Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Amigos' North Luzon Camino. Day 3 -- "Visita Iglesia" in Ilocos Norte

Day 3 was our full day to go around Ilocos Norte to visit some of her more  noteworthy churches.  Some of the Amigos had been around Ilocos before and for some, this was their first time in the province.  I hoped that the day would hold some interesting discoveries for everyone.

We woke up bright and early at Balay da Blas, a delightful B&B in Laoag City.  Originally built out of owner Sammy Blas' ancestral home, Balay has been so successful that it now includes a more modern three story hotel beside it.  We stayed in the Executive, Junior and deluxe suites in the original building where rooms are furnished with antique wooden furniture and enough personal knick knacks that make you feel like you are a guest in Sammy Blas' home.

To get a feel of the places we would go to, I hired a tour guide from Ilocos Heritage Tours.  
Michelle Jacinto,  genuine Ilocana and native of  Laoag City was a terrific guide -- regaling us with  local,  cultural and historical facts. With a little prodding, she also sang Pamulinawen and Manang Biday for us.  A real trouper indeed!
When traveling,  I  believe that having a local guide take you around is the one of the best ways to maximise your enjoyment of the place.

Our first stop was Pasuquin Bakery in Pasuquin, a few towns north of Laoag City. This is where a unique and delicious biscocho is made.  It comes in two varieties -- as a soft roll lightly flavoured with anise, and as a crunchy biscocho.  The soft roll (which keeps for just a few days)  is best eaten warm, with good butter while  the crunchy biscocho can last for several weeks and is perfect with coffee.

From the bakery, we visited the Church of St James, right by the Pasuquin town plaza.  While the church is new and not one of the heritage churches of Ilocos,  we wanted to go and say hi to our Amigo,  Santiago.

I found this statue of Santiago Matamoros inside the church, tucked away to one side.

 This larger statue of Santiago as Peregrino is more prominent, located on the right side of the main altar.  Time for us to take a photo with our Amigo!

From Pasuquin, it was a short drive to the next town, Bacarra where we gamely posed in the
shadow of the famous earthquake damaged bell tower of St. Andrew's Church, also known as
Torre Ti Bacarra.
Built in the 1700s,  the bell tower's dome has been completely damaged along with the top floor but what is left is still quite spectacular.  The surrounding area has also been landscaped to make for a more striking photo setting.  This landscaped portion around the tower was certainly not there when I first visited Bacarra many many years ago.

Like most of the churches in earthquake prone Ilocos,  St. Andrew's in Bacarra hews to the earthquake baroque style of architecture where buttresses help prop up and strengthen the nave or the main part of the church.

From Bacarra, we drove to the town of Sarrat where the church of Sta. Monica sits prettily by the banks of the Padsan River.

Built by Augustinian friars in the 1600s, Sta. Monica church has been damaged through the centuries by fires and earthquakes.  With each calamity,  the church has been reconstructed and rebuilt and while the current facade no longer conforms to what it originally looked like,  it is still one of the must see churches in Ilocos Norte.

The interiors of Sta. Monica Church feature gleaming tiles, brick walls and the longest nave of any church in Ilocos Norte.
Don't forget to look up and marvel at the ceiling,  composed of a system of wooden trusses that hold up the roof.  Brick walls with large windows allow natural light to stream into the church.

Another interesting and unique feature of Sta. Monica Church is the brick bridge that connects the convento to the church.  Picture pretty, it makes me think of Maria Clara, azoteas and secret trysts with Ibarra.

We pause and pose for a moment, in front of historic (and indestructible) Sta. Monica church in Sarrat.

From Sarrat, we followed Padsan River to the church of San Nicolas Tolentino in the municipality of San Nicolas.  This town is connected to Laoag City by the Gilbert Bridge and you pass by the church when you exit Laoag headed to Manila.  
Can you see the many flags and the coat of arms of Spain, which adorn the top of the main entrance way?

The church is named after an Italian Augustinian friar, St. Nicolas of Tolentine, who was known for his simple and pious ways. He must have been quite a favourite with the Augustinian missionaries who brought Christianity to Ilocos because they named  three parishes after him  -- in San Nicolas and Vintar, Ilocos Norte and in Sinait, Ilocos Sur.

A lovely and serene statue of the Blessed Virgin is placed by the wall,  and can be seen once you enter the church.

Our next stop after San Nicolas was the always amazing St. Augustine Church in Paoay, one of
only four churches that have been designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the country.
Built solidly in earthquake baroque style, it sits massive and unperturbed in the middle of the rapidly (and sadly) modernising church grounds.
The church was constructed in the 1700s and has been damaged by earthquakes but rebuilt and reinforced with 24 buttresses -- the widest and the most that I ever seen in any church in the Philippines.

Delicate spirals or coils can be found on the buttresses, adding gracefulness and fluidity to these otherwise strong and mighty structures.

There were quite a number of local tourists visiting Paoay Church.  The interiors unfortunately are not as impressive as the exterior  -- I wish that when re-constructing or re-building classic structures,  those in charge try to be as faithful to the original as they possibly can.

