Pathways to the Past: Taal Town’s Heritage Trail
|Colonial houses lining Agoncillo Street at Taal, Batangas|
Taal is often associated to the popular caldera lake and volcano, admired by most tourists from the city of Tagaytay in Cavite. A lesser known destination is the town of same name in Batangas, home to heritage structures and special handicrafts like handmade embroidery and the balisong (butterfly knife). Established in 1572 in the present-day town of San Nicolas, Taal moved to its present-day location after the 1754 eruption of Taal Volcano. It was the first capital of Batangas province, until it was moved to Batangas City later on.
Unlike other heritage towns like Vigan City in Ilocos Sur, the town of Taal is just a couple of hours south of Manila, and can be visited as a day trip from the metropolis, making it an authentic and very accessible introduction to the Spanish colonial history and heritage of the Philippines. The town’s 440th foundation anniversary, celebrated last week as the Taal El Pasubat Festival, provided the perfect excuse for me to finally visit the town, which friends have been recommending for years. This is the heritage trail I followed:
|Basilica de San Martin de Tours is the largest Catholic church in Asia!|
1. Basilica de San Martin de Tours and the Town Plaza
Start your tour by watching the sunrise over Taal town from the largest Catholic church in Asia, the Basilica de San Martin de Tours (Belfry entrance fee: PHP 50). Constructed from 1856 to 1878, the minor basilica stands 96 metres (315 ft) long and 45 metres (148 ft) wide. The facade is believed to resemble that of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
Around the basilica are other notable historical buildings like the Escuela Pia, a Catholic school converted a cultural center; Taal Municipal Hall (or Casa Real) built in 1845; and Casa Punzalan, a restored colonial home converted to a small hotel.
|Miraculous twin wells of Santa Lucia|
2. Our Lady of Caysasay Shrine
From the town center, take a tricycle to the Our Lady of Caysasay Shrine, a church housing a miraculous 17th century image of the Virgin Mary that was discovered by a fisherman in the nearby Pansipit River. Years later, in 1611, an image of the Virgin appeared as a reflection on spring water to two women gathering firewood near the place the wooden statue was first discovered. They looked up to see an apparition of the Virgin on a tall bush, next to kingfishers locally known as casaycasay. The Spaniards mispronounced the bird’s local name as caysasay at the time, explaining the name of the miraculous image. For the full story of Our Lady of Caysasay, read this page.
4. Miraculous Well of Santa Lucia
A short walk from behind the church through a residential area leads to the apparition site and the 17th century chapel ruins. In 1620, a stone chapel was built next to the spring where the Lady of Caysasay appeared. This was destroyed in 1754 by the eruption of the Taal Volcano, leaving only the facade with the bas-relief of the Virgin Mary, above the twin wells where healing waters are believed to still flow to this day.
3. San Lorenzo Ruiz Steps
The San Lorenzo Ruiz Steps – also known Hagdan-hagdanan or Caysasay Steps – are 125 19th century stone steps leading up from the shrine to the town center. Originally made of adobe, these were furnished with granite in 1850, and eventually dedicated to the first Filipino saint canonized in 1987.
|Sophisticated interiors of the Doña Marcela Agoncillo Museum|
5. Doña Marcela Agoncillo Museum
From Caysasay Shrine, you can ask the tricycle to drop you off at M. Agoncillo St where many of the heritage houses are located. From this point, you can explore the old town of Taal on foot. The Doña Marcela Agoncillo Museum is one of the oldest houses in Taal, where some insist the first flag of the Philippines was hand-sewn by Doña Agoncillo, her eldest daughter and a friend, upon the request of General Emilio Aguinaldo. Doña Marcela Agoncillo was the wife of Felipe Agoncillo, a prominent figure of the Philippine Revolution. The generally accepted story was that the flag was made during the exile of the Agoncillo family in Hong Kong. Entrance fee: donations of any amount accepted.
|Butterfly knife shop at Brgy. Balisong|
6. Villa Tortuga
Villa Tortuga is a restored colonial home, where groups of travelers can arrange colonial dinners garbed in period costume and bring home sepia photos of the event. For bookings and more information, contact Lito Perez at +639178246900 or visit the Camp Suki website. There’s also a souvenir shop at the ground level. For house visits only, entrance fee would be PHP 50.
7. Casa Gahol
Next to Villa Tortuga is Casa Gahol which houses an art gallery and a riverside cafe called Francisco’s which serves local desserts like suman (sticky rice). They also have great iced coffee and frappucinos to cool down after a long walk.
8. Leon Apacible Museum
Don Leon Apacible was Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo’s finance officer and a delegate to the Malolos Congress. His ancestral home was built in the 19th century and renovated in the 1940s to include Art Deco elements. Entrance fee: donations of any amount accepted.
9. Gregorio Agoncillo Mansion
From Agoncillo St, continue walking towards the basilica and town plaza, and turn to Rizal St for a few more heritage houses and handicraft shops. A beautiful white-painted house belonging to the Agoncillo family, with a bronze statue of Felipe Agoncillo, the “first diplomat of the Philippines” and husband of Marcela Agoncillo, on the front lawn.
|The Taal Municipal Building was the Casa Real built in 1845.|
10. Ylagan-De la Rosa House
Located near the Felipe Agoncillo house, this colonial home was of a popular lawyer and educator. The Ylagans were an illustrious family during the 19th century.
11. Chona’s Embroidery
Also known as the “Barong Tagalog Capital”, Taal is home to the longstanding tradition of handmade embroidery. For embroidery products, visit Chona’s Embroidery at 70 Rizal St. Contact numbers: +6343 4080780 or +63 9165778503.
12. Balisong Shops
From Rizal St, hop on a Lipa-bound jeepney (PHP 8) to the barangay of Balisong to check out the roadside shops selling the namesake butterfly knives. Depending on the size and materials used, balisongs can cost from PHP 200 to PHP 10,000!
|Experience colonial life at Casa Punzalan|
HOW TO GET THERE: From Manila, take a JAC or DLTB bus (with “Derecho AC Tex” signboard) at the corner of Gil Puyat and Taft Avenues in Pasay City bound for Lipa City, Batangas. Alight at Tambo Exit (1.5 hours, PHP 124). From here, ride a Lipa-Lemery jeepney to Taal town (1 hour, PHP 44). Going back to Manila, wait for a bus at the entrance to the Star Tollway, 200 meters ahead of the Tambo Exit coming from Taal.
WHERE TO STAY: Casa Punzalan is a restored 19th century colonial home converted into a small five-room hotel by the Taal Heritage Foundation. It is centrally located at the town plaza, with a nice view of the basilica. Accommodation starts at PHP 600 for a twin fan room. A/C rooms also available. For reservations, call +63434080084 or +639217600527. Look for Ms. Lucy De Villa.
WHERE TO EAT: Taal Bistro and Don Juan BBQ are popular restos near the public market. For a homier ambience, check out the newly opened B&B-cum-art space along Rizal St called Casa Conchita. Taal specialties include crispy tawilis (native sardinella), adobong dilaw (chicken stew with turmeric) and tapang Taal (dried pork). For desert, check out Francisco’s, a riverside cafe housed at Casa Gahol along Agoncillo St for desserts, pastries and cold coffee drinks.