Taal: Vigan of the South

PEOPLE - Joanne Rae M. Ramirez (The Philippine Star) - February 26, 2015 - 12:00am

It’s amazing how the view of an active volcano and the lake surrounding it can be so tranquil, so soothing, so lyrical. It inspires poetry, not fear. And how the town that shares the name of a volatile volcano can be anything but restive and unsettling.

Taal town, dubbed the “Vigan of the South” because of its historic centuries-old churches and ancestral homes, several of which have been preserved and restored, is storybook pretty. Philippine storybook-pretty, conjuring days of women in fine kimonas with panuelos, and men in resplendent Barong Tagalogs, falling in love by the river, offering their love for each other — and their lives for their country. Those were the days…

About an hour’s drive from Tagaytay,  Taal is also best known for the Basilica of San Martin de Tours, the largest Catholic church in Asia at 95 meters long and 45 meters wide. The basilica, rebuilt in the 18th century, sits on a hill like a king on a throne. Now, if only the view would be unobstructed from below the hill, it would be more magnificent.

The Baroque-style basilica, built by Luciano Oliver (also the architect of the Manila Cathedral) is one of at least seven structures that have been designated as National Historical Landmarks. Its ceiling is of lead and the frescoes on the dome above the silver-gilded altar is as authentic as the Juan Lunas in the National Museum.

Our able guide Art Mojica told us that the basilica’s other claim to fame is that it was where Ogie Alcasid got married, and where Ser Chief (Richard Yap) and his Maya (Jodi Sta. Maria) were wed in the hit teleserye Be Careful With My Heart.

The long aisle is said to be a favorite of real-life brides, too. The tiled floors in the sprawling basilica are also original, so one can say one is walking back through time.

Martin de Tours was a fourth-century former pagan soldier who cut his cape in half to clothe a shivering beggar, and thereafter had a life-altering dream. In his dream, Jesus Christ told him He was the beggar, and that when He was naked and cold, Martin saved him from certain death.

Art took us to the rectory, where we were warmly received by parish priest Monsignor Alfredo Madlangbayan.


After praying at the basilica, we visited the Villavicencio house, home of two heroes of the revolution, Gliceria Marella Villavicencio and her husband Eulalio.

They both loved the country so much they used their house as the local quarters of the revolutionaries, and even when her husband was jailed, Gliceria refused to reveal their identities, saying she would not be worthy of her husband’s love if she were a traitor to her motherland. A few months later, her husband was set free. And Gliceria remained unbroken.

We had lunch at the 19th-century Bahay na Bato dubbed “Villa Tortuga” by its present occupant, artist and costume designer Lito Perez.

Lito has always had a fascination for antiques, and his search for precious antique finds would take him from Vigan to Bulacan.

Kahit sa bukid, I would search for antiques. You will never know what you will find,” Lito shares.

One day, seven years ago, his search led him to Taal, and there he found not just antiques but the realization of a childhood dream — an old house he could restore to its former glory.

“It has always been my fantasy to have an antique house!” smiles Lito, the brains behind Camp Suki in Quezon City, a trove of costumes for all reasons and seasons. “I just love antiques and history.”

He found both in this old house by the river in Taal, which was slowly deteriorating. Lito was able to secure a long-term lease for the house and armed with vision, a sense of history, and his own creativity, he turned his fantasy into reality. Then he saw turtles playing by the riverbed near the antique house and decided to name the house, “Villa Tortuga.”

The second floor of Villa Tortuga has been transformed into two elegant dining areas. Our late lunch at the house’s bigger dining hall consisted of old Batangas specialties like slow-cooked sinaing na tulingan, adobo, pininyahan na manok and misua soup washed down by freshly-squeezed dalandan juice. For dessert, we had melt-in-your-mouth suman, which we dipped in thick hot tsokolate. Villa Tortuga’s bedrooms were kept as rooms for bed-and-breakfast guests (for a reasonable P850 per person per night as of our visit).

After lunch, our group fulfilled our fantasy. We were brought into the study of Villa Tortuga, part of which has been transformed into a photo studio. Like actors in a period movie, we were given full run of the costumes displayed in one end of the studio. And then we travelled through time, imagining we were the lead characters of Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, with no one daring to be Sisa.

Aside from Villa Tortuga, Lito has leased two other antique houses in Taal, which he admires for its good town planning and friendly people. His other house, a 20th century colonial mansion, he christened “Casa Victrola.” He runs Casa Victrola with his friend, Prof. Rogie Reyes.

I asked him if he has any ghost stories to share as the custodian of several antique houses.

“When Rogie was hosting some visitors at Villa Tortuga, one of them claimed she had a third eye and was psychic. She said she could see the spirit of a ‘White Lady’ in the house, guarding it in a benevolent way. Upon seeing some of the old family portraits in the house, she exclaimed, ‘Ito yung mga nagpapakita sa akin dito!’ Rogie quickly agreed and answered, ‘Talagang magpapakita ang mga ‘yan dito. Mga tita sila ni Lito at buhay na buhay pa ‘yan!’ So much for her being psychic!” laughs Lito.

(To be concluded)

(For inquiries about Villa Tortuga and the Taal heritage tour, please text 0927-9751683)

(You may e-mail me at joanneraeramirez@yahoo.com.)



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