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.

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The Historic Bato Church

We visited Catanduanes on our third trip to the Philippines in 2009. The island was certainly not one of the more famous destinations in the country, but if anything we were attracted by the island’s off-the-tourist radar status; we were looking for an alternative to the well-known beach resorts such as Boracay and Puerto Galera. Catanduanes was said to have fine beaches that were yet to be discovered by foreign tourists. Travellers were likely scared away by the island’s reputation as one of the country’s most typhoon-prone islands. We too had our reservations: mostly we like to see historical sights on our travels; Catanduanes had so often been battered by typhoons that little of its built heritage had survived the centuries. Nonetheless, we took some solace in the fact that there was at least one historic church to see- the  St. John the Baptist Catholic Church of Bato, often just known as the Bato Church.

We flew into the island from Manila on the now-defunct PAL Express. We had got the fare for a bargain basement price of around $40 each, which had also factored into our decision to choose Catanduanes as a destination. The flight took us across Luzon and the Maqueda Chanel to the mid-sized island, which was positioned right at the westernmost edge of the Pacific Ocean. We touched down at the island’s main airport at Virac, the largest city on the island. Virac Airport was a very low-key affair; it was one of those airports at which they wheel the luggage-trolley onto the apron and you collect the luggage yourself. Having done that, we simply walked into town, the outskirts of which stretched right to the airport.

Having checked into our hotel, we immediately set out to explore the centre of town. In terms of sightseeing, the picking turned out to be pretty meagre. It was easy to believe that the city had been repeatedly hit by typhoons, as despite it’s considerable age- Virac was already established by the middle of the eighteenth century- there was very little to show for its two and a half centuries of history. This was perhaps not all the fault of the typhoons: apparently the depredations of Moros (Muslim pirates) had also taken a heavy toll at times. Anyway, the end result that we saw was an underwhelming settlement of cinder-block houses with little grand public architecture to speak of. There were a couple of small churches which seemed to combine cinder-block renovations with older portions. Perhaps these had incorporated the ruins of older more elegant structures into themselves, but really were clutching at straws. Virac had little to recommend it to the history buff; it was time to head out to the Bato Church.

We hired a motorized tricycle out to the church, which was located about ten kilometres out of town. The road took us through pretty, green scenery with steep hills rising up behind the road. After several kilometres we stopped at a small cascade which had been promoted in the tourist literature. It was certainly not a breathtaking sight, but the water was clean and cool and it was very peaceful, surrounded only by shrubs and grasses. After a quick dip in one of the larger pools, we climbed back into the carriage of the tricycle and continued on towards Bato. As we neared our destination, we crossed the Bato, a swift-flowing river which was coming down from the hills, and I was reminded that the scenery of the interior was supposed to be wild and rugged, with many beautiful falls. Unfortunately, I realized that such adventuring was beyond the scope of our flying visit to the island.

Soon thereafter we came to the church. Made of coral rock, it has a solid, weighty look, almost as it it were hewn right out of a mountain. The heavy blocks of stone, beautifully fitted together, had doubtless helped it to weather almost two centuries of island’s turbulent weather. Began towards the end of the eighteenth century as the replacement of an earlier wooden church, it had not been completed since 1830. This suggested that it was difficult to marshall much in the way of manpower and resources during the early history of the island. Nonetheless, the Spanish had persisted and it had stood intact in that spot ever since.

The appearance of the church was in some senses rather plain. There was nothing in the way of sculpture or reliefs to speak of on the exterior, but there were some domes and cupolas, a large one on top, mounted by a cross, and smaller ones on the corners of the facade. There was also an empty niche and some small windows along the side. The focal point of the front was a bell which hung above the main door, which was locked when we visited. (Apparently access to the belltower was gained by an internal staircase). There were also two simple colonettes on either side of the door and a further one at each end of  the facade. These were not free-standing columns but rather ornamental ones which were worked into the design. At various points, vegetation sprouted out of the grey stonework, giving it a look of considerable age, or even something like a ruin from Angkor, overgrown with jungle foliage. This perception was reinforced by the lush, jungle-like growth which was covering the hill behind the church. Overall the structure had a certain grandeur in spite of its plain design.

Heading down the side, we found that there was a side door, which was open. Stepping inside, we gained a look at the interior. It was again a fairly simple affair, but it was did have a certain rustic appeal. There were rows and rows of wooden pews and a modern altar at the front. Though none of this was as original as the stone interior, it still had its charm. The front wall was decorated with simple but stately columns and a couple of chandeliers hung down from the ceiling. The altar was certainly not original but the later additions were not too ostentatious and did not greatly compromise the historical character of the church. Overall, we thought it was quite well-suited to a church of its historical stature. We agreed that it was easily the most impressive monument we had seen on our first day in Catanduanes.

Bato Church.jpg
The Bato Church from 1830, made from blocks of coral stone