Road Trip to Ilocos Norte 1: Vigan, Bantay, & Santa Maria Stopovers
History, religion, and trade made major contributions to Ilocos Sur‘s successful tourism industry. During the pre-colonial periods, Vigan was a hub of foreign traders who came mostly from neighboring Asian countries. When the Spanish conquistadores came, the heart of Ilocandia became Spain’s Northern Luzon headquarters. Augustinian missionaries arrived, local inhabitants were then baptized, Christianity spread like wildfire throughout the Ilocos Region. Magnificent stone churches rose from the ground up, many of which still stood today. What made Ilocos Sur more interesting is that the province appears encapsulated in time where history seems breathing still.That’s what were about to find out (or at least, a little about Ilocos Sur) in the first part of the Road Trip to Ilocos Norte: Vigan, Bantay, & Santa Maria Stopovers.
Walking around the vicinity of Santa Maria Church.
Our legs have cramped in our tightly packed van, five long hours onto our journey, which was probably about the same time when Ilocos Sur’s arch welcomed us to their historically and scenically stunning province. Our first destination stopover, however, was more or less an hour away in a town called Santa Maria where a unique church claimed a UNESCO World Heritage inscription.
Facade of Nuestra Señora dela Asuncion Church in Santa Maria, Ilocos Sur.
Not only the vivid red-bricked faces of Santa Maria Church, formally called as Nuestra Señora dela Asuncion Church, inscribed this 2.5 centuries old structure in UNESCO World Heritage List but of two major reasons: first, the European-Baroque design fused with the use of local construction materials, and second, the strategic location of the church.
Stairs leading to the Church.
Stones and red bricks that built Santa Maria Church.
Filipinos and Chinese craftsmen built the Baroque-style church using materials produced in the country which created a whole new approach in church constructions. The most important feature of Santa Maria Church was its ability to adapt to unstable seismic conditions as the country sits on the Pacific Ring of Fire.
Huge and strong walls of Santa Maria Church.
Santa Maria Church is majestically perched atop a hill which is unlikely to a typical town layout in the Philippines. The massive structure surrounded by huge defensive stone walls with only three broad stairways for opening, resembles a fortress more than a church, although it also serves as respite for town locals in times of crisis. The most important feature of Santa Maria Church was serving as gateway in spreading Catholicism in the northern provinces of Luzon. Sitting on a plain, bound by a vast sea on the west and walled by mountains on the east, Santa Maria Church was the last stop of Augustinian missionaries and bridge the gap to the Cordilleras.
Road along the scenic coast of Narvacan, Ilocos Sur.
Touring Ilocos Sur takes road trippers on a scenic journey up north. Narvacan was the next town to Santa Maria, and about 30-40 minutes from the Santa Maria Church, where the main highway bound by rock formations on the beach passes by a coastal road that offers a breathtaking panorama of the South China Sea stretching out to the horizon.
The old Banaoang bridge (further) and new Quirino Bridge of Bantay, Ilocos Sur.
Crossing the Abra River in Bantay was another road trip spectacle called Quirino Bridge which is named in commemoration of the late President Elpidio Quirino. The new 456-meter long bridge replaced the old truss type Banaoang Bridge which was partially devastated by the storm, Fenia, in 2001. Though the old bridge was reconstructed, it remained more as a tourist attraction for it was an iconic symbol of Ilocos Sur.
Quirino Bridge crossing Abra River.
The historic Vigan City was our next sightseeing stopover and our first Ilokano food adventure stop. We drove into the city’s cobblestone streets in search of a nice restaurant serving Ilocano cuisine. At the heart of town, we parked our van and continued on foot. Just about a few meters of walking under the midday sun, we stumbled into a popular culinary destination called Cafe Leona to find out what the fuss was all about.
Amidst the blistering heat, Mico still managed to keep her poised femininity intact.
Low ceiling restaurant of Cafe Leona in Vigan City.
Cafe Leona was the home of Filipino poet, Leona Florentino, who was known for her lyrical poems written in both Spanish and Ilocano. Her works focused on feminism and 22 of her literary contributions were included in International Encyclopedia of Women’s Works in 1889 which made her the first Filipina to gain this international recognition. Amidst the patriarchal world that deprived Florentino of education, the young poet pursued her passion which made a major contribution to Philippine Literature. But what about the food, you ask?
