Thursday, June 25, 2015

Postcards from Intramuros, a Spanish walled city in the Philippines

Intramuros, Manila
Main gate of Fort Santiago
(My son obviously did not get his height from my side of the gene pool.)

Someone once told me that they can tell if a person is from the Philippines if they look Asian but have a Hispanic name. Indeed, the Philippines is an independent, island nation in Southeast Asia which was under Spanish rule for over 300 years, promptly followed by a few decades as an American colony. My parents were born and married in Manila, the capital of the Philippines, before moving to the USA. Visiting my extended family there was one last thing I wanted to do before leaving Asia. We spent most of our time feasting at restaurants, hitting the many malls, and just hanging out with my aunts and cousins, getting to know each other better. My kids say it's one of their favorite vacations because they went bowling and played Minecraft with their 2nd cousins instead of spending the whole day sightseeing. Indeed, a morning excursion to Intramuros was the extent of our touristy activities there. So, instead of showing you snapshots of our bowling scores, here's a few postcards from Intramuros.

Intramuros means "within the walls" in Latin and began construction in 1590 following the curves of Manila Bay and the Pasig River. Nearly three miles of walls and fortifications encircle the area that contained the entire city of Manila when it was under Spanish rule. Looking around, I could definitely recognize a Spanish Baroque influence to its architecture. I almost didn't feel like I was in tropical Asia.

Calesa, Intramuros, Manila
Riding in a calesa

Even though it was only morning time, the heat and humidity was already beginning to build up to sweltering. Instead of walking, we opted for a horse-drawn calesa and guide to take us through Intramuros. My dad remembers these still being used as regular public transporation when he was a young boy during World War II.

Our first stop was Fort Santiago (top photo). This is one of the most popular tourist sites in Manila. It served as the military headquarters of the Spanish colonial government. At the top of the gate, a wooden relief carving depicts the patron saint of Spain, Santiago Matamoros (St. John the Moor-slayer).  The fort is where the one of the Philippines' most famous heroes, José Rizal, was held before being executed by the Spanish in 1896. He was an ophthalmologist, journalist, novelist and poet but also a nationalist and revolutionary. Growing up in America, even I had heard of him due to Rizal Day celebrations in Texas. The Rizal Shrine museum located in one of the former barracks was the busiest place in the entire fort.

Rizal Shrine, Intramuros, Manila
Stamp honoring José Rizal that was issued during American colonial rule

I took this photo of the Jose Rizal stamp because "United States of America" is featured so prominently on it, yet it's issued in Filipino currency. My mother who was born in Manila says that her birth certificate claims that she is American. Alas, that did not make it any easier for her to obtain a Green Card to immigrate to the USA.

Intramuros, Manila
Cuartel de Santa Lucia

Cuartel de Santa Lucia was built in 1781 as the Artelería de la Montana. It also served as the barracks for the Philippine Constabulary from 1901 to 1905 when it became a Philippine military officers school. Destroyed during the many bombings of World War II, only the outer wall has been rebuilt as a nod to history. From the fortified city wall by the Cuartel de Santa Lucia, we could look out to where a double moat used to surround the city. It was filled in under American rule after it was deemed unsanitary and turned into a municipal golf course. That seems so American!

Intramuros, Manila
Chinese Fu dog and Roman Catholic saint outside San Agustin church

San Agustin church is said to be the wedding capital of the Philippines. Our guide joked that it's so hard to book a wedding here that an eligible young bachelor could have his pick of women by reserving a wedding first and then dangling the possibility in front of potential candidates for wife. I tried to go inside, but it was completely packed with wedding guests on the Saturday I was visiting. I didn't get to see what is a supposedly opulent interior with magnificent tromp l'oeil paintings.

