Story & photos by Bernard L. Supetran
ASK any jaded traveler on his ideal destination and, chances are, he’ll tell you he loves the place with the perfect blend of the old and the new facets of a provincial urban center.
Such is the case of Iloilo City, which is an eclectic mix of old world charm and a bustling metropolis living side by side.
Widely known for the sought-after world-famous Dinagyang Festival, it first became a city during the Spanish era and was bestowed by Queen Regent Maria Cristina the title “La Muy Leal Y Noble Ciudad” (The Most Loyal and Noble City).
It was later called “Queen Regent’s City in the South” because of its prominent place in the political, economic and religious landscape during the colonial era.
A journey to Iloilo’s checkered past begins with Jaro, the heritage and upscale district of the city, then and now. In this quintessential village proudly stand the colonial-era ancestral homes, which have survived the ravages of time, the destruction of World War 2 and the neglect of the new generation of owners.
A few notable mansions remain resplendent and serve as cultural gems, not just of the district, but the whole of Iloilo province, as well. Among these are Casa Mariquit, the mansion-turned-museum of former Philippine Vice President Fernando Lopez; and the Magdalena Jalandoni mansion, which now hosts the Kasanag Well-Being Center that offers traditional Ilonggo hilot massage.
Another noteworthy mansion is the stately Nelly Garden, which is said to be Iloilo’s “Queen of Heritage Houses”, which was built in 1928 and patterned after the Beaux Art of French chateaus. The former home of philanthropist and statesman Don Vicente Lopez and his wife Doña Elena Hofileña, this used to be the watering hole of local gentry for social events during the colonial days.
Others have become “living museums” inhabited by new owners, while others have undergone adaptive reuse, such as restaurants, convenience stores, offices and shops, to give them a new lease on life.
An iconic structure in the plaza is the Cathedral of the Our Lady of Purification, the seat of the Catholic Archdiocese of Jaro. This church, where orator-hero Graciano Lopez Jaena was baptized, is of special note as its postcard-pretty belfry is located across the street.
Meanwhile, Calle Real or J.M. Basa Saint, the downtown area which hosted shop houses of Chinese traders and ilustrado houses underwent urban renewal to bring back its glory days. Aside from being eye candy with their spruced-up facades, guests can actually enter the old buildings and marvel at its well-preserved conditions, and savor the good old-style food at the homegrown restaurants.
On the other side of the city is the quaint Molo district, another heritage village, which has managed to preserve its soul despite urbanization. Commonly known for the tasty pansit molo ground pork broth, the area’s core is the Gothic-style Church of Saint Anne and boasts of an all-female saints standing on each pillar. Built in 1831, it is said that Dr. Jose Rizal made a pit stop here to pray and admired its ornate religious art.
The hallowed walls of this majestic church will reverberate with music as the Manila Symphony Orchestra, the country’s oldest orchestra, performs Filipino and Western classics on August 25 as part of Iloilo’s 80th City Charter Day observance.
A stone’s throw away is the Camiña Balay nga Bato, the 1865 Avanceña House, which is now a one-stop curio shop, sinamay and hablon weaving room, café and a living museum where guests can interact with the local folks.
In the nooks and crannies of the city are other equally intriguing antediluvian structures in La Paz and Arevalo, which have interesting tales to tell and native delicacies to offer.
But the Queen’s City as it is, Iloilo isn’t frozen somewhere in time. It is, in fact, a fast-growing metropolis evident in its changing skyline propelled by the opening of the new international airport in Cabatuan town in 2009.
In the early 1990s, the local government adopted the short-lived battle cry “Think Big, Think Iloilo”, which aims to make it a super-city in the country’s south. Two decades later, this gung-ho attitude is paying dividends, as the city is among the preferred locations for business and leisure, not only in Western Visayas, but by the big players in the industry.
Its modern face is evident in the Iloilo Business Park, a master-planned community project of Megaworld in the old airport site in Mandurriao. The enclave is teeming with malls, star-rated hotels, restaurants, high-rise office buildings, condominiums, and recreational and tourism related establishments.
At the core of this expansive property is the state-of-the-art Iloilo City Convention Center, which aims to make the city a new hub for MICE (meetings, incentives, conventions and exhibitions) on a par with the country’s best.
This new spanking events place will play host to a gala concert of the Manila Symphony Orchestra on August 26 and the national convention of the prestigious Association of Tourism Officers of the Philippines this October, which will gather thousands of the country’s domestic tourism frontliners.
Another source of the Ilonggo’s pride of place nowadays is the Iloilo River Esplanade, a 1.2-kilometer landscaped path for walking, biking, jogging and open-air recreational activities. Regarded as one of the country’s most stunning baywalks, the Esplanade is anchored on the successful revival of the once-polluted river, which is a showcase of the people’s will to protect the environment with its mangrove reforestation at the river banks.
While shuttling between the old and modern facets of Iloilo, feast on local cuisine, such as batchoy, chicken inasal, binakol, pansit molo and laswa cooked the traditional and contemporary way, in the numerous stand-alone and mall-based dining outlets.
If you can’t have enough of the city’s eclectic expressions, the bigger world of Iloilo province and Panay Island, and everything in between, are yours for the taking.