The doors of Cafe Leona opened to a rustic environment touched with elegance of an old Filipino house. We sat in its classic wooden chairs, and dining tables adorned with a checkered table runner. Cafe Leona was a perfect backdrop for our first Ilocano dining experience. But what about the food, again, you ask?
A horse-driven carriage called kalesa in Calle Crisologo.
The menu offered the this-and-that of Ilocano dishes but the kind waiter told advised that food will take time to be served for whatever reason. Though hungry, we didn’t mind, since the place looks promising and besides, it was a fine day for a sightseeing stroll in Calle Crisologo.
Spanish-style houses and establishments in Calle Crisologo.
Tourist sitting on intricately designed benches of Calle Crisologo.
Also inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage List and Vigan’s most popular tourist destination are the Spanish-era houses that line up along Calle Crisologo. These were the houses of prominent families, foreign and local traders, and significant figures in Philippine History.l Architecture was modest and simple with its large wooden doors and capiz windows on every facade yet the houses look magnificent in its own class. Structures were well preserved though left with paints that peeled off revealing the red bricks of the house’s foundations, and that’s what I like about it. The style added more character in Vigan’s heritage village which zaps spectators back in the old days.
Facade of a house in Calle Crisologo.
Antique furniture in Calle Crisologo.
Food was hot and ready when we got to Cafe Leona. The first set of dishes in our Ilocos food adventure were: (1) Bagnet, a pork belly deep fried to a crisp served with KBL, an abbreviation for kamatis (tomato), bagoong (fish sauce), and lasona (spring onions), (2) Pinakbet, different vegetables based on bagoong, and (3) the ever popular, Vigan Longganisa, a garlicky native sausage. Dishes were plated simply (which is OK with me), but the taste was mediocre. Usually, when I had something good, the taste registers. But, unfortunately, in Cafe Leona, it didn’t. Of course, everyone has their own palettes, and this was just my personal review. But the story behind the old establishment added flavor to their dishes and I think that’s what I paid for… not the food itself.
Crispy Bagnet served with KBL in Cafe Leona. (approximately P250.00)
Pinakbet in Cafe Leona (approximately P180.00)
Ilocos Sur definitely offers a lot more than the few featured in this blog. The UNESCO World Heritage Sites of the Augustinian’s strategic church Santa Maria Church and the well-preserved Spanish era city of Vigan, the man-made marvel bridging the gap between Abra River, and the scenic journey up north are only to name a few. Yes, the province deserves a whole series of numerous tourist destinations that will tickle every travel toes. I’m really looking forward to a return trip. “Ilocos Sur, Biyaherong Barat will be back.”
Let’s head on to our next destination and our first stop in Ilocos Norte, we’re a few kilometers by, Paoay.
Here are some fast facts that may help you on your trip:
1. Santa Maria is approximately 6-7 hours away from Manila on an easy drive. Spend time going around Santa Maria Church vicinity and you’ll find a lot more.
2. Don’t hesitate for quick stopovers in Ilocos Sur scenic route. Don’t just pass by or glance on it – stop, absorb the beauty, and appreciate. That’s what I like with traveling with your own vehicle.
3. Vigan. Yes. Where do I begin with? Vigan is not a stopover but truly a destination that requires 2-3 days. It was my second time in Vigan, both were stopovers. The next time I travel to this wonderful city, I’d definitely give time.
4. Cafe Leona. Ok. First, I’m really sorry to disappoint my beloved readers and patrons of this restaurant. But again, this was my personal preference and review. Some may love the food, others may not. Nonetheless, like I’ve said, it has a story behind it, and that’s what I love in Cafe Leona.
5. Read on to Road Trip to Ilocos Norte 2: Why Paoay
6. Read more about the province in Biyaheng Ilocos Sur.
7. Like Biyaherong Barat on Facebook.
8. Follow @BiyaherongBarat on Twitter
9. Be safe on your journeys and happy travels to everyone.
The old and new bridges in our backdrop.
Bantay: Jay’s jump shot as requested.
Vigan: Jay’s looking-at-his-camera shot as requested.
CG seeks shade from the blistering heat.