By Alex Vergara
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 00:58:00 03/08/2009


YOU now have the perfect excuse to turn off your mobile, if only for a few hours, and travel back in time dressed in late 19th century Filipino costumes, as fashion and interior designer Lito Perez opens his rented home in Taal, Batangas, to the public.

Dubbed by Perez as Villa Tortuga, the restored turn-of-the-20th century bahay na bato offers groups of 20 or so people the chance to relive a genteel life, as it once was. The experience is complete, from ambiance to food.

Day package (P1,500/person) includes a town tour, five-course lunch or dinner and souvenir photo of guests in period costumes.

The place is open to the public every day, including weekends, but reservations are required (call 7250819). Those who want to stay a day longer can get the overnight package.

?Wearing costumes is optional,? says Perez. ?But to make the experience more authentic, I highly recommend they look the part.?

Guests don?t have to rummage through their lola?s baul (chest) for vintage pieces; Perez has the costumes.

As costume designer and owner of Camp Suki, a costume rental company in Quezon City, Perez knows period attire.

He has been collecting antiques even before he went into fashion design. It was actually his love of vintage furniture and accent pieces that led him to costume design.

Guests don?t have to endure the heat. After the place was restored and furnished with old stuff?down to English china and Italian candelabras?from his personal collection, Perez had the place air-conditioned.

?Air conditioners may not be of the period,? he says, amused, ?but we must ensure the comfort of our guests. Life was simpler and the temperature a lot cooler in the old days. These are things we can never bring back.?

The period-inspired food is also worth looking forward to. Young chef Marvin Daulog whips up a feast inspired by turn-of-the-century dishes.

?There was already electricity in Taal even before the war,? says Perez. ?But not in the 1880s and the 1890s, the time I drew plenty of inspiration from. Back then, even landed families had to rely on candles and oil lamps.?

A typical lunch at Villa Tortuga has rice, Goto de Lipa, Sautéed Squash in Butter, Chicken Relleno and Pinaputuk na Tilapia served family- style.

For almost three years now, Perez and manager Editha Sabas have been operating under the radar, catering to small groups.

?Guests, especially those in their 40s, 50s and 60s, love the idea of being transported back in time,? says Sabas. ?For younger people, the experience provides them a practical lesson in history.?

It?s also an ideal way to sample how the upper class lived then.

Part of the experience is a tour of Taal Church, said to be the biggest Catholic Church in Southeast Asia, and the smaller Caysasay Church, where an image of the Virgin Mary, believed to be miraculous, is enshrined.

Apart from the fully restored Villa Tortuga (turtle in Spanish), guests can also visit the Apacible and Agoncillo houses.

Heirs of the former homes of two of Taal?s most prominent families (Marcela Agoncillo was one of two women who sewed the Philippine flag while in exile with Emilio Aguinaldo and his group in Hong Kong) have donated the houses to the local government, which, in turn, turned them into museums run by the National Historical Institute.

The trip is capped by a visit to the Taal public market where you can buy ready-to-cook beef or pork tapa, sumang malagkit, beef and noodle-stuffed veggie empanada and chocolate (for drinking, not nibbling, take note).

As for Villa Tortuga, the place got its name after Perez saw fresh water turtles from the Pansipit River crawling on the banks and into the compound?s backyard to build their nests.

The Pansipit River, wider and deeper before pollution and Taal Volcano?s more recent eruptions, is a vital tributary between Taal Lake and nearby Balayan Bay.

?Not only did it provide Taal Lake with an outlet, the river was an important means of transportation and commerce before the war,? says Perez.

Like Thailand?s floating market, vendors used to sell their produce and drop off goods along the banks while cruising Pansipit River on small boats. Like most big houses along the vital waterway, Villa Tortuga has a small gate along the riverbank.

A focal point of Villa Tortuga is a living room mural of a river scene inspired by one of Ramon Peralta?s paintings of the Pasig River. Perez commissioned a young painter from Bulacan to do the job.

?Restoring the house was a huge job. It took a year, but it wasn?t as difficult as it seemed,? says Perez.

Heirs of the Garcia and Leonor families, now based in Manila, agreed to rent out the house to Perez.

?They probably know how thorough and meticulous Lito is when it comes to restoring houses,? says Sabas.

Given his fairly huge antique collection, Perez can transform nearly dead houses and make them come alive without looking like museums by sprucing them up with real objects from a bygone era.