''Perhaps there’s a little madness in us all,” says Dr Joven Cuanang, a distinguished neurosurgeon who left a profitable practice in Manila to become a celebrated son in his native province of Ilocos Norte, at the top end of the main Philippine island of Luzon.
Where most would probably have in mind retirement, the doctor came home to restoration and renovation.
Lamenting the seemingly inevitable loss of heritage that comes with “progress”, he wanted to recast what he could of the “old world” he recalled from his youth. And so, with architect Rex Hofilena, he brought together traditional craftsmen and salvaged materials, and set about building a resort like no other, a mini-village replete with church, square and houses. (In 2007, in Currimao’s Barangay Victoria, facing the South China Sea, the village retreat of Sitio Remedios opened for business.)
The people of Ilocos feel their heritage strongly, for they are residents of Ilocandia, a realm of power since well before the Spanish galleons arrived and Catholicism was introduced to these islands.
In 1571, when Juan de Salcedo, Spanish soldier and conquistador, tasked with investigating the coastal lands north of Manila, came ashore at the provincial capital, Laoag (“the place of light”), on the northern banks of the Pasdan River, he found flourishing communities doing business with visiting Chinese and Japanese traders.
As Christianity spread, Ilocan culture remained resilient and distinct. That is what drew Cuanang back and what set him to gathering – often from scrapheaps – timber, bricks, window frames and statues. The houses of his genteel resort – each named after an Ilocos Norte town – are arranged around the village square, the Plaza de Manzanilla, and furnished with paintings of historical scenes, colonial lounge chairs, screens, large beds and bathtubs, and crocheted bedspreads and tablecloths.
Amid the manicured garden walkways, pools and fountains is a chapel, the Capilla San Miguel, which could lure even the most exuberant into gentle contemplation.
It needs to be said that the infamous Marcos clan, who lay claim to Ilocos Norte as their “seat” (not unlike the Kennedys’ compound at Hyannis Port in Massachusetts, in the United States) do keep the place spruce.
The late former president Ferdinand Marcos and his kin are a fact of life here. (Most locals, no doubt, would acknowledge “The Great Ilocano” was a tyrant but, hey, at least he was their tyrant.) His widow, Imelda, now in her 80s, is still congresswoman for the province and other family members have their names appended to schools and colleges.
In the town of Batac, preservation has an altogether different meaning. The museumcum- mausoleum houses the embalmed president, who is on display in a dim room replete with floral arrangements and the Filipino version of Gregorian chants.
The 10-hour drive from Manila to Ilocos Norte affords a glimpse into Luzon’s illustrious past and prosperous present (as evidenced by the excellent state of its roads), and one that should include a visit to the town of Vigan, the capital of Ilocos Sur province.
When Unesco added the settlement to the World Heritage List in 1999, it was described as “the best-preserved Spanish colonial town in Asia”.
Founded by Salcedo in 1572, Vigan is a gracious assembly of cathedrals, palaces, plazas, charming balconies, cobbled streets (over which horse-drawn calesas rattle evocatively), capiz shell windows and other examples of fine craftsmanship that has survived not just the ages but batterings from earthquakes and typhoons. Ilocano rebels captured the town from the Spanish in the siege of Vigan, American troops later occupied the cathedral, and Japanese forces bombed and occupied the town during the second world war. Amazingly, Vigan emerged from all three episodes largely unscathed.
The town had been a settlement of traders from Fujian province, who called the area Bee Gan, meaning “beautiful shore”. The Basque and Castillian conquistadors, through a linguistic quirk of the Spanish language, swapped the B for a V.
Not everything of note around here is 450 years old, though. The famed (and decidedly inexpensive) Grandpa’s Inn, a three-minute walk from the “heritage strip” of Calle Crisologo and five minutes from the Plaza Burgos and the Vigan Cathedral, is more recent but still enchanting. The inn is the former residence of the eminent Donato family. It is now a 22-room hotel – with beds made out of old carts – that is as much an antique shop, souvenir emporium, museum, gallery and restaurant as it is a hotel. And if you’re anything like me, the historical paraphernalia on the walls will detain you for as long as it takes to have your driver honking for you out in the street.