 Paoay Church is truly awe inspiring.  I have visited all four UNESCO World Heritage churches in the Philippines and this is definitely my favourite.   The towering belfry stands apart and is as imposing and impressive as the church.  Seen together, they form one of the best examples of church architecture in the country.

 Our tour guide Michelle had designed our itinerary so that the Cathedral of St. William the Hermit in Laoag City would be our last "visita iglesia"  for the day.  The Cathedral stands out with its light coloured plastered facade and its rounded columns.  It looks a bit different from the other churches we had been to.  Alcoves on the upper level, in between shorter and more squat columns, feature statues of the patron saint and Sts. Peter and Paul.

Mass was ongoing when we arrived so I didn't want to take to intrude by taking too many photos.  
You get a better sense of the cathedral's expansive size when you see the thick walls and the wide and deep windows on the sides.

The church of St. William the Hermit must have occupied quite a large area when it was built.
The  bell tower, which is always located within church grounds,  is now a good two blocks away.
Retaining its original brick facade, St. William's bell tower stands several stories above the modern buildings that  surround it.  I can imagine it must have been a key look out point for Laoag in the olden days.
The November light was slowly fading as we stood outside the Cathedral of St. William the Hermit.
I was happy that we had managed to visit quite a number of Ilocos Norte's memorable  churches on Day 3 of our Northern Camino.

NB Many thanks to my husband Jay for some of the photos used in this post.

The Amigos' North Luzon Camino. Day 2 -- The churches of Tuguegarao, Piat, Yguig and Alcala, Cagayan Valley.

Darkness fell early on the first day of our North Luzon Camino which was disappointing because I was not able to take the Amigos to see the gorgeous brick churches of Cagayan Valley -- in Alicia, Cauayan and most specially in Tumauini and San Pablo.  
I  therefore resolved to try and not miss anything as we travelled from Cagayan to Ilocos Norte on Day 2 of our road trip.

The tall and stately Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul in Tuguegarao City is the biggest church in the province and just a few hundred meters from our hotel.   The church has undergone a facelift and renovation in the recent years but I am happy to note that no major changes have been done to destroy its traditional architecture.

Jay and I were right on time for the 6:30 a.m. mass.  There are even earlier masses at 5:30 and again at 6:00 in the morning.

This very friendly black dog reminded me a lot of my labradors, Nero and Rebus.  I like to think we connected during this brief moment, serendipitously captured by Amigo Mayk Mariano, who was sitting a few pews behind me.  
Although this dog was not a stray and was with a lady who was attending the mass, I had evil thoughts of dog-napping him and whisking him back with me to Manila.

Back at the hotel, we just had time for a quick breakfast of fried rice, egg and those divine garlicky  longganisas that Tuguegarao is known for.

Here are the Amigos in front of our overnight stop, Hotel Lorita along Gomez Street in Tuguegarao City.  It was a good place to rest and recover after the 14 hour trip from Manila.

From Tuguegarao, we took a 45 kilometre detour to Piat, to pray before Yena Tam Ngamin, patroness of all of Cagayan Valley.  The church is known as the Basilica Minore of Our Lady of Piat and is visited by pilgrims from all over the country seeking her help and intercession.

We were  fortunate to run into Bishop Pol Jaucian, bishop of the province of Abra who was also visiting Piat at the same time.  He was gracious and kind to pose for a photo with us.

From Piat, we drove back back through Tuguegarao and headed to Yguig, Cagayan.  This magnificent brick church sits atop a hill overlooking the Cagayan River.  It is also known as the Church of St. James and therefore, a fitting stop for us come and pay a visit to our Amigo, Santiago. Unfortunately, the church was undergoing much needed repairs to its interiors and Santiago was in safekeeping somewhere inside the convento.

I did think that Santiago was happy to see us again.  The Amigos were certainly awed by this massive brick church with three kinds of buttresses.  I hope that the cracks that are so evident will be fixed and that Santiago's church in Cagayan will continue to stand proud through many more centuries to come.

It did not say "no photos" only " no sitting" so here is a nice shot of the Amigos by the outdoor altar behind the Church of St. James in Yguig, Cagayan Valley.

I had boasted about the tastiest, creamiest milk candy to the Amigos -- much more to my liking than sugary pastillas de leche.  TeaƱo's Milk Candy sold along the highway in Alcala, Cagayan is Jay's favourite Cagayan delicacy.  We were lucky that stocks had not run out when we passed by and everyone was able to have a taste of what I had been raving about.

The last Cagayan church we visited was also in Alcala, sitting right by the roadside. 
St. Philomene's Church is a well preserved and lovely brick structure that was built in the 1800s.   Graceful and elegant, the facade is adorned with statues of various saints, painted in white that contrasts nicely with the red brick exterior.

Intricate gold carvings adorn the church doors.  Beside this beautiful church is the  bell tower and the convento, also made of brick.  

This church is said to be the widest in all of Cagayan province.  The interiors are simple and the ceiling has been modernised with steel frames but you still feel like you are in another era when you enter and are greeted with this delightful young angel holding a shell filled with holy water.  Notice the angel's skin tone and her noticeably Filipino facial features.

