This Quick Intramuros Trip Will Take You Back A Hundred Years
Plaza San Luis, with its shops, restos, and museums, is a welcome respite on a holiday or weekend
Filipinos associate two historic events in the month June that occurred three centuries apart. Both took place during the Spanish Period—Independence Day every June 12 in celebration of the declaration of freedom from Spanish rule in 1898, and Araw ng Maynila on June 24 to commemorate the founding of our national capital by the Spanish conquistador Miguel Lopez de Legazpi in 1571.
A few months after he arrived in Manila, Legazpi began building a fortified neighborhood defended by moats and ten-meter thick walls with well-positioned cannons. This medieval fortress was called Intramuros.
Intramuros was divided into four barrios or neighborhoods—San Antonio, San Gabriel, San Carlos and San Luis. Inside the walled city rose grand churches, palatial public buildings, and stately townhouses of stone and wood. For three hundred years, Intramuros became the political nucleus of Spain in Asia.
PLAZA SAN LUIS AS A WHOLE
World War II reduced Intramuros into a massive wasteland of rubble. For three decades after the war, Intramuros was an ugly mass of ruins until 1979, when the task of picking up the pieces finally fell to the Intramuros Administration (IA). In the 1980s, the agency purchased a property across San Agustin Church that was being used as a parking lot. On this vacant lot, IA constructed a cluster of replica townhouses that represent the domestic architecture built during the Spanish Colonial Period.
The replica houses, namely Casa Manila, Los Hidalgos, Casa Blanca, Casa Azul, and Casa Urdaneta where constructed based from archival building plans with combined imaginations from its architects and antiquarian consultants. The complex was fittingly named after one of the original barrios of Intramuros as Plaza San Luis.
Casa Manila is a reproduction of a bahay-na-bato that was built along Calle Jaboneros in San Nicholas District during the 1850s. Its three-level structure, however, is quite unusual for Intramuros. Very few houses were constructed with more than two floors because of the frequent earthquakes that shook Manila in the 1800s, and those with shops or warehouses on the ground floor were characteristics of bahay-na-bato built in the commercial district of Binondo.
Once you enter the Casa through its main door—which is directly accessible from the cobbled Calle Real—it feels strangely like walking into a cold and damp dungeon. The wooden door is wide and tall enough to allow the passage of the carruaje (horse carriage) to the zaguan (ground floor area for carriages). The zaguan is paved with piedra china (Chinese granite). These blocks of white stone were originally used as ballast or counterweight of galleons.
Its second and third floors house a nostalgia and lifestyle museum (top) that showcases antique colonial furniture and artworks gathered from the Hidalgo and Paterno families of Quiapo and other ancestral houses around the country.
The priceless collection includes Juan Luna’s portrait of a Minerva, a governor-general’s daughter, a huge Murano chandelier, a Gothic home altar, a special escritorio or writing desks made with double flip top so that business partners could sign important documents while facing each other, a cookie mold used for making San Nicolas biscuits in the 19th-century-style kitchen (above), and a towering aparador de tres lunas. This massive cabinet in the master bedroom was saved from its original Intramuros home when it was fortunately hauled off to the suburbs of San Juan just before World War II.
From the living quarters, visitors are led to the azotea or back terrace, and then down to the stone fountain in the courtyard. Surrounding the courtyard are souvenir shops and art galleries where one can be on the lookout for good buys.
Casa Manila museum hours are 9 to 6pm (closed on Mondays), entrance fee is P75
Inner courtyards and hallways were necessary for connecting houses built in towns (like Intramuros) where the lot sizes for residential buildings were small and fewer than those in provincial haciendas. Pass the hallway from the courtyard to get to the middle house along General Luna Street. It was the site of a restaurant originally called Los Hidalgos hence its name. Today, Barbara’s Heritage Restaurant, a fine dining resto that serves Filipino food now occupies the second floor.
The façade of the building was based on a photograph of a house located near San Francisco Church in Intramuros. Notice that the structure is all stonework from ground floor to the upper floor, with its cantilevered wooden balconies protruding on the second floor, and the bulging grillwork on the ground floor windows. This all-masonry structure is typical of 18th century Vigan and Intramuros houses.
Barbara’s is open from 9am to 9pm; tel. (02) 527-4086, 527-3893
This replica of a Victorian-style house is joyously painted in green and tastefully decorated with neo-classical architectural embellishments such as the elaborate brackets and charming window posts with Ionic columns. Its design was based from the architectural plan of house that used to stand at the corner of Arquiza Street and the old Calle El Camino Real (now M.H. Del Pilar) in Ermita.
Casa Blanca and Intramuros Hotel
Situated in one of the hallways between Casa Manila and Los Hidalgos is a charming outdoor café that is also managed by Barbara’s. Near the café is the entrance to Intramuros Hotel. The 29-room hotel occupies Casa Blanca, its patio, and its spacious ballroom.
Instituto Cervantes at Casa Azul
From the patio of Casa Blanca, walk into the landscaped courtyard of Casa Azul. This replica of a 19th century house was copied from an illustration in a book that described the grand festivities that took place in 1825 in honor of the arrival of the portrait of the Spanish monarch, King Ferdinand VII to the country.
Fittingly, Casa Azul houses a branch of Instituto Cervantes. This newly installed cultural space in Intramuros has a 95-seat auditorium, a cathedral-ceilinged exhibit hall, library, and two classrooms where Spanish culture is revived and promoted.
Visit the Instituto Cervantes website for more information on their classes and film screenings
One can opt to explore the rest of Intramuros by renting out a Bambike in one of the stores in Plaza San Luis for P300 an hour, or continue walking on the cobbled streets. Across the street from Plaza San Luis is the oldest building in the country. San Agustin Church is the only structure in Intramuros that survive World War II. This World Heritage Site is worth exploring but that is another story.
Click on the Bambike Ecotours website for more information
Along with the refurbishment of this area came a renewed interest in heritage and history. Plaza San Luis—even if it is technically a commercial complex—is a kind of microcosm that conjures the vibe of the Philippine domestic life under Spain. Here, the three centuries merge more easily, because visitors are surrounded by many physical symbols of the past, and it only takes less than an hour to complete the transition from modern-day noise and traffic into this colonial-period oasis.
Plaza San Luis is surrounded by and can be accessed via General Luna, Urdaneta, Real, and Cabildo Streets in Intramuros, Manila
Glenn Martinez is a heritage enthusiast and a travel blogger. Follow him on his artistic and cultural adventures in his blog Traveler on Foot.
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