I happened to be in Ilocos Norte for work a couple of weeks ago and "work" just happened to be in the vicinity of that magnificent legacy of the Augustinian order -- St. Augustine Church in Paoay. In between meetings, I took the chance to enjoy a walk around the church in the middle of an unusually cool January afternoon.
When the Augustinians came to the Philippines, they were assigned to evangelise the Ilocos provinces. Thanks to this territorial assignment, Ilocos Norte and Ilocos Sur have a number of well preserved samples of historic church architecture. One of the most famous is the church in Paoay -- also a UNESCO world heritage site.
St. Augustine or San Agustin Church, was built in the 1700s and is a fusion of baroque and gothic architecture. It is made of bricks and coral stone. It is supported on both sides by the grandest and most solid looking buttresses that I have ever seen in a church in the Philippines.
These massive buttresses give the church an air of monumental strength and permanence. They also serve a very practical function -- protecting the church from being destroyed by a strong earthquake.
The bell tower, made of lighter coral stone, is built separate and away from the main church. It is a safe distance away so that in case of an earthquake and possible collapse, it will not fall on the main church.
Lucky for me, the imposing main door is open in the middle of afternoon. Most of the time, churches keep the main door closed when there are no services. There are many treasures inside so some form of security must be in place.
This stained glass window of San Agustin gives me a welcome blessing.
I exited through the side entrance and found this garden area. This sign posted at the entrance tells the story of San Agustin and the Augustinians in Ilocos Norte.
The garden is a riot of flowers and colours. The buttresses have not been spared the encroachment of greenery and all kinds of vines and weeds have taken root.
From the front of the church, you won't see this garden but it's definitely worth a visit. While not exactly a model of landscaping or horticultural excellence, I discovered something that made San Agustin's garden a must see.
Almost overgrown with various flowers and weeds are scale models of the renowned Augustinian churches in Ilocos Norte. If you don't have time to visit these various Baroque churches, a stroll through the garden will give you an idea of just what you may have missed.
I am fortunate to have visited almost all of these churches but it was still a joy to walk around and see them again in miniature.
This is the model of St. Anne's church in Piddig.
The church on the left is San Nicolas of Tolentino which you will find in Vintar, north of Laoag. The bigger one on the right is San Andres in Bacarra, much visited for its partially earthquake destroyed bell tower.
This is San Agustin church. The model hardly does justice to the original.
This is the Immaculate Conception church that you can find in Batac. Across the Batac church plaza, you can also find some of the best empanadas available in Ilocos Norte.
St. John the Baptist church in Badoc also has buttresses on the side, albeit much smaller than those in San Agustin church. Badoc is where you can find the Juan Luna museum in the Luna ancestral home.
St. Joseph Church in Dingras was completely razed by fire in the early 1900s but amazingly, its grand facade remained standing and is still quite a sight to see. You can walk around it and have a glimpse of how glorious the original church must have been.
And finally, this is another church dedicated to San Nicolas found in San Nicolas.
After that walk through San Agustin's garden, time for less ecclesiastical pursuits -- how about some souvenir shopping? Across the road from the church is a strip mall, Paoay style. There are a number of vendors selling Ilocano crafts and food items.
Not in the mood for abel cloth or chichacorn? La Herencia is a wonderful place to try Ilocano cuisine and it's right across Paoay Church. Step into this cheerful cafe for some of their unique takes on traditional Ilocano favourites.
There is the surprisingly good pinakbet pizza -- made even better with a drizzle of genuine Ilocano bagoong. Ampalaya, okra, sitaw, cheese and bagoong? Trust me -- the combination is a winner!
I order the bagnet pizza which is also good but then again, fried pork works well with anything.
This is a bowl of the local noodle dish called miki. Made of fat egg noodles in a chicken based broth it has anything that the cook can get his hands on -- hard boiled eggs, vegetables, bits of crackling from the bagnet, chunks of pork ... it's hot, savoury and delicious!
You'd think that after two pizzas and a bowl of miki, I would be burping my way out of Paoay.
But wait ... right outside La Herencia was a vendor cooking and selling my favourite Ilocano street food ... empanada. Fate called and I couldn't resist.
Fresh from the frying pan and into my greedy paws. I ordered it sans longganisa, just the green papaya and munggo filling to assuage my much abused vegetarian conscience. With a liberal dousing of sukang iloko, it was the best snack of the afternoon.
The bright mid afternoon sun had dipped behind the church and so had the temperature. There was a fresh chill in the air that you wouldn't get in smoggy Manila. I took a last look at this graceful Baroque beauty and thanked San Agustin for the blessing of a lovely day in Paoay.
Dios ti angnina!