Ilocos Treasures... And Empanadas!
- Catherine Jones () - June 29, 2008 - 12:00am

A recent trip to Ilocos confirmed rumors I had heard of delicious food, warm-hearted, hospitable people, and majestic tourist attractions. I usually don’t travel on my husband’s official trips (he’s the Deputy Chief of Mission of the U.S. Embassy), but I could not pass on this one – even if it meant holding fast to his whirlwind itinerary. I wanted to see the ancient sights of the Ilocos region and to experience the renowned empanadas of Vigan.

After landing in Laoag, Paul and I had a brief comfort stop at our hotel, Fort Ilocandia Resort. Within minutes of walking through the lobby, I knew I was in Marcos country. The Versailles-esque fountains and patina lawn statues coupled with a paparazzi-photo gallery – including images of the Marcoses saddled beside Fidel Castro, Moamar Kadhafi, Ronald Reagan, Margot Fontaine, and assorted royalty – screamed Imelda. In fact, the red brick majestic villa was built to house guests at Irene Marcos’s wedding in 1983. The hotel was later converted into a highly profitable gambling mecca, catering to Korean and Taiwanese tourists. For the moment, the gambling has dissipated, but lucky for us, the luxurious suites remain.

Lunch was hosted by Laoag City Mayor Michael Fariñas and his charming wife Chevylle, along with other politicos from the Fariñas clan. A quick glance at the buffet hinted good things in store from the fabulous Ilocos food repertoire. The stewed mild green peppers stole the show, though the grilled longganisa made from “good pork from local pigs” infused with garlic, Ilocano vinegar, and secret spices were a close second. I must admit too, that I took seconds of the bagnet, a yin-yang delicacy of crisp yet succulent pork.

From the mayor’s office, my husband and I parted ways. He met with Ferdinand Marcos’s nephew, Governor Michael Marcos Keon, and presented a Crime Scene Investigation Kit to the Laoag police force.

I took a cultural tour that included two diametrically opposed attractions. First, the Museo Gameng Ilocos Norte, a newly-build cultural museum converted from an old tabacalera warehouse of the Spanish era. It contains a varied collection of archeological relics and artifacts from around the region and offers a glimpse of simple provincial Ilocano life. Second, Malacañang of the North, showcasing the spoils of the rich. Built in 1976, this once-glamorous dwelling is where former President Marcos sailed and water-skied on Lake Paoay, and played golf on a private 18-hole golf course. The home (a 60th birthday present to the president from his wife) was intended as a retirement residence; however, history took its course, and the museum opened to the public in 1986. Apparently, the tattered furnishings are original, as are the tarnished golf trophies from John Hay Recreation Center (1978), which sit behind the former president’s old desk.

Paul and I reunited at the St. Williams Cathedral, famous for its remarkable Italian Renaissance design and sinking Bell Tower close by. To end the day, we paid our respects to Bishop Sergio Lasam Utleg, who arrived in Laoag from Baguio in 2000, then after a deafening drum roll introduction, Paul addressed listeners on dzVR Bombo Radyo. We dined at Eagle’s Nest Restaurant with four American wardens and their wives, resident ex-pats who act as an extension of the American Citizen Services Office in Manila.

The following morning, Paoay Church (St. Augustine Church) was the first stop on our program. This UNESCO World Heritage Site, built in 17th century Gothic-Baroque-Oriental style, was constructed from coral stones and bricks sealed with hard lime mortar. Its 24 immense buttresses, flanking both sides, render it virtually indestructible. The bell tower, a viewpoint during the Spanish Revolution and the Japanese occupation of WWII, is worth a climb for the panoramic view.

At Batac’s Mariano Marcos Memorial State University and American Studies Resource Center, Dr. Miriam Pascua, the university’s impressive president, led a forum on “RP-US Relations.” In the Q&A session that followed, U.S. visas and nursing boards were – not surprisingly – hot topics of discussion, but the students also showed a refreshing enthusiasm and commitment to their futures.

