shook Batangas in 1942, the belfry collapsed, causing the bell to fall to its ruin, silencing it for good.   

From the church, I hiked some more and saw several ancient structures. One of them is Taal’s Escuela Pia that was administered by the missionaries. I was delighted to see the building restored, even though it appeared to be a reconstruction. These schools are testaments to the forgotten Spanish educational system prior to the public schools that the Americans established all over the country.

Convento de Taal 

A stone’s throw away from the church is the town plaza where I spotted a monument of Don Felipe Agoncillo’s wife and one of Taal’s prominent daughters, Marcela Agoncillo, who is best known in Philippine history as the principal seamstress of the country’s first and official flag, earning for herself the title “Mother of the Philippine Flag.”

Taal's marker...perfect backdrop for selfies

Now, here’s something that selfie addicts will surely like about this public plaza. There’s this huge “TAAL” marker where visitors can take selfies, duofies and groupfies to their hearts’ content. Of course, I didn’t miss the chance to take mine!   

Incidentally, the small plaza is teeming with peddlers selling native delicacies made in Batangas like panutsa (that’s peanut brittle for you!) and espasol (cylinder-shaped glutinous rice cake), etc. One of them kept stalking me, egging me to sample her goodies. I ended up buying some of the sweet temptations which took home as pasalubong.

Ayuntamiento de Taal 
(Taal Municipal Hall) 

From the park, I crossed the street and explored the premises of the town’s ayuntamiento (municipal hall) where a statue of the national hero, Dr. Jose Rizal, stands, facing the church. 

I didn’t have a hard time exploring the heritage town. Taal is so small, you can practically round all the tourist attractions in a day’s time. Worth visiting are the ancestral houses dotting its landscape, the Shrine of Our Lady of Caysasay, the public market, to name some.  

No doubt about it. Taal is a traveler’s must-see, not only for history lovers but also for photography buffs as well. Geez, they’ll surely have a field day exploring its well-preserved heritage structures while taking snaps of the slices of life that are unique to that Hispanic town.

This early, I’m thinking of revisiting Taal and some of its neighboring towns like Balayan, Calaca, Lemery and Nasugbu perhaps. I’m quite certain it won’t turn out to be a dud of an exploration. Surely, it’ll be a visual feast for the pupils but more importantly, a vivifying fodder for the palate.

After all, I still have to sample some of the popular homegrown stuff that Taal and the rest of Batangas is known for—tapang Taal, acharang Calaca, bagoong Balayan, lambanog and of course, kapeng barako! :-D

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