Unsung adventures of the far north

Off the Philippines' beaten track is a place of jubilant fiestas and glorious beaches, John Borthwick writes.

'I HAVE the highest-placed job in the country - but with the lowest pay," quipped Ruben Labuguen, the keeper of the ornate old Spanish lighthouse whose seemingly endless spiral staircase I was climbing.

It was clear that this tower, built in 1892 on Cape Bojeador near the north-west tip of the Philippines' main island of Luzon, had survived a hundred rounds or more with typhoons. Likewise, its unique wall plaster (made of egg white, ground coral and cane juice) was peeling noticeably, but its light still probed across the South China Sea.

Ruben led me up the lofty spiral to the top of his tower, 108 metres above sea level, where I found a powerful modern solar-electric lamp.

As we looked down on the Ilocos Norte coastline and out to the ocean beyond, I could almost see the flimsy Spanish caravels that, for centuries, sailed here from Europe via Mexico. Instead I spotted today's giant container ships heading south to Manila, still guided by the old tower's light.

Later, as we descended, I heard Ruben's ongoing, tongue-in-cheek lament drifting down from the heights: "Instead of danger money, up here I should get loneliness money!"

He explained that he was due to soon retire, already being in his mid-60s. "The department of tourism should keep him on, at double the salary - he's a tourist attraction in himself," my travelling companion commented. Ruben has recently retired, but exploring this historic lighthouse, not to mention meeting such characters, is just one of the unsung adventures of the Philippines' "far north", the prosperous provinces of Ilocos Norte and Sur.

Farther up the Ilocos Norte coast is Pagudpud Beach, a two-kilometre arc of blindingly pure sand that separates the turquoise waters of the South China Sea from a palm-fringed shore. It looks like a pristine version of that other famous, though now overbuilt Philippine strand, White Beach on Boracay Island. I scan the beach and note that Pagudpud's "crowd" today consists of two strollers, one dog, three fishermen and one swimmer. I make a mental note: beat the world's dreamers and resort schemers - get to Pagudpud now.

Laoag City, capital of Ilocos Norte, is alive with a fiesta on the day I arrive. A jubilant parade of marching bands passes hefty churches built by the Spanish during their occupation between 1572 and 1899, plus less elaborate structures from the American era (1900 to 1942). The adjacent Ilocos coast remains peppered with Spanish-era cathedrals built in "earthquake baroque" style - massive, squat structures with buttresses up to three metres wide.

A striking feature of most Ilocano churches is the huge stone belfry that sits apart from the main building - so that, should it tumble in an earthquake, the tower would not crush the main church. In mid-town Laoag, I find an example, these days known as the Sinking Bell Tower. It not only tilts, Pisa-like, but since 1580 has been subsiding into the ground by several centimetres each year.

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"How is it that all the roads are so good?" I ask my guide, Maria. "This was the home province of President Ferdinand Marcos," she answers. "He made sure his local people always had good roads."

One of the great treats of the Philippines is its food, especially the snacks unique to each region. At Batac town, Maria takes me to a covered stall area where the tables are crowded with students and office workers; they're wolfing down the local speciality, scrumptious fried empanadas filled with bean sprouts and sausage. Batac was the family seat of Ferdinand Marcos who died in exile in 1989. Around the corner from the empanada stalls is his mausoleum. Here I find the disgraced, embalmed ex-Prez lying in a glass coffin like a leftover Lenin, a discounted Mao. I make a second mental note: next time, skip the mummy - another empanada with the locals is more fun.

In the beautiful city of Vigan, about 90 minutes drive south of Laoag, I find pony-drawn calesa carriages clattering along cobble-stoned streets that are overseen by shuttered windows and iron lace balconies. In 1999 UNESCO added Vigan, the capital of Ilocos Sur province, to its World Heritage listing, lauding it as "the best-preserved Spanish colonial town in Asia". Take a walk here and history strolls with you, especially along Mena Crisologo Street and across Plaza Salcedo, named for the Spaniard who founded Vigan in 1572.

