Asia’s Biggest Marian Festival is in the Philippines
Phillip Kimpo Jr. | Sep 04, 2014
That the Peñafrancia Festival is a religious event is fairly known to many Filipinos. But it also tells of a bigger story, not just of a resonant devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, but also of a city’s texture.
Not a few people refer to Naga City in Camarines Sur as the “Heart of Bicol.” This sobriquet might be underpinned chiefly by the city’s central geographical location in the Bicol peninsula. Its status as an education and commerce hub lends another basis.
But a few days of riding the city’s tricycles, jeepneys, taxis; strolling through its neat streets, plazas, landmarks, commercial centers; and conversing with the local people reveal, amidst the diverse pursuits of this bustling and progressive city, the ever-present image of the Our Lady of Peñafrancia.
You can see her statuettes on vehicle dashboards, her likeness on souvenir shirts and tarpaulin banners, her name on the lips of newfound friends inviting us to come back in September when Maogmang Naga (Happy Naga) throws the biggest celebration out there for the Patroness of Bicolandia, whom Bicolanos fondly regard as their Ina (mother).
[VIEW: The complete Peñafrancia Festival 2014 schedule.]
When one thinks of how hundreds of thousands of Bicolanos and Marian devotees from all over the archipelago troop yearly to Naga for the feast, as if they were corpuscles returning to the throbbing core, the nickname “Heart of Bicol” gains a new dimension.
Believers pay homage to their Ina; relatives seek out their kin for a much awaited reunion as well as to bond with their roots; tourists revel in the feast’s sights and sounds, as well as in the good cheer, gastronomic gamut, and cultural heritage that the city offers.
Held in the second to third weeks of September, the Feast of the Nuestra Señora de Peñafrancia, also known as the Peñafrancia Festival, is one of the most popular religious events in the Philippines and is the biggest Marian devotion in Asia.
The multi-day feast is ushered in by the “Traslacion” procession, in which the centuries-old image of the Our Lady of Peñafrancia is transferred from its shrine at the Peñafrancia Basilica Minore to the 400-year-old Naga Metropolitan Cathedral by barefoot male “voyadores” chanting “Viva la Virgen!” Thousands join this procession that flows through the city’s main streets.
After the procession, and while the nine days of novena prayer take place at the cathedral, the city celebrates the feast with civic and military parades, pageants, agro-industrial fairs, street parties, sports tournaments, singing contests, concerts, and cultural shows.
In short, Naga takes its Maogma tag to the hilt. Don’t be surprised if malls and smaller establishments go on sale, too. The feast culminates on the third Saturday of September in a festive fluvial procession that returns the image to its shrine via the Naga River.
If you’re the type who isn’t keen on joining fiestas with a heavy religious tenor, the occasion, at the very least, gives you the opportunity to relish Naga (which I’ve always liked to describe as “dashing and disciplined”) and the rest of Camarines Sur (set aside the CamSur Watersports Complex for a moment).
[VIEW: When you get hungry exploring Naga, know where to eat: Naga food guide.]
After all, if you have the time to see the festival from start (Translacion) to finish (fluvial procession), the nine days or so will allow you to soak up the best of what Naga has to offer. Which is a lot.
Think of the place as retaining that coy small-town charm, but quietly confident in its arsenal of malls, bars, homegrown restaurant chains that can give nationwide brands a run for their money, aristocratic hotels, and ecological sites for the adventurous.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise, for while Naga is one of the country’s oldest cities (the third Spanish royal city in the islands, after Cebu and Manila), its local government unit has reaped scores of international awards for innovations and best practices (one being its emphasis on the youth sector).
[VIEW: Naga is a center of pili nut production; take a virtual tour of its House of Pili.]
In fact, one can stretch the analogy of the mother; they say that we swarm the beaches as if we’re called by our primeval womb, the sea where everything swims. And Naga and its Peñafrancia Festival give the visitor just that: a sea of memories and modernities.
How? Well, it takes the visitor from the Our Lady’s shrine of sleek lines and colors, built in the 1980s, to the stately and oldest cathedral established in the whole of southern Luzon;
From “Convention City,” an image Naga is trying to build by hosting conferences for a variety of contemporary issues, to “Cross City,” the heart of Catholic faith in the region;
From a procession on asphalt rivers to a parade borne on our original road, the river;
From pili to sili, and everything in between.
VIEW: The complete Peñafrancia Festival 2014 schedule.
You might also want to avail of the Peñafrancia Walking Tours courtesy of Naga Excursions.
How to Get There:
Naga City is located about 377 km southeast of Metro Manila. By air, Naga is served by the Naga Airport which is located just outside the city proper, in the nearby town (and the CamSur capital) of Pili. A flight from Manila takes approximately 35-40 minutes.
By land, Naga is an eight-hour bus ride from Pasay or Cubao. The Philippine National Railways used to offer daily train rides to Naga (Bicol Express, Mayon Limited De Luxe, and Mayon Limited Ordinary); stay tuned to their website and Facebook page for updates.
Take a Glimpse Into Naga City:
Watch the ChooseTV episode on Naga City:
And get a sample of the Peñafrancia Festival from one of our contributors:
[Many thanks to Alec Francis A. Santos, Chief of Naga City’s Arts, Culture, and Tourism Office for his help with this article. Text adapted from the original version, written by the same author, which appeared in the now-defunct Side Trip travel magazine, September-October 2012 issue.]