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Saturday, May 29, 2010

Iloilo City - The Queen Mother of the South

                 by  Tessa C. Mauricio The Manila Times

           “Welcome to the Queen City of the South!” A visitor to Iloilo City is bound to receive this greeting several times—at the airport tarmac, even in quaint, little pastry shops where the city’s famed barquillos and galletas are made. Eight out of 10 such visitors would then most likely scan the immediate vicinity, and check if the plane had landed in Cebu instead. And when the visitor is finally convinced that the sights and sounds are distinctly Iloilo’s, the inevitable question would follow: “How could there be two Queen Cities of the South?” “The original Queen City is really Iloilo; not Cebu,” says the first-ever woman Tourism secretary of the Philippines; a true-blooded Ilongga by the name of Narzalina Z. Lim. And the manner by which she and her kababayans would make the claim— in the typical melodious Ilonggo voice and an amiable smile—can well, in fact, settle the matter immediately. But of course, facts need to be laid down, lest a conflict ensues between the two Visayan cities. Iloilo’s reign Iloilo, or Irong-Irong as it was called before the Spanish invasion, has always been a prosperous province. Its rich agricultural lands and numerous ports have been the major factors toward its continued progress. By the mid-1800s, Iloilo emerged as the biggest center of commerce and trade in the Visayas and Mindanao; second only to Manila. Fast forward to the 1900s—the establishment of roads, a railway line, an airport, and the surge of the sugar industry in between—Iloilo rightly received her crown as the Queen City of the South. And not only did she prosper in agriculture and commerce, but she also regaled the rest of the nation with grand architectural structures, superior educational establishments, the most glittering of socials, and lively cultural festivities. Soon, Her Majesty’s able sons became the country’s most important business pioneers, among them, Eugenio Lopez, Gregorio Araneta, and a host of other prominent family names, who reaped sweet success from sugar planting. Iloilo, of course, was proud of her children, but there was a price to be paid. While these entrepreneurs and hacien*deros continued to spread their wings—whether to find more land in Bacolod, or to set up industries in Cebu and Manila—the dynamic progress that had long been synonymous to Iloilo eventually plateaued, and dulled the luster of Her Majesty’s crown. Thereafter, Cebu was anointed as the new Queen of the Visayas. Her glorious past, alive and well Despite Iloilo’s “dethronement,” a visit to the former Queen City of the South would explain why her sons and daughters refuse to let go of her previous title. She is still majestic, what with rich remnants of her glorious past that stand proud to this very day. If Luzon boasts of Vigan as its Heritage City, then the Visayas should do the same of Iloilo. Spread around the province are ancient churches and vintage homes dating as far back as the 1800s. Her churches. Truly breathtaking—and perhaps Iloilo’s greatest treasure—is the Miag-ao Fortress Church. Built in 1786, the church is included in the Unesco World Heritage List, and remains to be one of the most photographed landmarks in the Philippines. While Miag-ao’s yellow stone structure is reminiscent of the great temples of Aztec art, the church’s details are unique for they bear touches of the local culture. The facade, for example, displays an intricate carving of St. Christopher with the boy Jesus on his shoulders, enjoying the shade of a bountiful palm tree. This very Filipino setting is guarded by two dissimilar bell towers, which according to history, once served as lookout points for piratical attacks in the province. The church of Sta. Barbara is another well-restored old-world structure outside the city proper, while the cathedrals of Molo and Jaro near the center, are also crowd drawers. They too are architectural feats, made more interesting by unique concepts: Molo Cathedral is home to 16 statues of all-female saints, while Jaro houses an all-male counterpart. Her homes. The old world feel of Iloilo does not end with her numerous churches. The Jaro District, which gave birth to the country’s first-ever millionaire’s lane, delights tourists with vintage houses at every corner. Most enchanting is the 200-year-old Javellana ancestral home, whose ownership is passed on to the eldest child of every succeeding generation. Now under the care of solar power entrepreneur Robert “Pan*chito” Lopez Puckett, the restored Spanish house of wood and stone is referred to as “Casa Mari*quit”—Mariquit being Panchito’s grandmother, a third-generation Javellana and wife to former vice president Fernando Lopez Sr. Panchito employed the services of restoration experts from Intramuros when he inherited the house in the late eighties, and they did excellent job in polishing Mariquit’s dark wood floors and balustrades, her wrought iron ventanillas, and colorful stained glass windows. Lining Jaro’s main road, meanwhile, is Nely’s Garden, whose long, tree-lined drive leads to a decades’ old white mansion, the ancestral home of the wealthy Lopez clan; as well as the Boat House, a multilevel art-deco-inspired abode, which serves as the vacation house of the late Eugenio Lopez Sr.’s brood. Her story. What enhances the pleasure of visiting Iloilo’s ancient treasures are the stories that her children are always eager to share at every destination. How Miag-ao became home to refugees during the war; the miracle of Molo Cathedral’s Virgin Mary when El Niño hit the province; and how Panchito’s grandfather happily leased the beautiful Javellana home to a school for a mere P300 in the mid-eighties. These and more are the stories that have sparked a renewed vigor in the Ilonggos to give back the city her crown. “When we look around us,” they say, “we realize she never did lose her crown for Iloilo continues to be as rich as ever.” What she is, without a doubt, is the Queen Mother of the South. She gave birth to many economies in the Visayas, and she has, all these years, kept her treasures alive and well. The city’s sons and daughters More than ever, the Ilonggos are hopeful that they will soon restore their beloved city to her old glory. They find inspiration in the work of reelected mayor Jerry Trenas, who since his first term, has left no stones unturned in ensuring that Iloilo continues to prosper. Trenas has rightly identified tourism as a potent force in furthering the city’s economy, and restoring the distinction she once had in the Visayas. Thus far, the forward-thinking mayor has fueled an equally dynamic group of Ilong*gos to promote Iloilo as a rich tourist destination, as well as a city that can ably host international and national conventions. Formed only in the beginning of the year, the Iloilo City Convention Bureau (ICCB) already shows much promise in fulfilling the task with Ma. Teresa S. Sarabia, Ph.D as president, former Tourism secretary Narzalina Lim as marketing representative and consultant, and representatives from Iloilo’s major hotels as members. “The group is working together to come up with competitive rates and packages that will entice both tourists and those looking for convention sites to consider Iloilo, for the city truly has a lot of potential,” Lim asserts. “We have the facilities to cater to large convention groups, who after business is out of the way, can savor the original La Paz Batchoy; shop for lace and sinamay; visit the old churches and houses; enjoy young attractions like Casa Fiametta where they can go horseback riding or trekking; or even as a starting point for a trip to the beaches of Guimaras and Boracay.” Gifted with such inviting possibilities, the ICCB and the people of Iloilo City are all set to welcome visitors to the province, and put her back on the proverbial map. And with sons and daughters like the members of the ICCB, there should be no reason why the original Queen City of the South cannot shine as bright as before in the island of Visayas. The ICCB would like to thank Cebu Pacific for sponsoring the recent media familiarization tour to Iloilo City.

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