By Benjamin Layug
WITH all the publicity generated by surprising triumph of the historical biopic Heneral Luna, now the Philippines’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 88th Academy Awards, it was somewhat fitting that, while covering the 10th La Union Surfing Break with a media group, we toured a town named after him (and his brother, the painter Juan Luna), one of five Philippine towns named after the general. The Luna brothers’ mother, Doña Laureana Novicio Luna, was a native of the town.
From San Juan, the venue of the Surfing Break, we traveled the 30-kilometers distance in just about the same number of minutes, passing the towns of Bacnotan and Balaoan before reaching Luna. With Lawrence Fontanilla Carbonell as our designated tour guide, we made our first stop at the seaside Bahay na Bato Open Art Gallery, the newest tourist destination in Luna. Built back in 2000, the attraction was originally just meant to be a family rest house for its owners, Dr. Edison and Dr. Purita Noble. However, in 2014, Luna Mayor Marvin Marron saw the potential of this property as a tourist attraction, thinking that the house could attract visitors. Marron persuaded the owners to open the property to the public.
The Bahay na Bato premises offers numerous stone carvings, masterpieces created by South Korean national Vong Kim, the in-house sculptor for the tourist site. Luna’s shorelines are covered, not with fine sand, but with an unending supply of stones of various colors, shapes and sizes that seem to be replenished year by year, a mystery that has long baffled the community. Using handpicked stones, Kim, with a great deal of imagination, carved faces, turtles, fish, flowers, hearts and even phalluses out of the stones and boulders.
From Bahay na Bato, we proceeded to the town proper where, at the Luna Sports Complex, we sampled the bibingka ti Luna, the traditional locally produced creamy rice cake of Orang Nacionales, whose recipe has become the standard taste of bibingka from Luna. After savoring this popular delicacy, we walked over to the nearby Church of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, passing the equestrian statue of the great but tragic general.
Just like other Philippine churches built in earthquake-prone areas, this Baroque church, listed by the National Museum as a National Cultural Treasure, has thick walls and buttresses connected to a brick exterior stairway of different designs and shapes.
The church interior is home to the supposedly miraculous 6-foot-4-inch high (the tallest known image of the Virgin in the country) wooden image of Our Lady of Namacpacan (the original name of the town; it is an Ilocano term meaning “one who feeds”), enshrined in the church in 1871. The patroness of travelers and of the town, it is said by experts to be the image of Our Lady of the Cord. Also called Apo Baket, the image has been credited with many miracles and devotees flock here every year to honor her. In fact, its 3-level façade, built in 1872, is painted in an eye-catching white, light blue and pale gray, the official colors of the image of Our Lady of Namacpacan, the church and the town. Even tricycles here are painted in light blue.
From the church, we again returned to the coast southwest of the town where we visited the town’s century-old Spanish-era watchtower, locally called baluarte. In the past, this defense post was in fair condition, circular in shape and made of brick, but the sea had already undermined its base causing half of it to break off and lean at a dangerous 20-degree angle toward the sea.
The tower was further damaged when Typhoon Lando (international code name Koppu) struck northern Luzon on October 20. The half that was already breaking off toward the sea finally collapsed as the old shoring failed when the entire beach underneath was swept away by big waves and strong winds. Prior to the typhoon, in November 2014, this tower and the other watchtowers of the province were declared as National Cultural Treasures by the National Museum.
Prior to leaving the town, we dropped by the residence-cum-bakery of Orang Nacionales. Nana Orang is considered as the grand master of all bibingka makers, with 30 years of experience baking bibingka ti Luna. Their other products include tupig and cassava cake.