The church which was completed in 1607 is a UNESCO World Heritage Site as one of the Baroque churches of the Philippines and is the oldest stone church in the nation. It's named after the Augustinian churches in Mexico that were used as inspiration for its architecture. Miraculously, it has survived earthquakes and bombs that left the surrounding area in ruins. What I found most interesting about the church was the juxtaposition of Chinese Fu dogs on the ground in front of alcoves holding statues of Roman Catholic saints. Our guide attributed them to the Chinese laborers who did most of the work in creating the church.

Intramuros, Manila
Courtyard of the Casa Manila

Casa Manila is a re-creation of an upper class home during the Spanish Colonial era. The courtyard was a quiet respite from the bustle of the streets outside. There were a few shops opening into the space, and the house itself holds antiques and other artifacts so that visitors can get an idea of how the wealthy of Intramuros lived a few centuries ago. 

Intramuros, Manila
Mom, will you buy me a sword?

No sightseeing tour is complete without a stop at a gift shop. Honestly, I can't remember what I actually bought here. What I do recall is telling my son an emphatic "NO" when he asked if I would buy him a sword — not a pretend, toy sword, but a metal one that looked like it could do some damage.

Intramuros, Manila
Traveling via Tricycle

As we rode in the horse-drawn calesa back to where we began our tour, I had to chuckle at the sight of two guys crammed in a tiny tricycle carriage. I only laugh because my family has been known to squeeze too many people into small modes of transportation throughout Southeast Asia. Well, at least there are ways to get around Intramuros no matter what your budget is.

I hope you enjoyed my Postcards from Intramuros.

What type of activities do you do when visiting family?

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  1. What a fun tour - I love postcards! Doesn't matter if they are in a rack or on a series in a blog, I can't resist them. And I learn so much from them - as I did with this post. Great overview!

  2. I can just see my kids enjoying a vacation like this too! Minecraft and cousins sounds great, but thanks for showing us around Intramuros, I know so little about the Philippines, all new visits are welcome. Funny, when I saw the title of this post it made me think of Paris as Parisians call real Paris, within the peripherique road and not counting the suburbs "Paris intramuros"!

  3. So many beautiful pictures! Since I am from a Latin American country (colonized by Spain), I would like to visit the Philippines (at least Luzon) to see what similarities and differences I can discover. I would definitely start my exploration in Intramuros.

  4. Michele, We really enjoyed our short time in Manila. What an eye-opener. For me, the quieter parts of the country are always what I'm looking for.

  5. I have not heard of Intramuros but it certainly is appealing.

  6. I remember our family holidays with kids and minecraft and bowling would certainly win out over sight seeing (unless that involved theme parks or animals) lol. I am glad you got the chance to get to know your extended family better.

  7. We had Philippine neighbors for a while when I was a kid. The grandma spent the whole day cooking and it ways smelled amazing. I think it was too exotic for my 7YO American palate to actually try any of it though-- my loss! I'd like to visit the country to see if I can rediscover some of those food aromas! welcome to #wkendtravelinspiration!

  8. I enjoyed reading this post as I don't know too much about the Philippines. It's never really been on my radar for traveling to, but now I think I'll have to add it to the bucket list. Cheers - Ellen

  9. Hi Michele! Even though I'm still on a leave from blogging I wanted to stop by to say hi and to let you know I'm still "here"! I hope all is well with the 4 of you! :)

  10. Looks like an interesting place to visit but does not scream wedding to me. That's an interesting tidbit about your mum's birth certificate, was it because Philippines was a colony then?

  11. What a great way to spend a day. I'd love to get into the church to see what all the fuss is about. Thanks for linking up. #TPThursday

  12. Great captures.Interesting to read about these places and also to see the old buildings.

  13. My Step Grandma (the only Grandma I knew on that side) was from the Philippines. I loved going to their parties! She made the best egg rolls, and rice. The rice candy was so tasty that she gave me.

    Your pictures are really pretty! I like the one of Cuartel de Santa Lucia.

  14. Intramuros, a walled city in colonial times, is the heart of Old Manila and you visited the Casa Manila Patio one of the most recognizable event venues in Manila


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