Romantic Vigan

If not for the Tagalog or the native Ilocano dialect I hear all around me, it would feel like I am wandering in Europe.

With cobblestone streets, horsedrawn carriages and rows of intricate colonial architecture, the northern Filipino city of Vigan looks like an antiquated Spanish town straight out of a storybook.

But this is no gimmicky theme park - the city in the province of Ilocos Sur is a relic of the country's colonial past, when the Philippines was ruled by the Spanish from the 16th to 18th centuries.

Established in 1572, Vigan was intended as a commercial trading centre for Spain in the region, given its prime location in the busy Abra River delta off the South China Sea.

Today, signs of its former bustle are long gone - in its place is a quaint, Instagram-worthy space perfect for romantic evening strolls and weekend getaways.

Declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1999, Vigan was then recognised by the same organisation in 2012 as "a model of best practices in World Heritage site conservation".

Last year, the city was also voted one of seven New Wonder Cities Of The World. The global voting campaign unit New7Wonders Foundation also calls Vigan the "best- preserved example of a planned Spanish colonial town in Asia".

These labels are a testament to how the city's buildings, even as they are undergoing restoration, still look authentic and not modified in pretentious hipster fashion.

I arrive in Vigan after an arduous eight-hour overnight bus journey from the country's capital of Manila, as recommended by a friend who says the coastal scenery along the way is well worth it.

Given that I am travelling at night, it is too dark - and I am too grumpy and exhausted - to see anything of note, so I suggest visitors take an hour-long flight from Manila to the northern town of Laoag instead, before transferring to a 90-minute coach ride to Vigan.

But all irritation fades away as soon as I reach the city, where the pace is slow and the vibe utterly relaxed.

It is 8am on a Sunday and the place has only just woken up.

Residents are slowly making their way to the town plaza to catch the morning service at St Paul's Cathedral, a magnificent Baroque structure that has been standing since the year 1800.

It looks like a standard European style church, until you notice the lion dog statues sitting above the main doorway. They are telltale signs of Vigan's Chinese heritage as southern Chinese traders had been doing business here long before the Spaniards arrived.

Overlooking Plaza Salcedo in the town centre, St Paul's is a major religious landmark not just for Vigan, but also the rest of the country, with Roman Catholic devotees making special trips here from other cities.

The Spanish past is also present in Calle Crisologo, Vigan's main street with its many Spanish-style houses.

These beautiful homes have red-tiled roofs, grand wooden doors and windows ornately decorated with the capiz shell, the translucent shell of the windowpane oyster that is native to the region.

Visitors can take a peek inside one of these homes by making a pit stop at the blue-and-yellow Syquia Mansion (corner of Quirino Boulevard; admission 20 pesos or 60 Singapore cents), which once housed the Philippines' sixth president Elpidio Quirino (1890-1956), who famously helped the country rise from devastation after World War II.

As Quirino had married a woman from the wealthy Chinese Syquia family (Syquia is the Hispanic version of the Chinese name Sy Kia), the home's interiors reflect plenty of East Asian influences, from elaborate porcelain vases to Chinese motifs carved into wooden furniture.

While Syquia Mansion is a museum of sorts, most of the other buildings along Calle Crisologo have been converted into antique shops, restaurants or souvenir stores.

The businesses operate all day, but Calle Crisologo is loveliest in the early evening, when people dine alfresco on the cobblestone streets under the warm glow of the street lamps.

I have an early dinner at Cafe Leona (Calle Crisologo, 2700 Vigan, tel: +63-77-722-2212), a restaurant converted from the century-old home of notable poet Leona Florentino. It serves a diverse range of international cuisines such as Thai and Japanese, but throw all of that aside for its speciality - local Ilocano dishes.

Try its longganisa, or plump pork sausage tinged with garlic and herbs; as well as its bagnet, a deliciously sinful dish of crispy, double-fried pork chunks.

Another must-try is the pinakbet, a stew of pork, bittergourd, eggplant and chillies seasoned with bagoong, or fermented fish. The dishes may not be amazing, but they are hearty, comfort food.

Everything is very affordable too, with prices ranging from 120 pesos for a small plate of bagnet to 150 pesos for a side of fried calamari.

After dinner, I join the large crowds at Plaza Salcedo to catch the nightly dancing fountain show, which is about to begin at 8.30pm. Many local Filipino families are already stationed on the stands there, likely catching the show for the umpteenth time as post-dinner entertainment.

It is admittedly a gimmicky show, but it is immensely entertaining nonetheless. The rows of fountains shoot up water to the rhythm and beat of energetic pop songs such as Katy Perry's Firework and Psy's Gentleman, against the backdrop of changing colourful lights. It is reminiscent of the famous fountain show at Las Vegas' Bellagio hotel, but with its party mode amped up many times.

Those still feeling peckish after their meal can take a five-minute stroll over to Plaza Burgos to try the Vigan empanada and okoy, popular local street snacks. There are several stalls here selling the same thing and they all fry the nibbles on the spot, so you can be sure the treats will be piping hot and fresh.

Empanadas (35 pesos each) are deep-fried rice-flour pastries filled with meat and vegetables, and Vigan's version includes green papaya and mung beans. Served hot and dipped in vinegar, it is perfectly crispy, savoury and tart in equal measure.

I am less of a fan of the okoys (35 pesos each), however, which are baby shrimp-and-flour fritters that are similar to the Indian vadai. For a late-night bite, they feel a bit too heavy and doughy.

Still, I am happily full and ready for a good night's rest after my day trip. I check into the Hotel Veneto de Vigan (Bonifacio St, Barangay I, tel: +63-917-5871965; from 2,400 pesos for a standard twin room), a newly refurbished hotel converted from a historical wooden mansion that is within walking distance of most of the city's main sites.

Lying on my comfortable four-poster bed and staring up at the playful murals painted on the ceiling by local artists, I am quickly lulled into sleep, dreaming of romantic horse-drawn carriage rides in a bygone era.

This article was first published on September 6, 2015.
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