What does Manila mean to you? It’s a national capital that few Britons know much about. Mention the name and most people would think of those brown, official-looking envelopes. It’s only really famous for the excessive shoe shopping of the very-well heeled former first lady, Imelda Marcos. I’ve always felt that you should visit the capital city of a country when travelling, although some have been a let down for me. Brasilia wasn’t the 1960s planned architectural masterpiece I had hoped to find. On the other hand Canberra is well worth visiting, despite most Aussies deriding it as dull.
Manila though only has one saving grace. Generally it is a densely populated, polluted and sprawling conurbation where you’ll see over-the-top opulence and blatant ‘bling’ in all its ostentatiousness, just meters away from scenes of despair, desolation and extreme poverty. Shiny high-rise casino hotels cast shadows down on families living below in squalid, corrugated iron-topped slum shacks. This city is crazy, chaotic and congested. Crime and con artist warnings feature heavily in discussions in the travel forums.
But you can leave all of that behind and see the best of the city in a two night stay. Just head straight to the area known as Intramuros. It means ‘within the walls’ – think of Intramuros as a city within a city, like the Vatican is to Rome. I met with Sandra Martinez who heads up the promotion of this special area. She told me, “There’s nowhere in Manila like it because you can experience history, art and culture in one place.” You won’t have to go far. Intramuros is packed into just 64 hectares. It seems that most of the ‘must-see’ places cited in the guidebooks are in this compact area, clearly marked by the formidable, ancient military fortifications.
The thick stone walls rise to over 10m in places and provide a 4.5km rock ribbon around this historic settlement. The defences were erected in the 16th century during the days of Spanish colonisation and were designed to keep Fort Santiago and the capital city’s homes and churches safe from attack by pirates and other unwelcome groups. The British later managed to break in and the walls didn’t stop America colonizing the country at the end of the 19th century, either.
Sadly, much of the original wall has gone. When the Americans came they demolished the seaward side to provide better port access. Almost half a century later, their tanks ploughed through some of the historic structure as they tried to liberate the city from occupying Japanese forces during World War 2. Much of what you see today has been reconstructed but some of the original gates remain. There were a handful of entry points including one for the exclusive use of the governor, which seemed daft to me, because if you wanted to bump off the boss, you’d know exactly where to point your musket. The defences were once bolstered by a moat but those meddling Americans drained that too, to create a golf course. I was bemused to see some signs warning of low flying golf balls when I visited the fortifications.
In the late 1970s, Manila realised that this city asset needed protection from developers rather than stray balls coming off the fairway. So Intramuros now has a special governmental status and is administered by its own authority. They’ve been successful in stopping the bland, boxy, high-rise developments that you’ll see elsewhere in Manila from spreading to the walled area. The authority is now also using old pictures and photos to encourage people to restore dilapidated buildings to their former appearance. I was looking forward to my look around.
Now there are a few ways to see the old city. You can hire a tricycle – a motorbike with a sidecar. You agree the rate by the hour and its not expensive. Alternatively, there are horse-drawn carriage tours called calesa. The carriages congregate near Fort Santiago. If in doubt just follow the trail of horse poo. I toured on foot and half an hour later I was regretting that choice when I caught my reflection in a window and realised that I looked like an entry from a holiday camp wet t-shirt contest. I was dripping with perspiration. Sandra had advised me that January was the coolest time to visit. If you’re ok with 38°C heat though, anytime will suit you!
You can tour alone. There are plenty of self-guided tour leaflets or, alternatively, the Intramuros tourist office can suggest accredited guides, including their own. Orianne, who has led visitors around the site for four years, kindly took me on the tour.
Within minutes, it became clear that this area has seen many troubled times. I was shown the bullet marks on the wall of the former American barracks and the pile of empty mortar shells left after the war. Then we entered a garden area filled with statues representing clergymen. I went to read the names on a metal plaque – the ‘Wall of Martyrs’ memorial to the men and women who died or were imprisoned during the Japanese occupation. Then we travelled to Fort Santiago, walking across a short reinstated moat and under the reconstructed archway of an entry gate. It was here that a mass grave was uncovered after the war. Sandra had told that “500 unnamed souls” had been buried here. Tourism isn’t always the happy-smiley, ‘let’s get the Hard Rock Café t-shirt’ experience is it?
I think it is important to mark and remember such significant discoveries. The main driver of the fort’s 500,000 annual visitors is a patriotic pilgrimage. Every Filipino school pupil learns about the country’s national hero, José Rizal. Tour guide Orianne was clearly a fan. She told me that his nationalistic writings, “opened the eyes of the Filipinos to the freedom we can have.” That didn’t impress the Spaniards much. In 1896, during the final months of their rule, they executed Dr Rizal after staging a rigged trial. He was only 35 but he proved a threat after his two books advocating Filipino home-rule had started to encourage thoughts about shirking the shackles of colonialism.
I was taken into a museum within the fort, which is effectively a shrine to Rizal, with his letters, clothing and personal effects on display. His effigy sits illuminated in the cell in which he was once interred. According to legend, his pulse rate was found to be normal on the day of his execution, suggesting that he was fearless about his fate. You could argue his death would have been avoided if he’d spent a little longer abroad. Two years after he died the Americans seized power after purchasing the Philippines from the Spanish. They allowed a statue in his honour, as Uncle Sam was not threatened by someone who had advocated change through words instead of weapons.
