Impressed by Iloilo's Imagery
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If there's one place in the country whose iconic imagery left lasting imprints in my mind, it would be Iloilo. Together with some fellow amateur photography enthusiasts, I had the blast of a lifetime "invading" the sacred confines of some of her breathtaking Spanish churches as we captured the beauty of this awesome province in Panay during the "visita iglesia" we had last Holy Week.
In Iloilo City alone, we were able to bask at the old-world splendor of at least four houses of worship, starting with St. Anne's Church a.k.a. the Molo Cathedral in Molo district. Said to be one of the few Gothic churches outside of Manila, this house of prayer is renowned for its Gothic-Renaissance architecture, particularly its distinctive twin red spires that seem to reach upward into the sky. Aside from the towers, the church’s altar and pulpit are also largely Gothic in character while its dome, columns and other interior designs are mostly Renaissance.
Located near the Molo Plaza, the 180-year old heritage structure boasts of an ornately ethereal interior, whose most distinct features are the two rows of life-size images of 16 female saints, whose presence have earned for it the monicker of being the only “feminist church” in the country. Enervated after almost an hour of exploring the sanctuary, we felt the urge to take a quick snack and found a nearby karinderia offering – what else? — the eponymous pancit Molo! Geez, I swear there’s something about that marvelous soup with mouth-watering dumplings that never fails to drown my miseries.
From Molo, we headed for another popular destination in the city, the district of Jaro. Like Molo, I consider my visit to Jaro for the nth time a spiritually rewarding experience. And what’s so special about this place? Well, there’s the 150 year-old Our Lady of the Candles Church a.k.a Jaro Cathedral. With its red-brick belfry, the Gothic-Renaissance house of worship is among the few religious structures in the Philippines that were constructed separately from the main church. After saying our prayers, we spent another hour scouring the sanctuary in search for great subjects.
Feeling hungry (again!), I broke away from the pack and went around Jaro Plaza in search for some tummy fillers. And guess what I’ve found? Puto manapla! I’ve been craving for this steamed rice cake for decades now and it was such a relief that I finally found the native delicacy that’s said to be one of the Ilonggos’ homegrown delights.
After the tour in Jaro, we trooped to the neighboring district of La Paz to catch a glimpse of the 138-year old Our Lady of Peace and Good Voyage Church. Bereft of any splendid features, this house of prayer only has the image of the venerated lady at the altar as its most prominent feature. However, the La Paz Church somehow stands out on its own mainly because of its spectacular Greek-inspired architecture, notably its most decorated facade.
Still, we have included this house of worship in La Paz in our must-visit list as we all felt duty-bound to pray in the church of the revered lady, asking God for strength, stamina and safety as we went on with our three-day invasion of the province. Having said our prayers, we took a ride to the market to savor La Paz’s world-famous delicacy — batchoy!
Sated, we went back to the downtown area and proceeded to St. Joseph’s Church. For a while, I got this 139-year old sanctuary confused with the church in La Paz because both of them are made of red bricks and have twin-domed belfries and neoclassic facades. St. Joseph’s Church, however, boasts of a more elaborate interior, including Corinthian columns and a main altar that’s imbued with Gothic elements. Its most precious treasure, however, is a 17th century image of the Our Lady of the Rosary.
Last on our list of Iloilo City churches is the one found in the district of Villa Arevalo (or simply Arevalo): the Sto. Niño de Arevalo Church. Home to the third oldest image of the Sto. Niño (Holy Child) in the country (which was brought by the Augustinians in 1781), this house of prayer has a more contemporary design compared to other churches in the city. Some part of it has either been damaged by fire or earthquakes and underwent renovation through the years.
On our way back to the hotel, one of my colleagues joked, “If there’s such a thing as a spiritual overdose, then we’d all be dead by now having visited all those churches!” Another one shouted back, “At least we won’t end up in hell!” Tired, I only managed to let out a wide grin even as the others were laughing themselves to death. Later that night, we discussed over bottles of beer the last leg of our trip — a spiritual safari into three ancient churches found in three quaint towns along the southern coast of the province!
