By Tomasito G. Umali  | Updated July 31, 2011 – 12:00am


MANILA, Philippines – The Heritage Villages Pilipinas project of the Department of Tourism commenced in Taal, Batangas with the promotion of the Villa Tortuga Colonial Package and the participation of more than a dozen travel companies from Metro Manila in a whole-day tour.

Taal, which means “indigenous” in the vernacular, is known as a capital for many reasons. The quiet and quaint town – near the famous lake and the world’s smallest volcano of its namesake – is the Tagalog capital of the Philippines because it is considered the origin and center of the Tagalog language. The former capital of Batangas province, it is also known as the country’s capital for the traditional makers of the barong Tagalog, and the balisong or butterfly fan knife.

Taal is also known for its native cuisine – panutsa, suman sa lehiya, longganiza, tapa, empanada, tamales, kapeng barako, tsokolate, bulalo, sinaing na tulingan, adobo sa dilaw – as well as its intricate embroidery on pineapple and banana fibers called Burda de Taal, and its historic churches and ancestral houses.

It reigns as one of the most culturally preserved sites of the country’s four-century Spanish and 40-year American colonial eras. It conforms to the old town layout combining municipal hall, school, church and market.

“Taal Heritage Town is a fine example of the sustainable development as well as responsible and ethical promotion of cultural tourism in the Philippines. Inspite of the urbanization and modernization of its neighboring towns and cities, the local people have preserved their indigenous culture and traditions in their beloved town,” Tourism Secretary Alberto Lim enthuses.

Among Taal’s sites are the Taal municipal hall.

“It is of utmost importance that every Taaleño participate in the formulation of their cultural tourism policy and implementation of projects with stakeholders in the local, national and global levels. Such empowerment will ensure the increase of benefits and welfare opportunities for themselves as the host communities. By being truly empowered, tourism will strengthen Taal’s financial means for the effective management of heritage preservation and enhancement with long-term sustainable tourism development in Taal for many future generations,” he adds.

According to Director Elizabeth Nelle of the DOT’s Office of Product Research and Development, the Heritage Villlages Project promotes selected towns and cities in the country as showcases of distinct Philippine lifestyle, culture, arts and cuisine. As a one-stop destination, each project site likewise contributes to the preservation of some of the Philippines’ tangible and intangible cultural assets. Even traditional performances like songs, dances, poetry and drama of the locality can be a source of pride and livelihood for the host community.

Lito Perez, an interior design graduate of the University of the Philippines and former president of the Fashion Designers Association of the Philippines, conceptualized and executed the Villa Tortuga Colonial Tour Package for Taal, consisting of a whole-day experience that brings one back to the 1800s through to the 1950s. It includes a tour of ancestral houses-turned-museums-cum-art-galleries-and-coffee-shops. Some of these were homes of historical figures like Felipe Agoncillo, first Filipino diplomat; Marcela Mariño-Agoncillo, maker of the Philippine flag; Galicano Apacible, patriot and propagandist; Gliceria Marella de Villavicencio, godmother of the Philippine Revolution, among others. Each of these ancestral homes evokes its own sense of history as well as culture, tradition and the arts.

Perez has preserved Villa Tortuga, a traditional 19th century bahay na bato, for adaptive reuse as a heritage restaurant with board and lodging amenities on the second floor and an antique curio and traditional costume rental shop with photo studio on the ground floor.

The house of Felipe and Marcela Agoncillo.

Guests at Villa Tortuga were greeted with native refreshments upon arrival. They donned turn-of-the-century outfits for a pictorial, courtesy of Perez’s Camp Suki shop in Quezon City, and were each provided with their own sepia photo as keepsake.

Taal native and volunteer tour guide Manny Landicho delighted visitors with his moving Tagalog narrations, including the impromptu recitation of a traditional luwa, a declamation in the vernacular as a tribute to St. Martin de Tours as he took visitors inside Asia’s largest Catholic church, the Basilica de San Martin de Tours. The present structure was originally built in 1575, destroyed by volcanic eruption and earthquake, then rebuilt in 1856. At its bell tower, one can have a good view of Taal Lake and volcano. He later guided visitors to the Church of Our Lady of Caysasay and the centuries-old Arch of Sta. Lucia and spring with its miraculous healing water.

Under the supervision of Rogie Reyes, a seven-course lunch of Taal ilustrados was served amid kundiman music. A balikbayan from the US where he was a music professor, Reyes is an active member of the Taal Active Alliance Legion and personally assists with the operations of Villa Tortuga. His sample menu includs ensalada grilled eggplant with diced green and ripe mangoes, shredded tulingan (mackerel) inside sliced tomatoes, malunggay soup in beef bone broth, chicken adobo sa dilaw, tapang baboy (marinated pork), whole tulingan na sinaing steamed in clay pot with kamias and banana leaves, suman sa lehiya with tsokolateng binatirol.

Barong-clad Elvis Atienza Mendoza, a bemedaled scholar of the Taal National High School, surprised the guests with a wonderful rendition of “Batangueño,” an original poem written by Domingo Landicho, a local literary figure.

Guests, led by Warner Andrada, Ryan Sebastian, Andrew Bautista and PHILTOA’s Cesar Cruz, don turn-of-the-century costumes at Villa Tortuga in.

The tour was capped with shopping at the Taal Public Market. An optional tour of native embroidery and balisong-making can be arranged.

Cesar Cruz, president of the Philippine Tour Operators Association (PHILTOA), says that tour activities can be mixed and matched to come up with a half-day, whole-day or an overnight tour.

“Visitors may bring their own transportation or take public buses from Manila which is two and a half hours away or a ten-minute ride from Tagaytay… There are enough rooms in Taal to accommodate about 200 visitors in different places. Meals can be hosted for the same number at any one time at the imposing centuries-old edifice of the Escuela Pia,” architect Robert Arambulo, Taal’s tourism director, adds.

Other sites being considered for Heritage Villages Pilipinas are Sabtang, Batanes; Vigan, Ilocos Sur; Bangaan, Banaue in Ifugao; Escolta, Manila; Pila, Laguna; Angono, Rizal; San Miguel, Bulacan; Maragondon, Cavite; Boac, Marinduque; Sariaya, Quezon; Romblon, Romblon; Silay City, Negros Occidental; Carcar, Cebu; Tugaya, Lanao del Sur; and Lake Sebu, South Cotabato.

The project is coordinated with the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, National Museum, National Historical Commission, Philippine Tourism Promotions Board, Department of the Interior and Local Government.