By Mookie Katigbak-Lacuesta
Just like the dusty hands of your great grandfather’s pocket watch, time stopped in this Batangas town about a hundred years ago—back when heroes roamed the earth, Rizal set the nation on fire, and a secret society plotted a revolution. The town’s never quite moved on from those days, and it’s a good moment in our history to get stuck in. With its tall capiz windows, moorish doors and ancient churches, the small town is thick in history and lore—so much so that one expects to hear the plod of a kalesa or the swish of a saya as one crosses its colonial streets. It’s a great getaway for those who want to stay close to the city but need a quick escape from all the smog and traffic. A reasonable two and a half hour drive from Manila, the trip to Taal is just long enough to qualify as a road trip, but short enough for you to make it home by dinner. It can be said that the small town is like the shy sister of other heritage towns like Vigan—it’s been discovered, and suitors are knocking on its door, but in small droves and not yet in crowding mobs.
There are many reasons to visit the town, but the ones cited below are for first-timers who should see the main attractions before its quainter draws. Already a location for popular period movies like Heneral Luna and Larawan, the town’s charms are many but they can be enjoyed in a few short hours. Interestingly, Taal is also home to some of the Katipunan’s unheralded heroes—the behind-the-scenes people who contributed to the cause in huge but largely unknown ways. History’s sidekicks, if you will, without whom we’d never have our roster of bidas. Read on to find out who they are and what they did for one of our country’s proudest moments.
1) Casa Villavicencio
Calle G. Marella
Opem from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m (Friday through Sunday).
Perhaps the greatest beauty in town is Casa Villavicencio—home of Don Eulalio Villavicencio and his wife, Gliceria. Known as the “Godmother of the Revolutionary Forces,” Gliceria was famous for donating the first warship of the revolution— the SS Bulusan. It transported not just arms and ammunition to key places during the revolution, but soldiers as well. Casa Villavicencio was also featured in such modern-day masterpieces as Heneral Luna and Larawan. The famous love scene in Heneral Luna was shot in one if its bedrooms, and almost the entire Nick Joaquin classic was shot in the ancestral mansion.
2) Goco Ancestral House
Marella corner Del Castillo Street
For walking tours, contact Pio Goco (+63917-373-7356)
Home to Juan Cabrera Goco, the treasurer of the Katipunan, the Goco ancestral house is so loved by its heirs that the classic bahay na bato has been rubbed to a shine—from its staircase to its brass knockers. One of the town’s most famous walking tours is helmed by Pio Goco, the Katipunero’s great grandson, and is one of the most popular draws in the heritage town. Goco’s tour also includes lunch—an array of Batangueño fare like bulalo with sotanghon noodles, pickled mustasa, and adobo na dilaw.
3) Archdiocesan Shrine of our Lady of Caysasay
Calle Vicente Noble, Barangay Labac
A popular Visita Iglesia destination, the shrine is home to Our Lady of Caysasay, a wooden relic of the Blessed Virgin which was famously fished out of Taal’s Pansipit River by town local Juan Maningkad in 1603. The image was named for the Caysasay bird (kingfisher in English), in honor of a famous apparition of the Blessed Virgin in 1611—in it, she is said to have appeared—swarmed with caysasay birds—to two local girls.
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4) Taal Public Market
Barangay Zone 1
If you’ve left Manila right after breakfast, you’re going to want to have lunch by the time you arrive at the heritage town. If you’ve come craving true Pinoy food by way of Batangas, the public market is the place to go—in it you’ll find Taaleño classics like its pork tapa, longganisa, fresh empanada and panutsa—the Batangueño version of peanut brittle. You can also get other town products here like native embroidery items and balisongs.
5) Ancestral House of Marcela Agoncillo
Marcella M. Agoncillo Street
Open from 8 am. to 5 p.m. , Tuesday through Sunday
If this weren’t a woke age, we’d refer to the colonial mansion as the home of the wife of revolutionary Felipe Agoncillo—but since we’re progressives, let’s refer to this historical treasure as the home of Marcela Agoncillo, maker of the first Philippine flag. She’s a case study on how important symbols are—because she made our nation’s super symbol, she’s almost eclipsed her husband’s importance in our history. A visit to her home tells you the provenance and times of our beloved three stars and sun.
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6) Nilo’s Antique Shop
I’m throwing in a wild card to include Nilo’s antique shop—a place not yet on the map but bound to earn its own place soon. Folks looking for a modern respite from all the heritage sights can drop by the antique place owned by Nilo Bautista—a junk master who fashions roadsters from discarded car parts, and makes junk art from found sundries and scraps.
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7) Villa Tortuga
Marcella Agoncillo Street, corner Noble Street
In the age of IG, what do you do in a heritage town? Pose in period costume, of course. Villa Tortuga boasts rows and rows of colonial garb—bowler hats, camisas, sayas, pañuelos, you name it. For a small fee, you can rent traditional Pinoy garb and pose on a rattan daybed—just like Maria Clara—while your bae takes IG-ready pics.
8) Basilica of St. Martin de Tours
Calle San Martin
At sunset, end your trip at the Basilica of St. Martin de Tours (more popularly known as Taal Basilica), where the last rays of the sun cast a rosy glow on the gorgeous adobe structure. Baroque in form and function, the Basilica is known as the oldest Catholic Church in the Philippines, and boasts stunning trompe l’oeil murals on its ancient ceilings and walls. There’s also no better place than the basilica to see a dramatic sweep of the small town— it’s incredibly pretty at sunset, with its houses awash in various gradations of rose and gold. Literally La Vie En Rose.