Saturday, August 22, 2015

Basking in the Beauty of Batangas (Part 1)

Long before Spain came to these islands, the booming and blooming beauty we now call Batangas—one of the pillars of the CALABARZON Region—was already a cradle of civilization in that part of the country, with most of the early inhabitants settling in such familiar names as Balayan, Nasugbu and Taal.  

Archaeological diggings revealed that the ancestors of the Batangueños, believed to be the descendants of the legendary Bornean datus who first occupied the island of Panay, had a lifestyle and culture of their own and maintained extensive trading relations with neighboring kingdoms, particularly India and China, as early as the 13th century.
Home to several political figures, public servants and popular icons from different fields, the province was founded in 1581, which then included present-day Batangas, Marinduque, the two Mindoros and the southeastern part of Laguna. Through the years, it had three capital towns: Balayan (1581-1732), Taal (1732-1754) and Batangas (now a first-class city) in 1754 where it has remained since then.

Thick mists enveloping Caleruega Church in Nasugbu

Historic Batangas had me the moment I stepped into some of its quaint towns, caught glimpses of its picture-perfect beaches, tasted its homegrown delicacies and snapped at a few of its heritage churches. Mind you, this affection for the lovely province is more than skin-deep; it runs deep into my heart as some of my closest friends and not a few co-workers happen to be true-blooded Batangueños. 

Way back in the early part of 2004, in between thesis writing and overseas job hunting, I scoured a number of places there, joining some of my Manila-based friends during their business trips and weekend wanderings in Nasugbu, Rosario, Cuenca, Lemery and San Juan as well as the cities of Batangas and Lipa. 

A portion of President Jose P. Laurel National Highway

So, it was with ineffable exhilaration that I set into motion my long-drawn plan to bask once again in the beauty of this awesome province in southern Luzon. For this sojourn, I focused my energies towards exploring the following places and the treasure-trove of wonders found in them. Here then is the lowdown of my recent sojourns to Batangas:

Balayan. Known as the province’s first capital, Balayan is said to have derived its name from the Visayan word bai or balai, meaning “house”, probably given by the descendants of the legendary Bornean datus who came from Panay and allegedly moved there during pre-Hispanic times. Founded as a pueblo in 1578, Balayan was already a booming trade center and thriving settlement before the Spaniards came. 

Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception Church in Balayan

When I reached  the coastal town, I dropped by Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception Church, which was declared a National Cultural Treasure by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA). Having seen the Baroque church in pictures, I got curious why it was accorded such importance, hence, the quick visit.  

Nestled right smack at the town center, the first version of the Balayan Church was erected by the Franciscan missionaries in 1579 using light materials. Later, the construction of a stone church began in 1749. Completed in 1795, it was named in honor of the town’s patroness. Adjacent to the sea, fortifications were also built to protect the church against pirates and other hostile forces. 

Rizal's monument in Balayan

Interior of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception

Balayan amazed me with the dazzling array of ancestral houses lining its streets. Roaming around, I was elated to see several rows of old homes dating back to the 1800s—vestiges of Batangas’ rich cultural heritage. Unfortunately, many of them are in various stages of dilapidation. Whew, I can only hope the local government would do something to preserve those houses not only for tourism but also for posterity’s sake!  

Balayan Bay

Incidentally, Balayan is also famous for its own version of bagoong, the popular  condiment made of salted small shrimps or fish (usually anchovies) fermented in a closed jar for weeks. Also, the country’s traditional wide-brimmed hat, salakot, that’s become the symbol of the Pinoy everyman, is one of the town’s popular products.

Before leaving Balayan, I dropped by the town’s baywalk to take a breather before catching up the bus for my next destination. 

Batangas City. Known as the "Industrial Port City of CALABARZON", the provincial capital was one of the first few pueblos in 1851 that were established by the Spanish colonizers. Originally, the town was named “Batangan” after the huge logs called batang that were common in the area that time. Through the years, the pueblo flourished and became the provincial capital beginning 1754.

As one of today’s fastest growing industrialized cities, Batangas hosts one of the country’s largest oil refineries, three natural gas power plants, a petrochemical company, several food manufacturing plants, among others. It is also home to several academic institutions, including the Batangas State University (BSU), the University of Batangas (UB) and the Lyceum of the Philippines University (LPU).

The city’s international seaport serves as the port of entry for numerous vessels coming from neighboring island provinces belonging to Region IV-B otherwise known as Mindoro-Marinduque-Romblon-Palawan (MIMAROPA).

Being the seat of power in the whole province, the city, like most capitals of old, has a colonial-inspired capitol building reminiscent of the Commonwealth era. Started in 1926, it took roughly two years to complete it. Destroyed during World War II, the building was reconstructed in 1946, only to be damaged when a bombed exploded in 1950. It was reconstructed later also that same year. 

Just a stone’s throw away from the capitol is Laurel Park where I took some rest after a tiresome exploration of the city. 

Minor Basilica of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception

Not to be missed when you’re in Batangas is the Minor Basilica of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception. Like many of the ancient bastions of Christianity in the country, the Neoclassical church, built between 1851-1857, has had several earlier versions. In 1578, its precursor was put up made of light materials. 

A fire in 1615, however, razed the structure to the ground. Then, in 1686, a coral stone church was erected. Again, this was reduced to ashes by another fire in 1747, only to be rebuilt in 1756. It was not until 1857 that the present-day church was completed. In the 1930s, it went through several restorations, particularly its belfry and windows. 

Interior of Minor Basilica of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception

In the wake of the 1942 earthquake that shook Batangas, the church’s façade collapsed and underwent rehabilitation between 1945-1946 in line with its declaration as a minor basilica. Repair works were also done in the 1950s, including the beautification of the exterior and retouching of its frescoes.

