I was on a plane bound for Manila, browsing thru the pages of the airline’s magazine and stumbled on an article with the bold title: Resurrecting the Past. A catchy phrase but which part of the past is it? The next few pages had some photos of old Filipino houses and buildings that were probably from the 1800s. And these houses were found in a heritage resort in Bagac, Bataan.
Reading the article got me so excited to visit Las Casas Filipinas. This heritage resort is a first in the country and definitely it is a place like no other. Why is it unique?
Quite a perfect timing. Bataan is poised to be my 61st province to be visited. What better way to visit Bataan than to check its historic past. I’ll be writing a separate entry about Bataan and the must-visit places of this province. But for now, I’d like to tell more of this very interesting place where you can resurrect the past and pretend to be one of the characters of Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo.
Imagine walking into an old colonial district clad in Spanish-mestizo clothes and getting on with the usual grind of everyday life under the Spanish rule. At Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar, such is the feel that it provides.
I have this unexplainable fetish for century-old houses and buildings, of Spanish churches and lighthouses. Streets of cobbled stones and roofs of tisa and large sliding windows made of capiz and wood, are such visual delights. I also love to check out some pueblos with ancestral houses near the plaza and the church because often times, they are at least a hundred years old and are considered town heritage.
According to its website, Las Casas showcases the Filipino history and craftsmanship thru its architectural display of mansions, houses and buildings from a bygone era. These structures were from different parts of the country, reconstructed brick by brick, plank by plank, arranged in a village of cobbled stones upon a backdrop of Mt. Mariveles, rice fields and the majestic mountains of Bataan.
Las Casas is like a theme park set in Spanish times, years prior to the revolution. It is unique because of its historic substance and its visual exemplification of what is feels like during the era prior to the American take-over.
I would like to describe how my first visit to the heritage park was.
We had to go to the town of Bagac in Bataan, which is like 125km from Manila. Fastforward, since we took the NLEX (North Luzon Express Way) then then SCTEX (Subic-Clark-Tarlac Express Way), exiting at Dinalupihan then on to Balanga-Bagac cross-Bataan road, we reached Las Casas a little over 2pm.
Registration area is near the north end of La Puesta del Sol where you can decide to take a Day Tour, Overnight stay or Day Tour with dinner or lunch. The Day Tour already includes the 1-hr tour and the hop-in-hop-out tranvia ride.
We were advised to proceed with the next schedule for the tour. Since there is only one tranvia, and the tour will begin at Plaza Belmonte, we decided to start our own photo ops at La Puesta del Sol at the Estero de Binondo.
Plaza del Sol. Rows of Spanish-era buildings made of bricks, wood and framed glass windows. Each building has rooms which can be rented for overnight stay. The front view is La Playa or the beach, while behind is the estero which separates Plaza Maria and Plaza Marcelino along with several houses. The estero reminded us of a Venezia-like scene where bancas were the mode of transport and trade.
An estero separates the houses
It also reminded me of Cebu, of Estero de Parian, which was used for the transport of goods from ships to the inner portions of the city by the use of cascos or flat-bottomed boats. Through the course of time and the siltation that happened in the rivers of Cebu, the esteros soon became a thing of the past and is now reduced to a mere part in the drainage and sewer system of the city.
We entered one of the buildings along La Puesta del Sol. A huge painting of what seemed like the diwata of the mountain, Mariang Makiling, greeted us at the hallway. A few meters from her is the balcón con la vista del estero. The estero runs through rows of building at both sides before it joins the Umagol River.
I could picture Crisostomo Ibarra, sitting by his balcón with the view of the estero and hearing the faint but festive sounds from the party at the house of Kapitan Tiago at Calle Anloague.
It is said that once the houses at Las Casas are completely built, there will be boat rides a la gondolas de Venezia so guests could have a feel of how it was to go from house to house using the estero instead of the cobbled streets.
Plaza Marcelino and the houses at La Rivera
Several houses are still being built near Plaza Maria. Houses around Plaza Marcelino is already complete. What is fascinating though are the details at the side of the estero and also the arch bridges that connect the plazas to Puesta del Sol.
We head on to Casa Ladrillo which has a great view of the Sanctuario de San Jose.
Casa Lemery and the Sanctuario
Across Casa Hagonoy is the Hotel de Oriente. Hotel de Oriente is one of the main attractions of the heritage resort. The Hotel de Oriente was a first class hotel built in 1889 and is said to be the first of its kind. It was located in Binondo, a few blocks away from the Pasig River and the shopping district which was Escolta. At a cost of $100,000, it was commissioned for a design consisted of Moorish arches, sliding glass windows, ironworks and ventanillas, an elegant building thought to be one of the best places to stay in the late 1890s.
