See Imelda Marcos' legendary collection of shoes at Marikina Shoe Museum in Manila

Imelda Marcos has been called many things in her nine decades of life. "The Iron Butterfly", for example, came from her role as co-dictator of the Philippines – with her late husband, Ferdinand Marcos – between 1972 and 1986. "The First Lady of Excess" was coined at the same time as "Imeldific" became an English term meaning "shameless and vulgar extravagance". And, perhaps most famously, she was labelled "Marie Antoinette with shoes".

This morning, we've come to Marikina, in the Philippines capital, Manila, to visit one of the world's few shoe museums. The district is the shoe capital of the Philippines as it produces almost 70 per cent of shoes made in the country. But most international visitors come for one reason: to see its collection of Imelda's shoes, at the Marikina Shoe Museum.

A former Miss Manila, Imelda was infamous for her collection of more than 1000 designer-label shoes, which were left behind when the Marcos family fled into exile after the People Power Revolution of 1986.  About 10 per cent of her collection is now on display on the top floor of the tiny museum.

"I don't know why she bothered," says one of my female colleagues of the Marcos collection. "They're mostly the same style in the same colours. And, from the photos, she usually wore long dresses so you wouldn't be able to see the shoes anyway."

 That may well be so but if you want to compare women's shoes from the greatest designers of the 1970s and '80s, you'll find them here: plus one of the 508 gowns Imelda left behind (along with 888 handbags and 15 mink coats).

Few of Imelda's shoes have high heels. . At 170 centimetres, she was tall for a Filipina. She was the same height as her husband and towered over many of the statesmen she met (including an elderly Mao Zedong and Japanese Emperor Hirohito).

The shoe museum isn't just about Imelda. It opens with a display of footwear through the ages – from sorts of shoes Otzi the iceman would have worn back in 3300 BC, via Dutch clogs, to modern sports shoes.

There are displays of cobbler's tools, as well as shoes worn by every Filipino celebrity you can think of – from presidents to pop stars. Our self-guided tour takes about 30 minutes.

Thanks to the friendly "tourist policeman" guarding the museum we discover there's much more to Marikina, including a footwear walk of fame.

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 About $US38 million of Filipino annual exports come from the footwear industry, mostly from Marikina, and that's thanks to one man. Don Laureano "Kapitan Moy" Guevara bought himself a pair of shoes in 1881 and had his workers repeatedly dissect them and learn to put them back together. He opened his own shoe shop in 1887 as a way to elevate his fellow Marikenos beyond subsistence fishing and farming.

The friendly tourist policeman tells us to walk 50 metres, past the statue of Kapitan Moy, and pop into the international shoe emporium. Here, a female colleague snaps up elegant Imelda-like shoes at bargain prices.

Next comes the 200 year old Kapitan Moy building, where "the father" of the Philippine shoe industry lived, and where the first shoes in Marikina were made. Here, we collect a map of Marikina's heritage walking trail.

For the next half hour, we meander around the safe, clean streets of this non-touristy part of Manila. The main street – named after Filipino independence hero JP Rizal – is alive with multi-coloured jeepneys (the ubiquitous form of public bus). 

Our map takes us three streets down to the Marikina river, its bank marked with a huge statue of a shoeless woman and, even more bizarrely, two giant high-heeled shoes floating on midstream barges. Across the river, you'll find the historic Jesus de la Pena Chapel, which was built by Jesuit missionaries in 1630.

On the way back to the shoe museum, visit Our Lady of the Abandoned, the second oldest parish church in the Philippines. Its interior is like something out of Absolutely Fabulous. The golden-robed Madonna and child over the altar look like they're appearing on a Versace catwalk, not sharing a stable with donkeys. And don't miss the black Jesus near the entrance.

I was so surprised I forgot to check if the messiah was wearing shoes.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

experiencephilippines.org

traveller.com.au/manila

marikina.gov.ph

FLY

Philippine Airlines operates direct flights to Manila from Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. See philippineairlines.com

STAY

The five-star Fairmont Mataki is in the heart of Manila's business district. Rooms from about $205. See fairmont.com/makati

Steve Meacham was a guest of Brisbane Airport Corporation, Fairmont Makati, Manila and Philippine Airlines.

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