Foremost in our list is the world-renowned St. Tomas of Villanova Church a.k.a. Miag-ao Church, the 225-year old heritage church that’s among the five Baroque churches in the Philippines that were included in UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1993. The church is recognized as being the quintessential example of what is known as “fortress Baroque”.
From downtown Iloilo, it took us about an hour to reach Miag-ao, passing through the towns of Oton, Tigbauan and Guimbal. Seeing it for the first time, we couldn’t help but marvel at the town’s heritage structure. We ended up spending more than an hour snapping it here, there and everywhere. To me, the visit to this house of God is the crowning glory of our Lenten trek.
It is said that Miag-ao Church’s fortress-looking structure with large watchtowers was built to defend the town and its people against Moro raids. This house of prayer has thick walls and, reportedly, secret passages. Undoubtedly, its elaborate bas-relief on its facade is a monumental testament to the craftsmanship of ancient Filipino master builders.
A central feature of this facade is the large coconut tree, which reaches almost to the apex, living up to its tag as the "tree of life" to which St. Christopher, dressed in native clothes, carrying the Child Jesus on his shoulder is clinging to. Other native flora and fauna and elements are also depicted. Also dominating the second level of the facade is the well-sculpted image of the town's patron saint, St. Thomas of Villanova.
Damaged by war, fire and an earthquake, Miag-ao Church is undergoing an ongoing restoration work that began some 40 years ago, with funds coming from donations of local devotees and residents. Recognizing its significance among Iloilo residents, former President Ferdinand Marcos declared it a national shrine by virtue of Presidential Decree 260.
From Miag-ao, our next stop was the neighboring town of Guimbal where the yellow sandstone church of St. Nicholas of Tolentino is found. Made of adobe stones called “igang” and coral stones quarried from the island of Guimaras, the 238-year old structure squats on a piece of land just a stone’s throw away from the town plaza.
Before proceeding to the town of Tigbauan, we deemed it wise to have an early lunch at one of the eateries along the highway. After a hearty meal, we were on our way to St. John of Sahagun Church in Tigbauan.
Like most of the sanctuaries we’ve visited, this church can’t be missed as it’s also located near the town plaza where most vehicles pass along. What makes it unique among other old houses of prayer in the country is its Latin American architectural facade known as "churrigueresque” which is commonly seen in many Mexican churches.
Built some 437 years ago, it was destroyed by a massive earthquake and a fire that hit the island of Panay some six decades ago. Its interiors have undergone massive renovation throughout the years. Upon entry, we were dumbfounded to see the massive mosaic work that covered almost every part of its interior walls. Each of the 14 Stations of the Cross are etched in intricate mosaics, giving us the impression that we were inside a house of art rather than a house of prayer.
There’s no doubt that Iloilo’s centuries-old treasures have stirred the very core of our beings. But there’s more to the province than her impressive heritage structures. Of the many charms that she possesses, there’s one that has also etched a stirring impression on our palates: Ilonggo cuisine. Home to authentic gastronomic delights that can satisfy even the most discriminating taste buds, Iloilo has made an indelible mark into the consciousness of every food-loving Pinoy here and abroad.
Like most typical dishes in the country, simplicity characterizes Iloilo’s homegrown delights. But even without frill and fancy, they count among the most sensational Pinoy cuisine you’d ever get to taste. Known for their tenderness, sweetness and graciousness, Ilonggos seem to bring these wonderful traits into their cooking, thus, achieving something which they term as namit (delicious).
Seafood forms a good part of traditional Ilonggo fare which is usually prepared using different spices and garnishings. Take for instance the delectable oysters that it’s famous for. Known as talaba in the native tongue, the scrumptious bounty from the sea can be cooked in a variety of ways — grilled, fried, baked, sautéed, boiled.
While sinugba nga panga (grilled tuna jaw) still tops my choice of the perfect handmaiden, or pulutan, if you wish to call it, to dear old, iced cold beer, I think talaba promises to be an equally sumptuous alternative.
So, despite the allergies I got from this trip (probably from having eaten too much baked talaba), I still have fond memories of the impressive images that Iloilo left in my mind. Katahom gid sang Iloilo ya! (How beautiful Iloilo is!)