Heritage houses are a rarity in modern Manila. The traditional wood, brick, and plaster might have been suitable for building centuries ago; but practicality, typhoon-proofing, and the advent of air-conditioning are the factors to consider today.
Most of the old houses have been torn down, or fallen into disrepair. However there is a resort in Bataan where we number of buildings have been transplanted and restored.
Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar is located in Bgy. Ibaba, Bagac, Bataan. From Quezon City it takes about 2 1/2 to 3 hours on a weekday morning. Later in the day it gets closer to 4 hours of travel, so get an early start!
We arrived at around 10:15 am, and joined the 11:00 tour.
There are several other things you should keep in mind for the trip:
- The houses are very old, so to minimize damage to the wooden floors all footwear will be left in the foyer of each house as you enter. If you don’t want to go barefoot, wear socks or tights! Just be careful not to slip.
- The charm of Las Casas is in the period setting; that means no air-conditioning! Wear light and airy clothing, and a hat and fan, or an umbrella will be very helpful. We went in February and the weather was a mild 28°C – in the summer months it will be much warmer (think 40s) and rainy, so plan your trip with that in mind!
- Much of the sightseeing is done on foot. There is a complimentary jeepney shuttle that can take you from one point to the other, but if you want a private car, you can rent electric golf carts by the hour (P1,200/hr)
- Bring water to stay hydrated! Regarding food, there are six dining outlets, but I highly recommend the Italian restaurant La Bella Teodora at Casa Biñan, near the church (I’ll explain why in this post!) For hotel guests, a set breakfast is included in the cost of the rooms.
We chose the Heritage Tour weekday package for our trip: (P 2,500 as of Feb. 2018)
- Walking tour
- River cruise
- Kalesa (horse carriage) ride
- Access to Hotel De Oriente
- PHP 500 dining credits
- welcome drinks (iced gulaman)
The property offers another package that includes pickup from Quezon City, which costs P3,000 and departs at 8 am. There is also a yacht cruise option, but the balsa (raft) trip included in the Heritage Tour package was just fine with us.
After the initial transactions at the front desk, the service jeepney will come by to pick up passengers for the trip to the main square. We put off getting our welcome drinks till later in the afternoon.
Along the road there were lots of sites that were under construction. Since acquisition of these buildings is an ongoing process, it makes sense. Many of the houses have been restored and are available for rent; though of course the rate is much higher than a typical room at the hotel itself.
The walking tour takes about an hour, and our tour was limited to the area around the Casa Lubao, across from the Hotel de Oriente; which is also the first house on the tour and the youngest heritage building on the property. The story, according to the guide, is that during the Japanese occupation it was a custom for their soldiers to set fire to buildings after they moved out. The family who lived in Casa Lubao hired a driver/gardener who turned out to be a Japanese colonel working as a spy. They treated him kindly, and in return the man ensured the house was saved.
We entered four of the houses with the guide, but you are free to explore on your own after the tour is finished. Some of the furnishings are indeed antique, but not from the same time period as the house; I didn’t mind it too much, as the knick-knacks help make the rooms feel more lived-in.
Windows back then were made out of wood and capiz shells. Air-conditioning such a space would be a headache, but then the weather was much milder in those days.
Casa Biñan is replicated from the house of Teodora Alonso, the mother of our national hero José Rizal. There are pictures of some of the original owners on the wall, and on the second floor… something dreadful happened.
The story was fascinating to listen to, but it also made everything that much more creepy…
The courtyard of Casa Biñan is also where they shot the Spoliarium scene near the end of Heneral Luna. In retrospect, it should have been obvious that the resort is one of the best places to shoot a historical film, but I didn’t expect to actually walk right into it!
The sun was very hot and yet, I felt a slight chill just then…
The next building was the Casa Quiapo. Despite the very dungeon feel of the ground-floor hallway, the home of Don Rafael Enriquez served as the first campus of the University of the Philippines School of Fine Arts (my alma mater), and over the years it became a bowling center, a dormitory, a restaurant, an abortion clinic(!)…
The second floor is quite large, with several rooms opening off the main hall. This one was large enough to be a function room!
