Historic Vigan, A UNESCO World Heritage Site

Crisologo Street, Vigan City
Vigan Historic District – Photo Credit: aroundguides.com

Vigan, the provincial capital of Ilocos Sur in Luzon northwest region on the Mestizo River, was built by the Spaniards in 1572, their third oldest settlement on the islands after Cebu and Intramuros. Unlike Intramuros, it was never fortified. It has some of the Philippine’s best remaining Spanish colonial architecture.

Before the Spanish arrived, trade with Chinese merchants was well established and over the centuries numerous Chinese settled in Vigan, intermarried, and became wealthy. Many of the big Spanish colonial houses in Vigan were built by Chinese mestizos. The conquistador Don Juan de Salcedo, the 22-year-old grandson of Miguel Lopez de Legaspi, (the former governor-general and founder of Manila) explored the area in 1572 convincing the Ilocanos that a Spanish garrison might be useful against the headhunting neighbors they had earlier displaced. He was made lieutenant governor of the entire Ilocos region and the encomiendero of Vigan as his fiefdom. Vigan, which he called Ciudad Fernandina after the Spanish king’s son, was already a thriving settlement and became the political, commercial, and ecclesiastical capital of northern Luzon. Salcedo patterned Vigan after Intramuros, the city created by his grandfather. Before long, the Spanish introduced corn, cocoa, tobacco and Christianity, building churches, convents, schools and missions. A Spanish friar from the Augustinian order was appointed as the agricultural officer, financial adviser, teacher and architect. However, the Ilocanos remained rebellious.

Compulsory native labor and hired Chinese artisans produced Spain’s most lasting landmarks in the Ilocos – the megalithic churches, like the grand cathedral of Vigan. Chinese masons concocted a special mix of coral, limestone and sugar for the bricks used in these massive structures. Nicknamed “earthquake baroque” by Filipino historians, these were built both to dramatize the power of the Old World god and to withstand natural disasters.

The 17th and 18th centuries subsequently saw the peak of the baroque style that filtered into the Philippines, most evident in the historic quarter of Vigan with its old brick colonial houses on streets of what was the Chinese mestizo quarter south of the cathedral. By the 19th century, these nouveau riche mestizos had become Vigan’s elite and could afford to build these large homes, which have several distinctive features. The thick lower walls of stone and brick contain wide arched doorways to enable carriages to enter from the street into a stone-flagged space used as a stable and for storage. The living area on the upper story is generally of wood, with polished narra wood floors, high ceilings, and sliding capiz shell windows. Balconies, with ornate metal grillwork, overlook the street, and there’s sometimes an azotea (tiled patio) in the rear. Roofs have overhanging eaves, some of which are decorated, but many of the original red tiles have now been replaced. These are now the ancestral homes of once-wealthy Chinese, Spanish and mestizo merchants and artisans in Vigan.

St. Paul's Cathedral by TripAdvisor.com
Cathedral of St. Paul – Photo Credit – tripadvisor.com

Juan de Salcedo ordered the first church built in 1574. The Vigan Cathedral also known as Cathedral of St. Paul was built in 1641 and stands in the center of Vigan. It was rebuilt in between 1790 and 1800 in its current earthquake-baroque style. The cream and white façade features Chinese Fu dogs carved above the outermost doors reflecting Vigan’s strong Chinese heritage and its main altar is lined with beaten-silver panels. In 1758, a royal decree transferred the Northern Luzon Diocese of Nueva Segovia to St. Paul’s making it the ecclesiastical center of the whole area. The cathedral’s bell tower stands apart in Plaza Burgos, on the south side of the cathedral proper. Adjacent to the cathedral is the Archbishop’s Palace built in 1783 with capiz windows and fretted carvings. It is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site declaration for the Historic Town of Vigan in 1999.

Historically, missionaries were active in the region. However, anti-Spanish sentiment was strong and this was expressed through overt and covert activities. Several revolts occurred against the colonial masters over the levies and forced labor they demanded. The Tagudin tribe rebelled as early as 1581. The Malong Revolt occurred in 1660-1661. During 1762-1763, Diego Silang of La Union was among the many who rose in open and violent revolt. After making agreements in 1762 with the British forces of occupation in Manila, Diego Silang seized Vigan and declared it the capital of free Ilocos. He repulsed Spanish attacks and controlled an area from Cagayan to Pangasinan, before he was assassinated in Vigan. After he was killed, his wife, Gabriela, continued the revolt. She persuaded tribesmen from the mountains of Abra to join her but was eventually captured. She was the first woman to lead a revolt against the Spanish and was hung in the plaza in 1763. In the Basi Revolt in 1807, the rebels were defeated on the south bank of the Bantay River at San Ildefonso. Other revolts occurred in 1815 and 1898.

The Spaniards fostered the cultivation of tobacco, sugar, coffee, and indigo. The indigo trade created great wealth in the 1850s. Many of Vigan’s fine old houses were built around this time.

Vigan was the birthplace of Father Jose Burgos, a mestizo whose execution along with two other priests in 1872 was a key step on the road to revolution. In 1896, Filipino revolutionaries led by Emilio Aguinaldo captured Vigan and established their headquarters in the Archbishop’s Palace which was seized and occupied by the American in 1899. Gregorio del Pilar, the “boy general” made a gallant last stand against superior U.S. forces in the mountains of Tirad Pass to cover Aguinaldo’s escape.

The Japanese landed on the beaches of Ilocos Sur in 1941. In 1945, the Bessang Pass was the scene of a long, fierce battle to breach the western defenses of the Japanese army, which had withdrawn into the Cordillera. Unlike Intramuros, Vigan was relatively unscathed by World War Two.


Insight Guide Philippines by Discovery Channel

Philippine Handbook by Carl Parkes


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