I couldn’t help thinking that their promotion of this martyr was ironic since Rizal had opposed any form of colonialism and the Americans were an occupying force, albeit a bit nicer than the Spaniards. As you walk around the former barracks at the fort you’ll see golden footprints embedded into the path. They mark the route of Dr Rizal’s last walk from the fort to the firing squad. Sadly the trail of brass feet stops short- as someone stole some of them and they’ve not been replaced yet.
It was good to understand why the name Rizal is so frequently used in the Philippines. There’s a Rizal Park nearby and later on my tour of the country I found a Rizal Boulevard in Dumaguete.
There are seven other museums in the Intramuros. If you’re visiting you should avoid Mondays as some of them close for cleaning on that day. Museums in the area include ones devoted to bonsai trees, the Sound and Light museum and a collection of artefacts relating to the Chinese community. Sandra told me that Intramuros was the original Manila and the settlement was founded primarily for maritime trade with Chinese merchants.
I had time to visit one more museum and Orianne had made the best choice on my behalf. We went to look around the Casa Manila. It’s a 1980’s built reconstruction of a rich merchant’s house and you can tour room by room. All of the interior furniture in the museum’s rooms is original and authentic. The floors, walls and furnishings are all dark wood. It struck me that the recreation of a 1600s Manila home didn’t look dissimilar to a modern home, especially with the current trend for wooden floors and accessories. Of course the modern devices and gadgets weren’t there but the home did have a rudimentary refrigerator system. Orianne explained that this cooling box would have been filled with ice imported all of the way from Boston, USA. I suspect that the cubes would cost more than the drink itself.
The original owners would have liked hot chocolate and there was a social statement connected to that, too. What you were served was an indication of how the family valued your presence. If it was so thick that you could almost stand your spoon up in your mug, you had a high social standing in the eyes of the householder. But if the chocolate was diluted, you were much further down in the pecking order. 17th century people were clearly more sociable than we are now.
Of course they didn’t have Game of Thrones box sets and had to talk to each other rather than sit staring at their phones, but I was surprised to learn that their love of a good chat extended to their toilet arrangements. I bet you’ve seen twin sinks in posh hotel bathrooms but these residents had twin loos. You could actually sit and chat with your friend, side-by-side, whilst you both did your business! Number twos for two. I’m glad we’ve moved on from that. Just don’t step off the carpet onto the wooden flooring. If you do one of the many security guards will shout at you. There’s an officer with a walkie-talkie blaring away in every room, which seemed excessive. The home is on three floors and is built around a courtyard and stable for the horses. Having more than one animal was, apparently, a sign of wealth.
Here are some more of the facts that I have retained from my Casa Manila tour. Men had bigger wardrobes than women in those days because blokes needed a variety of outfits for activities they undertook, ranging from business meetings to hunting. Each evening the family would be expected to pray at their own mini-chapel at 6pm and after that the young men would practice public speaking and poetry. Girls would have to pick musical instruments to perfect. Perhaps the lads could write the lyrics for any songs the girls would later perform.
Now, can you imagine going on a date in your own home with mum and dad a few yards away? No? Well things were different then. The Casa Manila display contains a chair with a backrest rising at each end. It looks like a butterfly and that’s why it is called a ‘mariposa’ seat. The lad would sit on one side, the girl would be at the opposite end and there’d be a chaperone from the girl’s family between the pair.
The museum has created a fascinating insight into how moneyed Manilans used to live. It is a shame that few genuinely old buildings remain and Casa Manila’s construction offers further insight into a reason why so many have been lost. The house is adobe stone on the ground floor and wood on the upper levels. Settlers quickly learned that they needed to build up using materials that flexed, because of frequent earthquakes.
Seismic activity and conflict is responsible for the loss of six of the original Spanish-era churches. Although Manila Cathedral was rebuilt after the war, only the San Augustin Church stands in more or less the same form as it did when monks founded it in the 1600s. That’s why it has been recognised by UNESCO.
You can easily spend a day strolling along the lanes, parks and squares of Intramuros. The narrow streets mean fewer cars and traffic congestion and the clip-clip of horses on the cobbles adds to the area’s ambiance as you browse shops, stalls and galleries or stop for food and drink at a pavement cafe. Intramuros is an oasis of history and heritage in an otherwise functional and featureless city. Importantly, Intramuros feels safer with a high police presence.
Where To Stay
There’s one place in which you have to stay if you’re visiting this part of Manila. The Bayleaf Hotel. It is a high quality, stylish hotel actually within the walls. You’ll be able to enjoy a touch of luxury at a price lower than a chain hotel in Britain. You won’t find many UK Travelodges with doormen for around £60 a night! Visit their website at www.thebayleaf.com.ph.
How To Get Here
You can fly to Manila from London non-stop with Philippine Airlines for around £600 return, although it’s cheaper if you take a connecting flight. There are five direct flights from Heathrow each week and you’ll be in the air for around 14 hours. I recommend that you book an airport meet-and-greet and direct transfer to The Bayleaf from Manila’s Ninoy Aquino Airport. Their website uses a service called Alamo – it is not the car hire firm that you might have seen elsewhere. I made the mistake of queuing for an hour in soaring heat whilst being hassled by unlicenced taxi touts – never again!
Then you can arrive ready to unwind in your comfortable room and take in the 360° view from the Bayleaf’s affordable rooftop bar and restaurant with a cool cocktail. You’ll awake refreshed and ready to see the sights on your doopstep in Intramuros.