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Travel and Tourism

Naga: Culture, heritage & island delights

Ivan Man Dy - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines – Naga in the province of Camarines Sur is a small city with big surprises. This we found out in a recent visit hosted by Naga Excursions, the dynamic tourism brand of the Naga City government through the Arts, Culture and Tourism Office. A thriving city in the heart of the Bicol region, today’s Naga is the flagship city in the political conglomeration known as Metro Naga, a group of 16 local government units spread over an area of 1,663 sq. kms. Officially chartered as an independent component city in 1948, Naga’s history goes further back as a colonial settlement established by the conquistador Pedro de Sanchez in 1575 who named it in honor of the town where then governor-general Francisco de Sande hailed from – Caceres, Spain, hence the old title Nueva Caceres (New Caceres). In 1595, a papal bull from the Vatican created the  archdiocese of Caceres under that of the city of Manila.

Today, the monuments of the city’s colonial-era legacy is concentrated in the old downtown core known as Centro, which also encompasses the barangay of Sta. Isabel. In the official tourism jargon, this areas is collectively known as Naga city cultural triangle and hosts majority of the city’s historical points of interest.

At the heart of the city’s historic core is the Naga Metropolitan Cathedral, a massive squat structure first erected in 1575. The current structure dates back to 1843 and features an elegant arcaded interior supported by massive arches and embellished with religious scenes as well as trompe l’oeil style paintings. Adjacent to the cathedral is the Holy Rosary Minor Seminary, formerly known as Casa de Clerigos, whose weathered brick-arcaded facade dates back to 1785. Inside, this working seminary features an ecclesiastical museum with the collection of the local archdiocese and an archeological collection of pre-colonial artifacts, including the largest collection of primary burial jars in the country. Nearby, the Archibishop’s Palace welcomes visitors to its manicured grounds. Not so far away at Plaza Miguel Robles de Covarrubias stands the Peñafrancia Shrine. Built in 1750, this elegant Georgian-style church with painted interiors originally housed the image of Nuestra Señora de Peña de Francia, more popularly known as Ina to her Bikolano devotees. The iconic image was moved to a more modern basilica in 1985 but this shrine remains the starting point of the traditional Traslacion or procession of the image to the cathedral, where it stays for nine days before the grand procession back to the basilica during the annual September fiesta.

Still within the core of old city are two historic squares: Plaza Quince Martires and Plaza Rizal. Fronting the old San Francisco church, Plaza Quince Martires commemorates the martyrdom of 15 men from the Bicol region who were unceremoniously arrested and tortured by colonial authorities in 1896 for their perceived links to the Katipunan at the height of  the Philippine revolution. Eleven of them were eventually executed at Bagumbayan (Rizal Park) in Manila in 1897 just five days after Jose Rizal, and two were exiled to the Spanish penal colony of Fernando Po in what is today’s Equatorial Guinea in Africa. Today, these men are honored in a somewhat wedding-cake, beaux arts style monument erected in 1926, easily one of the most beautiful in the city.

Nearby, on Elias Angeles road is Plaza Rizal, dominated by the small but equally inspiring monument honoring the national patriot Jose Rizal. These two spaces are a hive of activity and are still very much connected to the life as well as urban fabric of the citizens of Naga.

 

 

 

 

Naga Excursions has been actively positioning the city as an eco-cultural destination hub for the Bicol region. In between promoting Metro Naga’s destinations, it has also ferreted out the city’s artisanal craftsmen, such as designer Roxannie Joy Simo who fashions unique pili nut accessories, and the women of Barangay Tinago who create water hyacinth handicrafts and give its home-grown cultural entrepreneurs a much needed promotional shout out.

Metro Naga is also a hub for exploring the region’s wealth of natural attractions. Coming from the urban jungle that is Metro Manila, it was a surprise treat that in Metro Naga, a mere 30-minute drive from the downtown area can lead one to the refreshing 40-foot Malabsay falls at the base of the Mount Isarog National Park. Close by, the Panicuason Hot Spring resort offers outdoor activities – try their zip-line biking – and a variety of natural-fed swimming pools straight from the springs of Mount Isarog.

But the jewel in the crown among Naga Excursion’s experiences is the sparkling islands of Caramoan Peninsula. A four-hour scenic drive from the city, with the occasional view of iconic Mount Mayon peeking over the horizon, took us to the sleepy town of Caramoan whose only notable structure is the red-bricked 17th-century former Franciscan St. Michael Archangel church. From this base, we were hooked up with specialist tour outfit Kaddlagan Outdoors, who hopped us through the islands of Matukad, Pitogo, Lahus, Nalingawan, Cotivas, Manlawe, each with its own distinct personality, from white sand to pebble beach to rolling hills, one more stunning than the other. The dreamy Tugawe Cove Resort in Colongcolong island, with its plush amenities and breath-taking infinity pool overlooking the island Catanduanes, makes for a good base to explore the tropical delights of this peninsular paradise. 

Naga was truly a delightful revelation, it fits the old adage that big things come in little packages. The city has just the right mix of old small town charm infused with a proud Bicolano heritage and blessed with a lush tropical abundance right at her doorstep.

For more information, visit Naga Excursions at  www.nagax.com.

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