Walking on the cobblestone streets of Vigan among Spanish colonial homes on Calle Crisologo is like travelling back in time. One is transported back to 1572, the year when Vigan, Ilocos Sur’s charming capital, was founded by the Spanish conquistador Juan de Salcedo, when caruajes or calesas (horse-drawn carriages) and people in traditional baro’t saya and barong Tagalog used to ply its bustling streets.
“It’s reminiscent of what the Philippines was in the Spanish colonial time, and it’s such a great way to go back to our roots,” says Jeff Ortega, Department of Tourism’s regional director for Region I. To date, the calesas, the 16th-century architectural structures and the ancient urban plan have remained, seamlessly juxtaposed with the modern world of cars, cafés and shops, with people in jeans and shirts.
The Unesco World Heritage Centre cited Vigan as “an exceptionally intact and well-preserved example of a European trading town in East and East Asia” as well as representing “a unique fusion of Asian building design and construction with European colonial architecture and planning”. These two citations led to the inscription of Vigan in the Unesco World Heritage List on December 2, 1999. To be included in this prestigious list entails a tedious process. “It takes a lot of political will to actually enact laws to preserve the city,” Ortega adds, explaining that the local government enforces a rigid set of guidelines for the preservation of more than 200 residential, institutional, commercial and religious structures in the city.
In an article, the late Ricardo L Favis, a consultant for culture at Unesco Principal Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific in Bangkok and Vigan’s former tourism operations officer, wrote, “The authenticity of the built heritage of Vigan has been established by experts: much of its original architectural, structural and decorative elements are still intact”.
What sets the houses in Vigan apart is that they continue to be used as residences and commercial spaces up until now, as they were more than four centuries ago. Citing Favis, he said: “Like the shop-houses in Asian trading cities like Melaka, Penang and Kuching, Macau, Singapore and Hoi An, the Vigan house was built on a larger scale than its Asian counterparts.”
The ground floor was designed to accommodate caruajes, carrozas (shoulder-borne and later, carriage-mounted religious images), shops and bodegas (storage rooms). On the second floor are the owners’ living spaces.
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