Much of all that was built in the Philippines
was wiped out during the Second World War. You don't see the centuries of Spanish Colonialism that ended at the turn of the 20th Century on the street, except for the names of streets and places and some monuments. You hear it in the language and the music and taste it in the food. Today, Manila has become the most densely packed city in the world. When TLTB
touches down in the capital, it is clearly a city that is lunging towards modern capitalism with the now rapid development of old American and Philippine military, bought in the 1980s, finally past its political hurdles and under construction.
It seems everywhere a crane can be put a crane has been put. What heritage buildings have survived mostly hulk in the Metro Manila district of San Nicolas, quietly rotting and covered in ads. Others are scattered throughout the country. The only official nod from the Government towards conservation can be found in Manila's old city Intramuros, a small but beautiful area inhabited by university students.
A big player in Manila's construction scene has been self-made magnate Jerry Acuzar, so it strikes TLTB as somewhat intriguing that he should now have turned his attention to restoring the past. A longterm collector of art, sometime in the last few years Jerry began collecting old buildings, reinstalling them brick by brick and plank by plank, on a nearly 1000 acres (400 hectares) seaside property in Bagat, Bataan, around two and a half hours drive from Manila.
There are quite a few stories that are offered as the reason why Acuzar returned to the poor country town of his birth, heritage buildings in tow. TLTB is told that when Jerry was in Europe, he was impressed by the way heritage buildings were conserved and revered and couldn't understand why the relics of Spanish rule in his own country had been left to waste.
Initially, it began as a private affair, the buildings coming to Jerry often word of mouth. Then Jerry realised that it was such an important part of his country's history it had to be opened up to the people as Las Casas Filippinas de Acuzar, hovering somewhere between heritage hotel resort and living museum.
TLTB admits it was a tad nervous when it first heard about this millionaire's folly. It could turn so horribly Disney...
TLTB admits it was a tad nervous when it first heard about this millionaire's folly. It could turn so horribly Disney. Arriving at dark, it was hard to get a first impression. Only a few of the Casas were lit up, and while the ornate woodwork of their verandas made them appear like frilly lanterns, TLTB has a fine appreciation of the wonders of good lighting covering a multitude of sins.
We are ushered to dinner by a lagoon that opens out to the sea. A recreation of an old stone bridge with a series of arches crosses over nearby. Italian is on the menu as a concession to foreign guests at this outdoor grill area, Rain shifts us inside. TLTB's tensions aren't eased with the display of dancing by the young local staff dressed in their colourful traditional uniforms. Yes, they are sweet and cute, but we could skip the Irish-like jiggy jiggy and go straight to bed.
Breakfast. Do you like it savoury? The Philippines is a meat-lovers paradise and Las Casas Filippinas is no exception. It is meat, meat and more meat. Can you tell TLTB is lining up the negatives? Well, that's because TLTB
is about to do a first. We are about to urge you to overlook the food at Las Casas Filippinas (and you know by now how much our we love our food) and go for the experience.
Las Casas Filippinas has been beautifully laid out with casas, complete with exquisite carved wood facades and capiz shell cross-paned windows, occupying broad cobbled avenues. Each represents a variation on Spanish colonial architecture and an individual footnote to popular history. Their stories range from the grand to the florid. The oldest - Casa Candaba - built in 1780, was the occasional residence of the Spanish General Governor when in Pampagna. It features a rare internal stone carriageway that pulls up at a staircase and will have 10 hotel rooms when restoration is completed. Another, Casa Qulapo, was a gambling house with live sex shows but has been given a respectable new life housing reception and functions.
Casa Bizantina (also known as Casa Vyzantina), began its life as a three storeys commercial building in Manila's Chinatown in the late 1800s but has now been reinstated as high-end accommodation with seven suites, including a Presidential Suite (love the twin bath tubs) and 24 hour butler service. With an honourable mission to create jobs for the people of Bagat, Jerry Acuzar has gathered together local families of artisans with a factory on-site. It is inside Casa Bizantina that their skills shine, in the tiled mural paintings on ceilings and walls and hand-carved furniture. And, yes, the gilt edging the columns is gold leaf.
walks outside past the fountains and lifesize statues of children playing traditional games that maybe we could learn to love and wonders. Jerry Acuzar is not without his detractors. Some believe these buildings should have been restored on their original sites. It's a fair argument. But go on the historic tour around the property that includes a museum (looking out over the pool and beach), watch the local artisans at work, speak with the schoolchildren on excursion and Philippinos who flock here at weekends leaving inspired by a historic architecture they barely knew, then decide for yourself.
Jerry Acuzar is a dreamer who follows his impulses. TLTB stares out into the distance where a famous cathedral is currently being recreated. With so much more land to fill, apparently there is no end to this dream in sight.
Prue Rushton 18/5/12