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On my way to my next destination, I dropped by Plaza Mabini, which is just a stone’s throw away from the basilica. The plaza features a huge bust statue of one of Batangas’s prominent sons, Apolinario Mabini, the so-called “Sublime Paralytic” who’s known in history as “The  Brains of the Philippine Revolution."

Mabini was a revolutionary leader, educator, lawyer, and statesman who served as the first Prime Minister of the Philippines, under the Revolutionary Government, and then under the First Philippine Republic. One of the towns in the province has been named after him.

Plaza Mabini

Calaca. Formerly a part of Balayan, this town came into its own as a pueblo in 1838 but later re-integrated to Balayan and then re-established as a separate municipality in 1903. There are several versions of how Calaca got its name but I’m inclined to lean on the one attributed to miscommunication, which is similar to how many towns in the country got their names.

Legend has it that Calaca’s name was taken from the native word, laka, referring to a bamboo split into two. When a group of Spaniards visited the settlement, they chanced upon some natives building a nipa hut. The foreigners then inquired the name of the place. Thinking they were being asked what they’re doing, the locals answered, kalaka, as they were installing the roof made out of laka

St. Raphael the Archangel Church

Hilarious but I first thought the town was named after calaca, the colloquial Mexican Spanish word referring to the skeleton or figure of the human skull commonly used for decoration during Mexico’s Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead). Geez, so much for strange names of places and their equally strange, if not, side-splitting origins!

Interior of St. Raphael the Archangel Church

Like most of the old towns in Batangas, Calaca also has its own heritage church—St. Raphael the Archangel Church. Built by the Augustinians in 1836, the Baroque-styled archdiocesan shrine attracts numerous devotees from different places who come to pay homage to St. Raphael, patron saint of the blind, of healing, happy meetings, travelers, physicians and nurses.

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While strolling around town, I stumbled upon a street stall selling atchara (chutney), one of Calaca’s popular products made from pickled raw papaya garnished with carrots and red bell peppers—a world-renowned appetizer that you can bring home as pasalubong.

From what I’ve gathered, the town has its own festival called Calacatchara, the portmanteau for Calaca and achara, a weeklong celebration that culminates on the  feast day of St. Raphael on October 24. A fluvial parade, a street dancing competition, a trade fair and photo exhibit, and the coronation night of the town’s fiesta queen, are among the many highlights of the festival. 

Facade of the Metropolitan Cathedral of St. Sebastian a.k.a. Lipa Cathedral

Lipa City. Named after a species of tree known for the stinging hairs on its twigs, Lipa is one of the three cities found in the province (the other being Batangas and Tanauan). Here’s a fast-growing city so modern and vibrant and yet so rich with history and religiosity, exuding the charm of a bygone era and, as far as tourism is concerned, living on a certain nostalgia for the years of Hispanic Philippines.

Revisited after a little over a decade, I was overwhelmed with glee when I saw its amazing transformation into a major economic hub of Batangas—with two huge malls and many business establishments to boot! Truly, its former mayor, veteran actress and incumbent Governor Vilma Santos-Recto, has done a lot to propel Lipa to new heights of glory.

Dubbed as the “Little Rome of the Philippines”, the city is regarded as a pilgrim’s paradise given the number of lovely houses of worship found there. One of them is the Carmelite Monastery Chapel, site of the 1948 apparition of Mary, Mediatrix of All Grace. Thousands of Marian devotees go there to pay homage to the Virgin Mary.

Lipa also has the Monastery of St. Benedict, the Archdiocesan Shrine of St. Vincent Ferrer, and a host of other monasteries, shrines and chapels run by various congregations. And, of course, there’s the Metropolitan Cathedral of St. Sebastian, popularly known as the Lipa Cathedral, one of the most enduring churches in all of Batangas.

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Built in Romanesque fashion, the cathedral serves as the seat of the Archdiocese of Lipa starting in 1910. Detached from the Archdiocese of Manila and canonically erected by Pope St. Pius X, it comprised what are today the provinces of Batangas, Quezon, Aurora, Laguna, Marinduque, Occidental Mindoro, Oriental Mindoro, and part of the Camarines area.

It was my second time to visit the charming church found in the old city center. Its earlier structure was said to have been built by the Augustinians in 1779. Numerous calamities severely damaged the massive church which had undergone several reconstructions and renovations, the latest of which was completed in 1957.

Interior of Lipa Cathedral

Lipa is also the hometown of Segunda Katigbak, said to be the first love of the national hero, Dr. Jose Rizal. I had the chance to drop by her ancestral home, the Luz-Katigbak House a.k.a. Casa de Segunda, which was declared a heritage house/museum by the National Historical institute (NHI). Segunda and her husband, Don Manuel Mitra de San Miguel-Luz, lived in that house built in the 1860s.

If you’re interested about the city’s role in history, then you should pay a visit to Museo de Lipa where you can take a quick journey into the city’s past. The museum includes antique art pieces, including chinaware, silverware, jars, religious images, brass artifacts, vintage clothing and wardrobe, old furniture and fixtures, among others.  

“All here. So near.” So goes Batangas’s tourism blurb  that sums up everything about the province. Heritage landmarks. Pristine beaches. Majestic waterfalls. Charming islands. Lofty mountains. Fabulous sunsets. Name it and, chances are, you’ll most likely find it there. And it’s all within your reach as the province is only about an hour or two away from the chaos named Metro Manila.

Whatever your passions in life are, there’s a place in the province where you can indulge in it to the max. So, whether you’re a heritage hunter, a beach bum, a dauntless diver, a cordillera climber, a gutsy gastronome, a passionate pilgrim, a tireless trekker or just an inveterate weekend warrior like me, Batangas is the place to be—the beautiful province definitely has it all! 

Come, take a peek and bask in the beauty of! :-D

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