Northern Exposure: The sights

During the short time we were in Ilocos we didn’t waste a single moment. In 3 days we went from one point to another, dashing through the region with our trusty van and guide. We visited many a place, explored many a charming corner, and discovered as much of Ilocos as we could in the time we had. I enjoyed everything…as I am inclined to do when I am someplace new and I just want to take it all in with open arms and an open mind (I am a starry-eyed innocent when it comes to travel…and I fight to stay that way ;)). However, there will always be those things that tugged at my heart and imagination the most…those things that I know will always be the first ones to come to mind when someone mentions Ilocos.

Gorgeous churches, one after another
I had heard about Ilocos’ famous churches and was looking forward to seeing them. What I didn’t expect though was just how many of them there were, and just how charming and beautiful each one was! We visited most of the more well-known ones (like Paoay Church and Vigan Cathedral) but even during the drives from one place to another, as we passed many small towns, I would stare in wonder out the window at the churches and belfries flying by. Big, small, painted, brick, or crumbling rock. They were all there – standing guard over their flock, calling the faithful to mass, like time-worn sentinels who have weathered many storms and kept many secrets. I was mesmerized by them all (or perhaps it was just my gothic novel nature) but my favorites were Paoay Church and the Bacarra Church and bell tower.

The Paoay Church façade is old and crumbling but in no way worn out or weary. In fact, it is this very aged face that makes it a commanding presence. With buttresses extending past its walls, foliage growing through its cracks, and stories seeming to hide in every nook and cranny, it is just the kind of church that would draw me in and inspire all sorts of fantastical imaginings. The style of Paoay Church has been called “Earthquake Baroque”.

The Bacarra Church is smaller but no less charming. Its red brick façade gives it an air of coziness and comfort – characteristics I think are important in a church, a place I like to believe offers solace and sanctuary. In its sunny side garden are the remains of the Bacarra bell tower, a lovely old belfry. The bricks are missing in a lot of places, and there seems to be a small ecosystem of plants growing right on its surface – of course this only further endeared it to me.

Windmills of the Gods
I knew the Bangui windmills were on our itinerary but never really thought much about how they would look. Windmills were windmills, I thought, and as I spent a 3-month work stint in the Netherlands, I figured that if I had seen one (and I had seen many) I had seen them all. I did not take into account however that I had never seen one up close, and I had never seen one in my native land. Both factors eventually leading me to be totally bowled over by one of the most surreal sights I have seen in my local travels. The windmills where huge white monoliths, standing in a row on a long deserted seashore. The emptiness of the beach and the crashing of those strong northern waves, coupled with the modernity of those huge, blinding white windmills set in a neat row down the shore’s long stretch…something about it looked slightly, for lack of a better term, alien-y. Like when the scientists discover the alien settlement on an ancient burial ground – yes, I know I watch too much sci-fi. But still! You had to have been there. It was surreal. I loved it. I could have sat on that shore forever…or at least until the mothership arrived.

An enchanted old town
Arguably one of the most popular destinations in Ilocos – Vigan’s famed cobblestone streets is a must see. The days-of-yore scenes you see in photos are actually just two small streets (Calle Crisologo and Calle Gen. Luna) and a tiny square. Not that this detracts from its charm at all. The two cobblestone streets are lined with old houses, a number which have been turned into shops selling everything from souvenirs to religious icons to antique furniture. You can also take a short kalesa (horse-drawn carriage) ride through the area. If you like puttering around old, antique-y looking doodads, in an antique-y looking setting, this is the place! My hands were so dusty by the time I was done but I did come away with a fork and a spoon…unlikely to be anything of actual monetary value, but they had initials engraved on them which I thought made them look quite special :) After a little wander up and down, we settled ourselves in Plaza Burgos (the square at the end of Calle Crisologo) for dinner al fresco.

Our romantic resort
Some places, like some people, you just immediately get along with. From that first moment, you just feel like you fit. That’s the way it was for me and Sitio Remedios. We arrived in the evening and the stone walkway at the entrance was lit with low, warm lights. Plants and all manners of herbaceous stuff fought for surface area over the rocks and the two shallow pools that flanked the path. The path opened up to a green courtyard, at whose head sat a small stone chapel, while the South China Sea crashed at its feet. At the sides of the courtyard stood seven balays (houses) built to look like traditional Ilocano heritage homes. I was brimming with delight as the realization sunk in…one of these houses was ours (well the upstairs part at least)! The houses where decorated simply using Ilocano furniture and material. The staff was friendly and helpful. We had breakfast by the sea and dinner by candlelight. The only downside is that we didn’t have enough time to truly enjoy the place. I would have loved to spend a couple of days hammocked there with a good book, going for the occasional dip in the sea, and daydreaming my time away.

***Read Nena’s post about Sitio Remedios here. She has more photos!

Standing on top of Luzon (well, almost)
When you live on an archipelago just a hop above the equator, beaches are a part of your life. It’s always about the next island, the next beach, the next strip of sand. Sometimes, you actually (gasp) grow tired of it and long for forests and villages and such. And that’s why, although much lauded, Pagudpud was not first on my list of things to see. When we got there though, that piece of my heart that will forever belong to the beach gave a little jump. White sand, blue waters, coconut trees lining the shore – this familiar landscape will always make me feel that all is right in the world. More then anything however, for me, Pagudpud’s appeal lay in the vigorous waves that crashed on the shore, the absence of the crowd that covers our more popular beaches, and that fact that I was standing at the northern-most tip of the Luzon mainland, with only the Babuyan and Batanes islands between me and Taiwan.

The food!
I have already gone on about the copious amounts of food I ate in Ilocos, but I have to say again – the food was really a highlight for me! :) You can read my Ilocos food posts here and here.

The people!
My list of Ilocos highlights wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the wonderful people who, each in their own way, made my trip just that more special. All throughout and at so many points I was delighted by the warmth and willingness to help. I was tickled by sunny faces that were so quick to smile and strike a pose for the camera. I was captivated by scholarly voices that wove tales of adventure and intrigue. From the gallant owner of our resort to our endearing guide and driver who was never without a smile and an anecdote…I was charmed.

That’s it for my Ilocos trip! As I said, we visited more places than those mentioned here…these are just my personal highlights. If you have any questions about the trip details, feel free to drop me a line! For a more complete post-by-post account of our trip (and gorgeous photos to match) please check Ramblings From a Gypsy Soul :)