A Trip to Albay

Albay is a name of a province in the Bicol region of Luzon, the largest island in the Philippines archipelago. We decided to visit it after our trip to Catanduanes, another island located off the eastern coast of the province of Albay. Our main goal was to see the Mount Mayon, reputed to be the most beautiful island in the Philippines, but we also thought we would stop off in the cities of Tabaco and Legazpi along the way, thinking that these might be a good place to try some of the famously spicy Bicol food. We also presumed that they might have some historical sights to show for their long history of colonization, though we were uncertain about this as the sights mentioned in our guidebook were all situated outside of town.

From the Virac, the largest town on Catanduanes, we caught a minivan around the southwestern tip of the island to the small port town of San Andres. The coastal scenery was unexpectedly attractive, with impressive hill country rising up in the hinterland. San Andres, a nondescript town with the usual straggle of shops along the dusty main street, was a much less prepossessing affair. Fortunately, we did not have to wait all that long before catching the morning ferry across to the mainland at the port city of Tabaco.

It was raining when we arrived in Tabaco, so we quickly climbed into a pedicab to take us to a hotel. There were a number of small hotels near the centre of town, most of them offering basic rooms for around 1000 peso, or about $22 a night. We chose the best of the two hotels we viewed and then asked at the hotel about the possibilities of visiting the Mayon Volcano from town. According to our guidebook, it was possible to visit an abandoned motel high up on the slopes of the volcano, from which point the views were said to be spectacular. However, the hotel worker assured us that the road up to the motel was now closed due to increased geothermal activity. Those monitoring the volcano reported an increase in emissions of poisonous gases. Disappointed to find our plans disrupted, we waited for the rain to stop and then set out to explore Tabaco City on foot. While now of its sights were of the ‘unmissable’ category, the town did have a few historical buildings of note, most of them concentrated around the town plaza.

Tabaco City dates back to the early days of Spanish colonization, though its built heritage has been devastated over the centuries by repeated eruptions from Mount Mayon. However, the main plaza, laid out in Spanish colonial style is very pleasant. There are two main buildings of historic note in this area The first is Tabaco City Hall, which is an especially good example of the American colonial style in the Philippines. With its brilliant white facade and its two prominent Doric columns in the centre, it achieves a sense of monumentality for such a small building, recalling the National Museum in Manila.

The other notable building in the city is its grand historic church, St. John the Baptist Church on the main plaza. This church is an outstanding example of the so-called Earthquake Baroque style of the Philippines, in which stone churches were built with wide, low facades to increase their structural stability in the earthquake-prone nation. Here, the elegant stone facade is embellished by column pinnacles and decorative urns at the top of the structure and six false columns across the front. However, its greatest beauty is its four-storey belfry, which is possibly the most beautiful in Albay. It features ornamental niches edged with columns, an elegant balustrade around the terrace on each level and a dome on top. A local legend says the ghostly sound of its former pirate-warning bell can sometimes still be heard in the wee hours. The interior of the church is also worth checking out: the solemn, dark stonework and slender, decorative columns lend it an aesthetic appeal which few modern Filipino churches could equal.

The following day we headed to Legazpi, which provided some ample opportunities to try Bicol food, which is a pleasantly spicy change from the usual bland Filipino favorites such as pancit and tapsilog, and we also welcomed the chance to enjoy some beers along the waterfront at the Embarcadero. But we soon realized that there the city had very few buildings which seemed to be more than a few decades old. Eventually we heard that the more historic part of the city was known as Old Albay District. Therefore, we hopped on a jeepney up to Old Albay to see if we could spot any historical vestiges there. As it turned out, there were also sparse in Albay but at least there was one major monument we could visit: St. Gregory the Great Cathedral.

There was apparently a wooden church on the site as early as the 1580s and several extensions over the coming years but the original church was completely destroyed in the eruption of Mount Mayon in 1754. It wasn’t until 1834 that funds were to be found to construct a new church, and the cathedral built then is still the one we see today. It is made of coral stone with the most decoration on the facade. Here we find a pair of niches housing statues and a portico on two columns. There is a coat of arms over the door and a bell-tower on top of the facade. The inclusion of the bell-tower in the facade is a kind of local variation of the typical Catholic church of the Philippines, with another noteworthy example of this style being found at Bato in nearby Catanduanes. The front of the church has been covered in plaster, which had been painted blue. This gave the building an unusually bright and lively look.

The interior of the church was typical of other historical churches of the Philippines. There were rows of heavy wooden pews, metal lights hanging down from the wooden ceiling, minimal use of coloured glass in the windows and a rather simple altarpiece showing Jesus in a white robe. There was no one else around when we visited, and we found that a short visit was enough to satisfy our curiosity. But there was one question which still bothered us: Why was this the only major historical monument which had survived in a city with more than four centuries of recorded history? Apart from ravages of nearby Mount Mayon, it turned out that there was another interesting reason for this mystery.