By Lester Gopela Hallig


Taal’s restored ancestral houses offer a glimpse into the country’s rich heritage. Photos by Fernan Nebres

MANILA, Philippines – We jumped at the chance to visit Taal, Batangas. It sounded more like an invitation, really, to get to know the town better. Despite our frequent travels, we sheepishly admit that our knowledge of Taal was limited only to the overly popular volcano and the lake, and to the Internet. Of course, we cannot depend on what turns up on the Web. It is always different and more satisfying to experience the town itself, walk through its streets, talk to its people, take in its history, and appreciate its heritage.

So there we were in Taal, with our first stop at the Villavicencio Ancestral House. It was also here where we were welcomed by our host, heritage warrior Ernie Villavicencio. The ancestral house proved to be a perfect introduction to Taal’s rich heritage.

The pre-1850 Eulalio and Gliceria Marella Villavicencio Ancestral House figured famously in the Philippine Revolution, as it was the refuge of Filipino soldiers and the secret meeting place of revolutionary leaders. This was the place where the Katipuneros sought the advice of Gliceria, who earned the title “The Forgotten Heroine of the Philippine Revolution.”

Thanks to the restoration of her house by great-great-grandson Ernie and his wife Ria, Aling Eriang would not be easily forgotten now. The ancestral house offered a sneak peek into the heroine and her family’s life in those days.

‘I restore houses because I want to preserve our heritage. It is part of my commitment to the town. It is my way of giving back to the town that made me. It is also my way of inviting tourists over to experience Taal,” declares Taal’s heritage warrior Ernie Villavicencio.

Noticing our quizzical look at the two living rooms in the house, Ernie explained: “There used to be levels of intimacy among Filipino families back then. If you are not that close to the family, you are relegated to the ante sala, which is smaller. If you are considered family friends or relatives, you get to sit in the main sala.”

The living area has large windows, with chairs purposely placed beside them. We were told the chairs were called silyang pamimintana. Our guide laughed, “Since television was not yet invented, people amused themselves by watching other people pass by.”

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The ancestral house best illustrates the bahay na bato in the southern region. Ernie said, “In this part of the country, the stone part is the lower level. The upper portion is made of wood.” In this case, they used local hardwood such as narra, ipil, and molave. The main living room features portraits of Eulalio and Gliceria Marella by Juan Luna. There are the well-preserved polygonal paneling, the oil-on-canvas murals dating back to the early 1900s, crystal chandeliers of the Victorian age, and the only original tin ceiling in Taal. The Villavicencio house is easy to find along Marella Street: it has a bronze bust of Gliceria Marella.

Adjacent to this house is the Villavicencio Gift House, built by Eulalio as a wedding gift to his wife. It is just as grand as their main abode. Its restored incarnation shows how the house looked in its glory days. We saw this house in the day but what a sight it was in the evening. The lighting made the house truly alive, with the decadent colors and the intricate wall details ready to jump on us. The housekeeper here informed us that the Gift House can be booked for private functions.

“I restore houses because I want to preserve our heritage. It is part of my commitment to the town. It is my way of giving back to the town that made me. It is also my way of inviting tourists over to experience Taal,” Ernie declared. “We welcome tourists here in Taal. We want to make this as tourist-friendly as possible.”

Painted wall panels and intricate details adorn the Gift House, wedding gift of Eulalio Villavicencio to his bride Gliceria Marella.

As we found our way into some notable houses in Taal, such as Philippine flag-maker Marcella Agoncillo’s shrine; the Ilagan-Martinez house which has become Galleria Taal, a camera museum; and Gregorio Agoncillo’s White House, we wondered aloud how much the town reminded us somewhat of Vigan.

“What we really want to emulate is Vigan,” Ernie nodded. “The people of Vigan are our idols. We look up to their vigilance into ensuring that everything is preserved. Vigan used to have the same problem: nobody wanted to restore old houses. But they kept on. That is our plan, too. The entire town of Taal has ancestral homes, not just a portion of it. With that in mind, we have to be patient. It does not happen overnight anyway.”

Meanwhile, they are busy building the necessary infrastructure to make Taal more enticing to tourists. Restaurants, diners, and bed-and-breakfast inns are being put up to make the Taal experience more rewarding to tourists.

We were so busy absorbing the exciting sights and stories that we hardly noticed that lunchtime had arrived. We trooped back to the Villavicencio House and feasted on Batangas favorites such as chicken adobong dilaw, which does not use soy sauce, just vinegar and yellow ginger; and sinigang na maliputo. The latter was a real treat as maliputo is a fresh water fish found only in Taal Lake. We must say that the dish got more delicious when the soup began to thicken. Fish oil surely did wonders.

The afternoon proved to be just as interesting as we headed to more Taal attractions. Indeed, how could we have lived our entire life without knowing this place? As they say, it is never too late for discovery. And discovery was what we truly got when we visited the centuries-old Our Lady of Caysasay Church. We were able to access the church via the San Ruiz Steps — that’s 125 granite steps.

Next on our itinerary was the Sacred Well of Santa Lucia. This used to be a brook where the Lady of Caysasay granted miracles and where a church was previously built. We could see the half-submerged church facade peering out of the earth. It is several steps away from the Caysasay Church.

A visit to Taal would not be complete without going to the Saint Martin of Tours Basilica. This church has the distinction of being the largest Catholic church in Asia. It stands 96 meters tall and 45 meters wide, and just about looms above Taal. The facade bears more than a passing resemblance to Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, but its tabernacle is most unique — it is made of silver.

Saint Martin of Tours Basilica is the largest Catholic church in Asia.

The day we arrived, there was construction happening in the basilica. That, however, did not prevent us from climbing up the bell tower where a magnificent view of the whole town greeted us. From above, the rows upon rows of ancestral houses were in plain sight. Further on, we could see Taal’s beach and the setting sun.

It was truly a sight to behold, something we could honestly say about Taal, too. The town may look spectacular in the photos found in the media, but trust us on this one: it is even more extraordinary when experienced first-hand. We always push family and friends (and even total strangers) into exploring their own country more. It is, after all, not just another reason for a road trip. Consider it as a way to go beyond mere acquaintance with the country’s towns and cities, a means to establish a deeper connection with one’s heritage.

Taal truly provides that opportunity. It is more than just ancestral houses. Now we realized that Taal is a history book in itself, with each turn a story that left us enthralled and wanting for more.

Gregorio Agoncillo’s White House