Facing the broad plaza is the imposing St Paul's Cathedral, built by Augustinian friars in 1541, while beside it stands the rambling Archbishop's Palace built in 1783, the official residence of the Archbishop of Nueva Segovia. The excellent repair of these venerable buildings can be attributed to a fast food, for Plaza Salcedo has gone from friars to fryers, so to speak. McDonald's and other franchises, built on church-owned land and housed in pseudo-colonial architecture, now face the historic holy buildings across the square. These food outlets have replaced a historic seminary building that burned down in 1968, with their rents nourishing the church's coffers quite nicely, thank you.

Parts of Vigan look like an 18th century Spanish town, with some 180 ancestral stone houses still standing in its historic Mestizo District. Many of the houses were built by Chinese taipans who made their fortunes from indigo dye, fabrics, gold, tobacco and other exports.

The best of the massive brick houses still boast red-tiled roofs, grand doorways, fine staircases, narra wood floors and sliding capiz windows, all reflecting the craftsmanship of early Filipino artisans who had to develop an architectural style that could survive this earthquake-prone region. A number of homes have been turned into inns, museums and souvenir shops, and yet royal Vigan remains refreshingly "under-discovered" by international tourists.

At the baronial Syquia Mansion, I meet Eddie Quirino, grandson of late 1940s to early 1950s Philippine president Elpidio Quirino. He invites me in to explore his family home, now a museum. The walls are hung with pictures of his grandfather in the company of his presidential contemporaries like Truman, Franco, Sukarno and Peron. "He almost went to Argentina in Peron's time," says the flamboyant Eddie, adding, "And he could tango - if only he'd gone there, he could have tangoed with Evita!"

I sip a coffee in cobbled Plaza Burgos and consider the echoes of Vigan history that surround me - earthquakes, assassinations, piety and liberation. The plaza itself is named in honour of Jose Burgos, a Filipino priest garrotted by the Spanish for espousing minor church reforms. That there is even a square to sit in is fortuitous. In the final days of the Pacific War, beautiful Vigan miraculously escaped being razed by the retreating Japanese and bombarded by the advancing Americans.

History here is not without its humorous twist. A Filipino friend, Danny, explains to me how the Spaniards allocated three common surnames to local people. "If your father was one of the king's soldiers, you might be given the family name of De Los Reyes - literally, 'of the kings'. Illiterate people were often named De La Cruz - 'of the cross' - because you just signed your name with a cross. But if your name was De Los Santos - 'of the saints'- that meant your sire was probably a friar. So much for priestly celibacy."

TRIP NOTES
* Philippine Airlines flies to Manila from Sydney, with connections to Laoag, Ilocos Norte. Phone 1300 888 725.

* Fort Ilocandia Hotel, Laoag, phone +63 77 722 1166, or see http://www.fortilocandia.com.ph.

Vigan Hotel, Vigan, phone +63 77 722 2588 or +63 77 722 1906.

* June and July is "steam bath" weather. November to May is drier and less humid.

* Australians do not require a visa if visiting for fewer than 21 days.

* For further information, see http://www.vigancity .gov.ph and wowphilippines.com.ph or contact Philippines Tourism on (02) 9283 0711.

TIPS
* Don't miss the World Heritage-listed 1702 Santa Maria cathedral at Paoay, near Laoag, and the similarly impressive Sarrat Church and bell tower, also in Ilocos Norte province.

* In Vigan, visit Padre Burgos National Museum that houses ethnological and historical exhibits such as weapons, kitchen utensils, basketry, period jewellery and costumes.

* Shop for traditional crafts, especially pottery (burnay) and handloom weaving (inabel) in the shops lining Crisologo Street.

The writer travelled courtesy of Philippine Airlines and the Philippines Department of Tourism.

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