Alcala was our last stop in Cagayan on our way to Laoag, Ilocos Norte where we would spend the next two nights.  When we passed the Patapat Viaduct approaching Pagudpud, it was a perfect opportunity to stop,  stretch our legs and take this souvenir photo -- marking another day on the Amigos' North Luzon Camino.

NB Thank you Mayk Mariano for photos #3 and #10.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

The Amigos' North Luzon Camino. Day 1 - Pit Stop at Mountain Oasis Sta. Fe, Nueva Vizcaya

Somehow I managed to convince the Amigos that after our  130 kilometre walk through Northern Spain, our next adventure should be a 1,100 +  kilometre  road trip through Northern Luzon.  Thankfully, we would not be walking, we'd be riding in comfort and style.

Jay and I take this road trip every year -- travelling northeast to Tuguegarao City and going back home through the northwest, via Ilocos Norte and Sur.  We go around the top of Luzon, sometimes as far as Aparri.
Because this is such a long trip, we've managed to scout out the best pit stops along the way.  One such favourite is Mountain Oasis, just after Dalton Pass, in the municipality of Sta. Fe, Nueva Vizcaya.  

The rest rooms are clean and well maintained and there's a small convenience store where you can buy drinks and snacks.  Because Jay and I are always on "hurtle" mode, we have never stayed longer than a few minutes.  I had not seen much beyond the ladies' room and the freezers stocked with water and sodas in cans. I had no expectations and thus was very pleasantly surprised at what we discovered about the place.

Beyond the convenience store is a spacious  restaurant with a large terrace where one can stretch one's legs, enjoy the cool mountain air and take in this bucolic view.  Amazing what Jay and I had missed all these years!

The restaurant is not air-conditioned but well ventilated with huge windows.  We found a table by the corner and soon, a huge yellow moth flitted in and joined our group. He attached himself to the wall and stayed there till we left.

Since we were on a North Luzon Camino, of course we had to have pinakbet, a regional vegetable dish.  It was tasty -- with a good crisp bite to the vegetables,  it wasn't too salty from the shrimp bagoong and was generously topped with slices of deep fried pork belly.

Crispy pata is the popular partner to pinakbet.  The pork leg had been de-boned making it easier and more convenient to eat.  It was an excellent crispy pata -- even better than most versions you can find in well known Manila restaurants.  It was well seasoned,  properly fried and not very oily.  I could hear the collective crunch and crackle as everyone enjoyed the crisp pork skin.  Cholesterol galore!

We took longer than we should have over our delicious lunch.  Good food,  lovely pastoral views and refreshing mountain breezes made this stop truly an oasis on our first day of our North Luzon Camino.

NB Thanks to my husband Jay for the last photo!

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Tokyo Tendon by way of Tenya, Market Market

After the ramen and tonkatsu wave of Japanese imports, is tempura the next big thing?  The people  who brought in Tenya Tempura are certainly hoping for that.

Because I dropped by in the middle of the afternoon, there was hardly anyone at Tenya which is located on the ground floor of Market Market.  

Tenya is a chain of affordable (okay, let's say cheap) tempura restaurants that can be found all around Tokyo.  There are a few branches in touristy areas like Asakusa and Shibuya but for the most part, you won't find them along the main drag.  The main target are locals, salary men, students.  
Tenya's Market Market menu has a huge bowl tendon right on the cover,  which is what they are most popular for.

While most Pinoys are familiar with and love tempura, I don't know if they're  fond of tendon as well. Tendon is a bowl of rice topped with several pieces of tempura and doused with a sweetish dark sauce.  I prefer tendon to tempura since I find it compact and convenient to eat.
Tendon in Tokyo, in a very good Japanese tempura restaurant can cost upwards of 2,000 yen per bowl, depending on what the toppings are.

The kitchen at Tenya is semi-open and separated by glass panels from the seating area.  If you are so inclined, you can watch your food being cooked and assembled.

It was nice to see a small jar of tsukemono or pickles -- these traditionally accompany just about any kind of Japanese food and it's always a good sign when a Japanese restaurant has them on the table.
There was also a small jar of tendon sauce in case you find your bowl a bit dry.  They have the same free condiments on the tables at Tenya in Tokyo.

I decided to order the house special -- the  All Star Tendon which cost  325 pesos.  In Tokyo, the 
same bowl will cost you 750 yen and that comes out slightly cheaper at 288 pesos -- thanks to the favourable exchange rate. 

The All Star Tendon comes with one prawn tempura,  one squid, one salmon, one crab stick and
some green beans and mushrooms.  The tempura was pleasing -- not too oily nor was the batter too thick.  I particularly enjoyed the green beans and the mushrooms and will probably order the Yasai Tendon (vegetable tempura bowl) next time.
The sauce was judiciously poured on top, and did not render anything too soggy or wet.  It was a good bowl of tendon and if Pinoys can get used to it,  I would be happy to see more Tenya branches in the future.