MANILA,  September 19
, 2004 (STAR) By Julie Cabatit-Alegre - What is so fascinating about an old house? Its architecture, its history? The story of the people who once lived in it? In the old district of Jaro in Iloilo stands a 200-year-old house where the wife of former vice-president Fernando Lopez Sr., Maria "Mariquit" Javellana-Lopez, once lived. The house was built by her banker grandfather Ramon Javellana, and it served both as a residence as well as a bank. Robert Lopez Puckett, a great-great-grandson who is now the owner of the house, removed a plank of the molave floor in the master bedroom and showed us where the bank’s money used to be kept. In 1910, a vault was installed there and it still exists today.

Puckett started the restoration of his ancestral house in 1993. The wall finish on the ground floor was carefully chipped off to reveal the original red bricks underneath.

More than 20 coats of paint, applied by various tenants through the years, were removed from the wooden walls. The meticulous restoration work continues to this day. The house is lived-in and Puckett, who is the president of Solar Electric Company Inc., had solar cells unobtrusively installed on the roof, his small concession to modernization. Indeed, Casa Mariquit could very well serve as a metaphor for the bigger setting that is Iloilo today – a rich inheritance of a grand past that continues to hold meaning in the present.

The man after whom the waterfront boulevard in Iloilo City was named, British vice-consul Nicholas Loney, is said to be largely responsible for transforming Iloilo from a small town to one of the country’s major producers of sugar in the second half of the 1800s. The expansion of the sugar industry saw large migrations from Iloilo to the neighboring province of Negros where the wealth of its old rich is traced to the bounty brought by the sugar boom. The grand old houses and stately mansions that you find in many parts of Iloilo today stand as concrete testimonies to the wealth and grandeur of this time.

In 1928, Don Vicente Lopez built for his beloved wife, Elena Hofilena, a beau art mansion on two hectares of rice land in Jaro, said to be the original site of the first millionaires’ row in the country. Known as the Nelly Gardens, Dona Elena used to have as many as eight gardeners at a time tending to her orchids, roses, milflores and many other varieties of flowering plants. Inside, a used harp, violin, and piano are displayed in the music room that was later turned into a game room with the addition of the very first billiard table ever installed in the city. In the dining room, the long table can sit as many as 24 guests. The main living room and sitting area could be converted into a ballroom when the furniture were removed to accommodate the orchestra and guests who came in finery that matched the elegant setting. From the mezzanine or palco, older relatives and special guests would sit to watch the dancing below.

Before sugar, as early as the 17th century, Iloilo was exporting exquisite jusi and piña cloth to Europe. Today, the Arevalo district is known as Iloilo’s weaving center for sinamay, which is used for elegant ternos and barong tagalog, as well as other delicate local fabrics such as hablon, which can be made into beautiful scarves as well as table runners. In the town of Sta. Barbara, one can still find women engaged in the old-world art of bobbin lace-making and embroidery.

But what is the good life without good food? One of the most outstanding things that make your visit in Iloilo truly memorable is the food. How can we ever forget the sumptuous lunch at Breakthrough Restaurant in the coastal district of Arevalo, hosted by its gracious owner, Munding Robles? We feasted on succulent shellfish of uncommon varieties such as diwal, an elongated tongue-shaped shellfish found only in deep waters, and imbao, a bi-valve usually found in muddy waters. The kanlay, which must have come straight from the sea, was prepared two ways˜broiled and as fish head soup. Lato or seaweed was served as a side dish, and sinamak or coconut vinegar spiced with peppers and ginger, as dipping sauce.

After the annotated tour, packed with cultural and historical facts and trivia, at the Museo Iloilo, the first government-constructed museum building in the Philippines, we were more than ready for merienda of special batchoy at Ted’s Old Timer Restaurant, right across the La Paz public market. The menu for dinner at Amigo Terrace Hotel, centrally located in the city’s busy commercial and financial district, included pancit Molo soup ; kadios, an Ilongo dish made of pork cutlets simmered in black beans and langka (jackfruit); and kalkag or fried rice with roasted dried baby shrimps.

Iloilo City’s dynamic Mayor Jerry Trenas, who had just won a second term by a landslide, and his charming wife Rosalie welcomed the members of the press from Manila who came for the familiarization tour hosted by the newly organized Iloilo City Convention Bureau (ICCB), together with the Department of Tourism Region VI office headed by Director Edwin Trompeta. It was the idea of Mayor Trenas, given to the private sector of the tourism industry in Iloilo, to form the ICCB to promote Iloilo in the national and international convention market. "The objective is to project Iloilo, which is the regional center of Western Visayas, as a place to do business and hold meetings and conferences," says ICCB marketing representative Nazarlina Lim.

Our Cebu Pacific flight from Manila to Iloilo took shorter than the usual 50 minutes. "Cebu Pacific time is on-time" is the battlecry of the country’s second leading domestic carrier. We were billeted at the charming Hotel del Rio which sits on the banks of the clear flowing Iloilo River. "The ambience is suited to both business and family vacations," says its amiable general manager Jesse Ledesma.

Across the street, at the La Fiesta Hotel, the spacious multi-purpose hall is adequately equipped with modern conference and meeting facilities. The ballroom at the Amigo Terrace Hotel can accommodate as many as 900 to 1,000 guests. The Sarabia Manor Hotel and Convention Center, just ten minutes away from the airport, is said to be a preferred address of business travelers and tourists alike. There are three first-class hotels and 14 standard and economy hotels in Iloilo, with a total capacity of 1,044 rooms.

An easy 45-minute drive to the north of Iloilo City on well-paved roads takes you to Casa Fiammetta in Barotac Nuevo. The themed resort offers an appealing venue both for conferences and vacations. "Most of what you see in the five-hectare ranch are buildings constructed with adaptive-reuse in mind," Nonel Gemora explained as we toured the premises. "The log cabins used to house tractors and farm implements and the multi-purpose hall and conference room were once warehouses for grain and fertilizer." Guests will not be wanting in recreational activities that include horseback riding on schooled thoroughbreds and local ponies, kayaking, bird-watching, camping, and other hacienda related activities

An easy 45-minute drive to the south of Iloilo City, passing through historic towns such as Oton, the first Spanish settlement and oldest municipality in Iloilo, takes you to Miag-ao where the magnificent Miag-ao church stands like an impregnable fortress. Built in 1788 as a place of worship, it also served as a refuge during moro pirate attacks. It has two dissimilar bell towers and a unique facade with decorative relief that’s described as "native botanical" featuring papaya, guava, and palm trees. The main altar underwent "faithful restoration" in 2001. The fresh gold leaf application alone was worth P4.9 million. The original sandstone and coral base of the altar was kept intact. Miag-ao Church is inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage list and is one of the most photographed churches in the Philippines. Other churches of interest in Iloilo include the Villa de Arevalo church where you’ll find the country’s third oldest Sto. Nino dating back to 1581; the Baroque-Gothic Jaro cathedral with its belfry standing separately across the street; and the Gothic-Renaissance church of Molo, built in 1831, with its sixteen female saints.

As the story goes, in building the Molo church, egg whites were used as construction material while the discarded egg yolks were used to bake biscuits. This gave birth to the Panaderia de Molo that has since been baking hojaldres, broas, galletas, banadas, and barquillos, among others, for the past 130 years. These have become pasalubong favorites as well as the biscocho from Biscocho Haus and butterscotch from Sweet ŒNes.

Iloilo today is not unlike its grand old houses undergoing restoration. The old-world charm and refinement were never really lost. They need only to be reclaimed.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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