After driving for an hour along tobacco-and-corn-field-lined roads, we finally reached the architectural legacy of the Spaniards, the town of Vigan. The colonial homes and calesas took me back in time. Vice Mayor Francisco Ranches and Governor Deogracias Savallano greeted us at the Vigan Culture and Trade Center, and honored us with a festive luncheon with city councilors and the provincial board. Remarks at the event focused on Vigan’s future as a tourist destination, with plans underway to preserve history, while simultaneously accommodating the growing number of tourists. 

Vigan Cathedral, first built by Juan de Salcedo in 1574, showcased a magnificent collection of silver panels. The carved Fu dogs atop pilasters are a testament to the city’s strong Chinese influence. And, speaking of Chinese heritage, we proceeded to the famous Pagburnayan factory (Ruby Jar Factory), where master potter Mr. Go was busy at work. As his nimble hands transformed a dense slab of brown clay into a perfect pot, Go explained how he trains teachers in an effort to preserve this ancient craft. He still makes between 120 and 150 pots per day, which are used to store water, vinegar, bagoong, and rice wine.

An excursion to Elpidio Quirino’s Syquia House, with a tour by his charismatic grandson, Eddie Quirino, was most notable. This beautifully-preserved ancestral home of Doña Alicia Syquia-Quirino, wife of the ninth president of the Philippines, is a must-see to understand the essence of Spanish colonial life.

The Camangaan Handloom Weaving Center was my formal introduction to abel, a beautiful hand-woven fabric, that was once an export of the galleon trade. We watched a troupe of bare-footed women toil behind their looms to create yards of cotton fabrics, which are made into artful shawls, placemats, table runners, and other things.

I had no idea what to expect at the Hidden Gardens in Barangay Bulala. The name intrigued me, but the owner’s story fascinated me even more. Francis Flores, a bouncy man in his mid-forties, greeted us at the gate and led us down his enchanted garden path. When we strolled past a hundred-year-old bamboo cluster he said, “Stop...listen to the sound of the bamboo when the wind blows.” The whistle-like, creaking sound was indeed magical.

Flores explained how his garden came to be. “Four years ago, I suffered three heart attacks. Half of my body was paralyzed. I knew I had to change my life, so I started this garden and became a landscape architect. I do believe that my garden has healing powers. I walk around it barefoot for at least 30 minutes a day. I want to add a health spa with a place to meditate. It cured me and I want to help others.”

Trekking along the dirt path admiring the flora, we soon stumbled upon an outdoor empanada kitchen, where a group of women, perched around a low table, were rolling out a p‚te ‡ choux-type dough made from rice flour. They filled circles with shredded green papaya and longganisa meat, topped with a raw egg, folded them into pouches and deep-fried them. The result was an airy, crisp dough that crumbled to reveal the delicate flavor of papaya balanced but not overpowered by the spice of the sausage. A dip in cane vinegar was the perfect foil.

Rafaela, Francis’s wife and a teacher of Braille, explained to me that this style of making empanadas has been passed down for generations, and that the secret lies in her homemade sausage recipe.

High on empanadas, we strolled down Calle Crisologo, the charming, pedestrian-only cobblestone strip lined with ancestral homes, many of which are still habitable. Before departing this picturesque scene, we ducked into CafÈ Leona, home of the famous poet and playwright Leona Florentina, to meet the owner, Germony Goulard, and to grab a delicious bite of her famous longganisa pizza, cooked in an authentic Italian pizza oven. Needless to say, Yum!

As if we weren’t completely satiated already, on the way to the airport, we made one last pit stop at Sitio Remdios, an authentic Ilocano village replica resort by the sea, to watch the sun set while sipping a melon cooler (very refreshing). The quaint stone church on the resort grounds was directly out of a storybook.

I knew it was going to be a furiously fast trip through the region, but I was thrilled to have experienced my first taste of Ilocos. Paul and I will return, with our two children, to show them an original piece of Spanish history, linger in the tranquility of the Hidden Gardens, and, of course, to savor the empanadas!

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