A tranvia approaching the side of Hotel de Oriente
At Las Casas, Hotel de Oriente serves as a convention centre. It is a replica of the hotel which was owned by Don Manuel Perez Marquetti and which after his death, was sold by his widow to a an Australian (Walter Fitton) who had it leased to a Chinese food and wine distributor (Ah Gong). When the Americans took over the Philippines, the hotel was purchased from Ah Gong. It was then the time that Manila Hotel was commissioned and built to dislodge Hotel de Oriente as the best hotel in town. The latter was then converted into offices for the Philippine Constabulary in 1904 then to several other offices before it was partially destroyed in the Second World War. It was then torn down and replaced by a huge building.
Just about the time we decided to cross the Umagol River by foot using Tulay ni Lola Basyang, a tranvia was coming our way. We hopped in and rode up to Casa Candaba, the last stop of the tranvia. This section of Las Casas contains the first collection of restored houses by Jose “Gerry” Acuzar. Most of the houses are transferred from their previous locations by systematic dismantling, transporting and re-constructing.
A view of the sanctuario from the tranvia
Fronting Plaza Belmonte is the commercial building, Paseo de Escolta. This building has an imposing façade, typical of the turn-of the century buildings. At Las Casas, this building offers various room or accommodations such as the executive suites, studio deluxe and studio deluxe with loft. At the ground floor of the building, there are quaint little souvenir shops, photo studios and a panaderia.
Paseo de Escolta
A view of Casa Jaen I from Paseo de Escolta
Escolta is one of the oldest streets in Manila, located in the old district of Binondo, parallel to the Pasig River and is home to several fine examples of early skyscraper design in the Philippines (Wikipedia). There has been some talks to Revive Calle de Escolta but for now, I am just glad to see that in Las Casas, it is being represented by Paseo de Escolta.
I sometimes think of our Colon Street in Cebu and dreamt of seeing some revival of the commercial and economic buzz on its entire length. I imagined several buildings similar to Paseo de Escolta, the sidewalks filled with peddlers and shops varied as well from goods, to food and whatnot. A tranvia passing along the busy street of cobbled stones. Tartanillas moving along and the sound of the horses’ hooves providing the nostalgia of the place that was once under the jurisdiction of Spain.
Back to Las Casas, there are also other houses worth checking out. Casa Bizantina near Plaza Atienza is said to be built in the 1890s. An example of a house leased to several tenants after World War II. It was rented for classes by Instituto de Manila in the early 1900s. The building was also the home of informal settlers before it was demolished in 2009.
At Las Casas, you can rent the entire Casa Bizantina for at least P150K a day good for at most 16 persons. Part of what you pay are for toiletries from the House of Hermes.
Casa Unisan at the opposite end of Plaza Belmonte has quite a dark story to tell. It is the Maxino House in Unisan, Quezon. A beautiful house made of hardwood but it bears a sad tale of a tragedy – a massacre of the family where only a girl survived. The house is complete with trap doors.
Merivent Café is found at the ground floor. It is a restaurant serving Filipino dishes. We decided not to try out the café and settled for the street food of fish balls, tempura and gulaman. We sat across Merivent Café at the Plaza de Centro, moving our eyes from one casa to another as we try to beat the heat of the afternoon.
Oppie with Casa Meycauayan in the background
Surrounding Plaza de Centro is the 1920 Casa Lubao, said to have served as a rice and sugar storage and used as a Japanese garrison during World War II. Casa Jaen is a house from Nueva Ecija. 1900s house which is also called as Don Hilarion Esquivel House.
At Casa Jaen I
Casa Meycauayan is from San Fernando, Pampanga. Built in 1913 by the Escota Family, the house was reconstructed in the 1950s in Meycauayan, Bulacan.
Street of cobbled stones leading to Casa Mexico
Not all of the houses will be mentioned in this post. Las Casas has about 50 houses and buildings already. Construction and re-building of houses are still on-going. You need at least one full day to visit all the houses in Las Casas Filipinas. A fine example of how the past can be resurrected. A trip down history lane through the old houses of not so distant past.
We got into a tranvia ride again, taking us back to La Puesta del Sol. From there, we hurriedly walked down the beach and waited for the sun to set at the West Philippine Sea. But it did not give us the sunset that we wanted.
The mouth of the Umagol River is a stretch of black powdery sand. The bright colored buildings of La Puesta are in great contrast to the dark gray beach of Bagac. We decided to leave Las Casas Filipinas after sunset, hence we didn’t get to see the heritage resort beautifully lit up at night.
Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar. I’ll make sure to visit you again.