If Britain has its Downing Street, and America its Pennsylvania Avenue, the Philippines has its own stately district right in the heart of Manila — San Miguel.
Home to the Malacañang Palace, dotted with the best-preserved, colonial-era mansions of the city, and heralded as the birthplace of the world-famous Filipino beer, the San Miguel district is resplendent in history, heritage, and luxury.
Old Manila Walks, a group that dubs itself as "a bunch of street walkers, cultural trippers and urban adventurers," takes tourists on a stroll through the regal neighborhood of San Miguel with its "Power, Palace, and a Shot of Beer" walk, a guided tour that packs a one of a kind lesson in history, and a heady encounter with the high life in the days of yore.
Through history on foot
San Sebastian Church. We begin our tour at the San Sebastian Church. Streetwalker and urban storyteller Ivan Dy, in his bright yellow camisa, red pants, and salakot, meets us on the steps and herds us to a passage along the side. He starts off in the 16th century, during the Age of Empires, when the Spanish first set foot in the Philippines.
"In the Spanish regime, Intramuros was the capital of religion, politics, and education, while Binondo was the center of commerce. San Miguel was the place to flaunt your wealth and live the good life; it was the Forbes Park of Old Manila. Summer residences in San Miguel were popular in the Spanish regime because of the Pasig river breeze, and when an earthquake devastated the Palacio del Gobernador in Intramuros, the seat of government was transferred to Malacañang." Dy narrates.
The grandiose church is our first stop. Dy whips up a refrigerator magnet and lo and behold, it sticks to the outer wall of the church.
"The San Sebastian Church is the first all-steel structure in Asia," Dy explains. "The original church structures were destroyed by fire and earthquakes in 1611, 1859, 1863, and 1880, and were rebuilt subsequently, until the priests decided they wanted a fire and earthquake resistant church made entirely of steel, and approached Spanish architect Genaro Palacios."
The Neo-gothic church, standing about 52 meters tall, arrived in the Philippines in knock-down steel parts from Belgium, "much like a Lego set," describes Dy. He also points out a link to Paris’ most famous landmark, the Eiffel Tower because Gustave Eiffel was also the structural engineer for the church."
"The components of the church are what I would call the ‘United Colors of Benetton,’" quips Dy. "Spanish design, Belgian steel, French fixtures, tiles from China, and stained glass windows from Germany. The Filipino artists added their touch too: The vaulted ceiling, steel columns, and walls were painted to resemble marble to soften the look of steel, by Lorenzo Rocha and his students, while the neo-Gothic confessionals, pulpit, and altars were designed by Lorenzo Guerrero."
Arlegui Mansion. Our next stop is the controversial Arlegui mansion. Originally owned by the Laperals, the colonial mansion was allegedly forcibly taken from the family during the Martial Law and then President Marcos used it as a guest house.
Succeeding presidents Cory Aquino and Fidel Ramos used it as their official residence.
Today, the Arlegui Mansion houses several government agencies, including the Presidential Action Center.
We poke around the neighborhood, admiring the mansion rows, until we come to San Miguel’s main attraction: The Malacañang Palace.
Malacañang Palace. Since it is a weekday, and we have been pre-registered for an authorized entry, we are able to get into the Malacañang Museum which is housed in the Kalayaan Hall. Built in 1920 as the Executive Building in the American regime, it was also the residence of the Marcoses, formerly known as the Maharlika Hall.
After several security checks, we are able to get inside the museum, a series of galleries and exhibits showing the heritage of the Palace and the Presidency of the Philippines.
The ground floor houses the history of the Malacañang Palace featuring gifts, relics, memorabilia, and artwork, in the old American colonial rooms of Kalayaan Hall, moving chronologically from the Spanish regime to the present republic.
Interesting artifacts include the padded Governador-General’s chair, revolutionary documents, Rizal’s letters to Blumentritt, a first-edition El Filibusterismo, the thimble used in sewing the Philippine flag, and old photos of Malacañang.
Further along, on the second floor, the Old State Rooms constructed during the Commonwealth that were in official use during 1937-1980, are now named in honor of the presidents to whom the rooms are significantly linked – the Quezon Room with the Presidential Study (old President’s Office), the Roxas Room (old Cabinet Room), and the Quirino Room (old Council of State Room). The Main Hall is devoted to a gallery of the presidents of the Philippines, with their personal effects.
"We’re actually quite lucky that we can come this close to the items on exhibit," remarks Dy, as we wind up our tour through the museum. "These items are part of our history and have shaped our lives in one way or another. This is the treasure of the Filipino people."
Legarda Ancestral Home. For our final stop, we walk along San Rafael Street, where Dy points to the far side of Malacañang where the old San Miguel Brewery buildings used to stand. "It’s easily the Filipino’s favorite drink," Dy states, "even more famous than the sitting president."
Further along the road, we arrive at our destination, the Legarda ancestral home.
"We’ve been walking through our country’s history, which is composed of thousands of histories of families, such as the Legardas," explains Dy.
Built in 1937 by Doña Filomena Roces vda de Legarda, the Legarda house was one of the first art deco houses built in Manila. In this house, Alejandro Legarda (son of Doña Filomena) lived with his wife Ramona Hernandez, and their four children.
Doña Ramona was well-known for her lavish parties, which showcased her culinary skills and perfection as a hostess that was legendary in Metro Manila. Today, the Legarda house is a tribute to Doña Ramona (Moning), as it houses La Cocina de Tita Moning, a fine dining restaurant that aims to recreate the wonderful parties of Manila’s most elegant era, using heirloom recipes of the Legardas, served on antique china, glassware, and silverware.
Finally, we take a tour of the Legarda house, a treasure trove of family history – from the antique train room to the library, Don Alejandro’s clinic (he was an OB-Gyne), a display of antique camera equipment, the living room with paintings by Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo and Juan Luna, Don Alejandro’s collection of antique radio equipment, a dressing room showcasing the memorabilia of the Legarda women, and the dining room where banquets are held.
One step at a time
Old Manila Walks believes that the best way to get to know the ins and outs of Manila is by foot. Definitely proving they can walk the talk, the group offers walking tours of various spots around the city, exploring history, culture, heritage, and everything else in between.
Old Manila Walks is best known for its "Big Binondo Food Wok" which explores Chinatown’s history as the center of commerce in the Spanish regime, and the unique fusion of Catholic religion and Chinese modes of worship. It features the Binondo Church, the Sto. Cristo de Longos Shrine, Chinese medicine, wedding traditions, and an exercise of offering of kim (gold paper ingots) to the Chinese gods.
[ Palacio del Gobernador Wiki | San Miguel Brewery Wiki ]