The last leg of the walking tour goes past several of the houses to one located near the beach. The guide did point out some architectural features, however- such as the rooftop of Casa Jaen I (1st and 2nd picture). The details on the overhang of the roof and the lace-like details at the corners signified how wealthy and influential the owners were: the Esquivel clan, from Nueva Ecija.
Casa Unisan (bottom right) was turned into a restaurant space, the Cafe Marivent, which serves Filipino-Spanish cuisine. The house is very beautiful, but its history is tragic. Its owners, the Maxino family, were massacred by bandits. You can still see some of the bullet holes in some of the walls.
Casa Luna was the last house on the guided tour. It was named after the brothers Juan and Antonio Luna, as the house came from Namacpacan, which is now known as Luna Town in La Union [source: I have to admit that at this point I was more focused on snapping pictures in the semi-darkness than listening to the guide, who was in another room]
We went up the outdoor stairs to the balcony on the second floor, where they placed the entrance. There was a small gazebo visible from the windows. On display were a variety of tools, portraits, and a stairway that leads down into stillness. I didn’t go down, no one did.
I wasn’t scared. Just take my word for it, alright? And I had to catch up with the guide.
One reason for having guests go through the second-floor entrance instead of the ground floor was probably to show this particular feature: around the edge of the room are narrow passageways for servants.
Even servants had a hierarchy: the aliping namamahay or house servants were allowed to live in their own little house on the master’s property, whereas the aliping sagigilid were an even lower class, forbidden to enter the main areas of the house. They could only move around using these passages. In modern Tagalog sagi gilid translates roughly to ‘touching the sides’.
The portraits also had a story to them. The guide pointed out how during the Spanish occupation, women never smiled in their portraits: this was because a smile was interpreted as maharot, meaning an ‘easy’ or ‘loose’ woman.
There was an outburst of snorts and chuckling at this. It seems like such a minor thing now, but that was the case for more than 300 years!
With that, the guide ended the tour with their company’s motto:
“Pride in the past, hope for the future.”
Casa Unisan was the closest to where we were, and of course when at a Filipino heritage site, everyone wants to eat Filipino food. It was packed full, and the waiting line was half an hour long.
Instead of starving patiently, we walked back across the plaza to the Italian restaurant near the church, La Bella Teodora. It was nearly empty, and because of its location near the river, it was delightfully cool inside. But the best part is yet to come! If you take one of the side doors, you will find yourself on a flight of steps facing the church. It’s an amazing sight!
Because it is in the shade of the building, it is a nice spot for selfies too. Y’know, if you’re into that.
Since Acuzar is a premium development, I was expecting prices to be higher than a typical restaurant. The pricing is around high mid-range, about P400–600 per person. The food is acceptable, but not excellent (watery soup, dishes could have used a touch more garlic). However we did enjoy their thin-crust pizza!
After that, it was time for the kalesa ride. We took two carriages, so as not to put too much strain on the horses. The kutsero (coachman) will take you over many of the same places covered in the walking tour, but will also go a little further to the strip of property facing the beach.
We passed several people who opted for more ‘modern’ horsepower along the way. A word of warning: if a jeepney on cobblestones was bouncy, a horse drawn carriage is on a whole ‘nother level. Our kutsero was a cheerful guy who said, “ma’am, this is a two-in-one [deal]. You get a carriage ride, and also a full body massage,”
Casa Byzantina, below, is a three-story building that was originally the Instituto de Manila. It went through a grim period of neglect and before it was transplanted to Bataan, more than twenty informal settler families lived in it, despite the building being declared as uninhabitable and dangerous.
Today it is the most lavish casa available for rent on the property. We didn’t get to go inside, but this post from Turista Trails shows the extensive renovation that went into it. You could rent the whole house, yes- with a 24/7 butler- for about P150,000 ($ 2887) per night. The smallest two-story casas were about P40,000 per night.
Part 1 ends here! Next post, we will cross the bridge over the Umagol River, to visit the exquisite Hotel de Oriente!