The simple pleasures of life in Liliw
BETWEEN EAST & WEST - Tonette Martel (The Philippine Star) - November 11, 2012 - 12:00am

It may be known as the “footwear capital of Laguna” yet Liliw is a town of gentler pleasures. Past the towns of Calamba and Los Baños, lush greenery blankets either side of the Calauan-Nagcarlan route. From Nagcarlan to Liliw, the verdant setting gives way to stony brooks and refreshing streams. The interior roads slope up and down as we reach Liliw, which sits at the foot of Mt. Banahaw. During the drive, I thought how much it resembled the vistas from Bali’s upcountry roads. We headed to Arabella in the center of town, a quaint and intimate café offering a good selection of delicious western and Filipino dishes along with tempting home-baked sweets. This being my second visit to the café, I was looking forward to a wholesome lunch of pecan-crusted chicken salad drizzled in sun-dried tomato dressing, spaghetti in an aromatic pesto sauce and a frosty celery shake. For dessert, brownies and sticky bars come in butterscotch, dulce de leche, Oreo or fudgy walnut. If you crave more indulgent treats, then opt for tiramisu, bread pudding or blueberry cheesecake. 

Arabella has a cozy and bohemian ambience — its pale green walls hold various memorabilia and paintings in different mediums. Though the café has a seating capacity of 40, the menu has something for everyone — succulent steaks and baby back ribs, Filipino favorites, hearty pasta fare and healthy salads. For proprietors Bobby and Tonet Camello, it’s about love of good food and sharing family and old-time recipes with the community or visitors from Manila and the nearby towns.

  While chatting over cappuccinos and espressos, Vic Camello stopped in to greet us. Warm, bubbly and engaging, this native of Liliw extols the virtues of country life and the attractions of his town — what it was like back in the 1950s, how it has as changed today and why he wouldn’t think of living anywhere else. His family has been in the footwear business since the 1960s. Operating under the trade name of Socialite, it first supplied shoes to the former Shoemart, then exported to Hawaii and parts of the US mainland. Nowadays, it sells to traders in Binondo, Baclaran, Divisoria and footwear stores in Metro Manila, the Visayas and Mindanao. Vic worked for the Century Park Sheraton Manila in its early days then moved to San Francisco and Los Angeles, working with the local banks for 15 years. As he neared retirement, he chose to move back to Liliw.

Settling back in his hometown has its enticements. Thinking aloud he says, “No pollution, none of the hustle and bustle of city life, cool weather, quiet surroundings, fresh produce from an organic farm near the mountains, and things are inexpensive.” In some ways, it seemed he was describing the elements of an idyllic life.

 

Around town, you’ll find narrow but well-paved roads, and storefronts brimming with footwear in all varieties — the beaded tsinelas and slippers in an array of colors and lively patterns, wedges and platforms in light neutrals, pumps in basic black and deep brown, sandals in hues of blue and violet or in beaded detail, and men’s slippers inspired by Helmut Lang or Prada designs.

At the center of town is the parish church of St. John the Baptist originally built in 1605. The church was partially destroyed by both an earthquake and a fire in the late 1800s but was painstakingly restored in recent years and remains faithful to the original interior design as set forth in an old document. The structure was built from adobe walls and clay bricks. Across the way is a patio where the townspeople congregate under gazebos on weekday afternoons to take a respite from their workday. The church interiors are of brick walls and stained glass windows that allow the faint afternoon light to shine through. At the center stands three retablos of gold leaf with niches housing the statues of various saints.

The adoration chapel to the right of the main church boasts an elaborate wood and gold altar. On the opposite end is the Chapel of San Buenaventura. At the center, the image of the saint is encased in glass and is thought to be about 500 years old. Leaving the church compound, vendors are plying Filipino sweets — espasol, uraro, ube and an assortment of local biscuits. Further down the street, the shops of footwear pioneers, Socialite and Badong are located. I picked up a pair of slippers at Socialite in a delicately beaded floral pattern. The padded insoles make you feel as though you’re walking on air. 

Not far from church, along San Juan Street, ancestral homes built in the 1900s still stand proud. The well–tended exteriors of white or cream walls are enlivened by accents of red, sienna or brown.

