On a sunny Saturday morning at Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila, I look around, trying to locate the taxi stand. 200 meters to my right, less than ten cabs are parked while the drivers are having their morning banters. I walk towards them and one man notices me. “Intramuros,” I say – citing the Philippine capital’s famous old district. The driver whose car is at the front nods and gets into the driver’s seat. I follow suit and find myself seated at the back seat.
Little did I know how tense taking a cab in Manila can be. The driver navigates the city streets, zigzagging and cutting one vehicle over another. However, thanks to the less crowded traffic of a weekend morning, it doesn’t take too long for him to arrive at Plaza Mayor in the front of Manila Cathedral – one of the most important buildings in Intramuros. Needless to say, my biggest relief is getting there safe and sound.
Intramuros was the seat of the Spanish colonial government since the 16th century after Spain took control of the Philippine archipelago from the rajah – local king. Literally means ‘within the walls’, Intramuros’ first walls were constructed in the late 16th century. This heart of colonial Manila saw more wall constructions until the 19th century. Apart from the elegant Manila Cathedral, numerous other churches were built by different Catholic religious institutes, giving the colonial Intramuros the moniker “the City of Churches”.
In the late 19th century, the United States gained control of the Philippines from Spain following the signing of the Treaty of Paris. During the American colonization era, many parts of Intramuros were drastically altered. Some walls were cleared to make way for a better access to the city and the moat were transformed into a golf course. The removed stones from the walls were used for other constructions anywhere else in the city.
However, it was during the World War II when Intramuros was nearly decimated – leaving the Church of San Agustin as the only standing building, despite heavily damaged. During the battle for the liberation of Manila, more than 16,000 Japanese soldiers and over 100,000 Filipinos died.
Fortunately, reconstruction efforts had been carried out since the end of the war, bringing the Spanish charm back to this old district. Today, Intramuros is a popular place for locals and foreign visitors to soak up into the atmosphere of Spanish colonial time.
As usual, in every place that I visit on my travels, it’s always interesting to get lost sometimes and wander through the districts or alleys not mentioned in any guidebooks. Intramuros is no exception. I let my feet bring me to more quiet parts of Intramuros where I often find myself the only person around. However, it is my growling stomach that forces me to wrap my visit to Intramuros and have lunch at a local restaurant chain near Plaza Mayor. But it is a dessert, not the food, which draws my attention the most. On a large and colorful glossy paper inside the restaurant, a picture of green, red, yellow, purple and white strange yet appealing things filling up a large glass keeps me staring at it for quite a long time. It says “Halo-halo“, a self-repeated word that reminds me of many similar words in my native language.
However, I spare Halo-halo this time. But the dessert itself makes a solid reason for me to return to the Philippines one day.