 The Camello home along Rizal Street is more than 100 years old. What is now Arabella was once a bodega used for storing harvests, coffee, bananas and palay. It also served as a playroom for the Camello children. It was here that Vic remembers his lolo making liquor de café.

His fondest memories are of the 1950s when Liliw had a population of 4,000, and fruit and flower-bearing trees — lansones, santol and rosal — surrounded every home. “Everyone knew everyone then, there were no strangers. We lived in old homes enjoying old-style food like our native adobo in which meats are stewed in vinegar and then fried golden brown. All our produce was fresh which came down from the mountains to the markets,” says Vic. “In the month of May for 31 days, people would offer flowers to the Blessed Virgin. During Holy Week, on Good Friday, there was a procession of fa    mily heirloom santos held in the early evening and thousands of people would attend the procession. In the summer, students would come home from Manila, and you’d see people having picnics near the batis filled with crystal clears waters from the mountains. People don’t do that these days, but it should be revived.

We have a lot of places to see and explore today but they needs to be promoted. We have the beautiful Kilangin Falls at Mt. Banahaw but that should be developed and we should have heritage tours of our old homes.”

Vic was formerly president of The Liliw Tourism Council from 2001-2004 and was a proponent of the Tsinelas Festival that falls on the last week of April. These days, Vic offers property to those who are looking to build vacation homes along the river or near the mountains. He also rents homes for weekend stays in secluded spots around Liliw — an ideal base from where visitors can explore the sights of the Laguna and Quezon Areas.

 

We stop at Balay Celina, the home of Liliw’s former Mayor Jonathan Polistico. The home, designed by the late Ernest Santiago, may be rented for short stays and includes a full Filipino breakfast. We enter a gated compound leading to a low-slung dwelling of thatched roof huts and pale blue-green walls.

The entry opens to a courtyard with pond at the center and a tree jutting toward a skylight. Around the space are earthen jars, statuary and seats of various styles — a cane-weave back love seat and lounge chair, stools, ottomans and sofas with throw pillows covered in old Asian fabrics. Outside, the terrace is decked with a solid wood dining table, low benches and armchairs. The terrace opens out to a garden of vibrant tropical plantings and bright local flowers. Beyond the garden, the swimming pool is built on a higher elevation surrounded by trees and shrubs. Flanking the interior courtyard are the master bedroom and two guestrooms housed in separate pavilions. Inside the master suite, a four-poster bed fashioned from bamboo trunks and high ceilings of thatch and bamboo lend a distinctive tropical appeal to the room. The master bathroom, designed by the artist Ugo Bigyan, is a light-filled space with treated concrete walls. A variety of plants and miniature trees poised around the open plan layout bring touches of nature indoors. 

Vic told me he loves the peace and quiet of the place. He sometimes plays mahjong here with a group of friends. With its oriental touches and flourishes, you could be anywhere in Asia — in a small boutique hotel or in a vacation rental.

Just before leaving Liliw, we stopped at Vic’s apartment set on two floors above Arabella. Vic’s cozy abode is a blend of heirloom pieces, contemporary paintings and furniture. The living area flows into a dining nook and an open-plan kitchen. Light streams in from the windows all around and a Juliet balcony. When he goes to Manila to visit friends, to take in some shopping or dine in the city’s new restaurants, Vic says he can’t wait to get back home — to the clean air of the country, to the green environment of Laguna, to the simple, satisfying and healthy meals he whips up in his kitchen in this inviting and comfortable space. He’s lived halfway around the world once only to return to his hometown. Some things have changed, though — the town’s population is much larger now, people come from near and far to explore the its sights, but the long-time residents of Liliw still have an easy familiarity with one another, and their town is virtually crime-free.

On a clear and sunny day, the road to Liliw and its environs is still one of the most pleasing sights. Sometimes we think we have to go far to find peace and serenity to find a place close to nature. But as Vic discovered, it may be as easy as making your way back home.

ARABELLA BACK BALAY CELINA HOME LILIW MDASH MT. BANAHAW OLD VIC
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