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Taal Heritage Town: Where History Endures

A walk through Taal Heritage Town tells us more about the heroes of the Philippine revolution, and the people preserving their legacy.

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Taal is reclaiming its story—or history, to be more exact. While other cities make giant leaps towards the future, towards technology and the modern aesthetic characterized by concrete-and-steel structures to everything clean and uncluttered, Taal is allowing its Spanish-era houses with its antique furniture, and the town’s colorful past and stories to eat into its present.
 
Some of these houses have been repurposed and transformed into museums (Don Leon Apacible Museum, Galleria Taal), cafés and restaurants (Tampuhan Café and Casita, Feliza Taverna y Café), and bed-and-breakfast establishments (Casa Conchita, Villa Tortuga, Casa Victrola).
 
“It might be because Batangueños are known for their temper,” my brother quipped as I pondered out loud how Taal was the home town of some of the Philippines’s most courageous heroes—Felipe Agoncillo, Marcela Mariño de Agoncillo (who sewed the first Philippine flag), General Ananias Diokno, and Galicano Apacible were all born in Taal. Gliceria Meralla de Villavicencio, “godmother of the revolutionary forces” and her husband, ship owner Eulalio Villavicencio also called Taal home. The Villavicencio Wedding Gift House was Eulalio’s wedding present to his bride. Now a museum, the house was once a refuge and a secret meeting place for the members of the Philippine Revolution. 
A secret staircase hidden by wooden floorboards leads to a hideaway just below the kitchen. One can imagine the genteel yet fearless Gliceria quickly stashing arms and ammunition in the area, away from the prying eyes of the Spanish forces. These underground rooms and concealed areas, we were told, weren’t exclusive to the Villavicencio household.  
 
“There are a lot of stories and anecdotes about everything our revolutionaries did to put one over the kalaban,” Beth Angsioco, co-owner of Feliza Taverna y Café, says. “The ladies during the Spanish era would purposely wear their good clothes to entertain the prayles and the Spaniards, while the Katipuneros held secret meetings just underneath the dining area floorboards.”

GHOST TOWN

We strolled through the streets that our heroes once walked on, under the midday sun. The town’s main road, named after the godmother of the Philippine revolution, leads us through the most interesting stops. We were booked at Tampuhan Café and Casita, a quaint coffee shop and B&B that opened just March of 2014. Almost across Tampuhan is the Ylagan-Barrion ancestral house, which was repurposed by camera restorer Manny Inumerable into a museum that houses the country’s largest collection of rare, vintage cameras.
There are ghosts, both real and imagined, in Taal’s heritage houses. Colonial-style four-poster beds are covered in intricate hand-embroidered linen. Hairbrushes, handpainted mirrors and tortoiseshell combs are carefully lined up on vanity tables that are older than our grandparents. The houses’ wooden posts—the arms and legs that hold up centuries-old walls of adobe—are carved from wood that has witnessed and lived through the Philippine revolutionary and the changing of leaders, and have been privy to secrets revealed and kept. 
So we believed Giney Villar, also of Feliza Taverna y Café, when she told us about her friend catching the blurred image of a young girl in a Maria Clara ensemble on her camera while taking a selfie in front of a decades-old mirror. We felt our skin crawl when Villa Tortuga’s Lito Perez recounted how movie or TV crews had to retake scenes because they would catch ghostly images on their cameras. We didn’t argue with Beth and bandy about the words “dust motes” and “lens flare” around when she showed us orbs of different sizes on the images she took of the fluvial parade along Pansipit river during the feast of Our Lady of Caysasay. And we wouldn’t be surprised one bit if we caught some ghostly apparition on one of the photos we took that day. 
We were blessed with rain for about an hour that evening; and then the lights went out, right in the middle of our animated conversation with Rogie Reyes, an expat who decided to forego a green card and a career in the United States to settle in the town to teach music and coach the local school’s choral ensemble. 
 
The brownouts were a frequent occurrence, we were told. We didn’t mind. After the rain settled into a light drizzle, we drove through the town’s quiet, dark streets, and arrived back at Tampuhan Café and Casita just as the lights went back on. We slept on rattan-and-wood four-poster beds, the hum of the air conditioner a welcome lullaby that humid night.

THE STARS OF TAALYWOOD

It’s a little surprising that Taal Heritage Town isn’t as popular a destination as, for example, Tagaytay, Vigan or Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar in Bataan. The town may not have Vigan’s cobblestone roads, nor Tagaytay’s stunning views of the caldera, nor the same sprawling, well-manicured grounds of Las Casas Filipinas. But what it can claim as its own is its history and soul. It is a living heritage town where past meets the present, where a 7-Eleven sits next to houses that have witnessed the beginnings of the Philippine revolution, where you sleep in antique beds but wake up to the sound of roaring motorcycles racing through its main streets.
 
It is a town of contrasts. Colorful animal-print fabric cover the ceilings in Tampuhan’s common area, while an antique prayer bench sits next to a vintage four-poster bed in one of its bedrooms. In some houses, you see books by F. Sionil Jose and Jessica Zafra in one shelf, first editions of Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo in another. 
And there are the other old houses that still stand, one typhoon, one strong gust of wind, away from dilapidation. There are still little hints of what must have been a glorious, colorful past beneath the dirt and rot—an undamaged capiz window, an intricately carved door. They stand next to the offspring of post-modernization and ‘80s excess: houses in baby blue or green, walls made from hollow blocks and cement. 
 
There was one house that caught our eye while we were walking through the town’s inner streets. It had beautiful cut-glass windows with wrought iron banisters, but the staircase leading to its second floor balcony was sagging, its entire roof filled with rust. What was once a section of the house that was used as storage during the 1800s is now probably a small family’s kitchen, bedroom, and dining area.
It would be heartbreaking if it finally gave in to the elements and age—or even greed. The movement towards preserving and restoring these houses is an ongoing project spearheaded by Lito Perez, a Manila-based interior designer and owner of  local costume shop Camp Suki, known for its medieval and colonial-era ensembles. 
 
My parents would always bring me and my siblings to Taal when we were kids. So, I remember Taal as being old, as being luma,” recalls Lito. “Eight years ago, I was driving in Taal, looking for houses I could restore. That’s when I found what is now Villa Tortuga.”
 
Lito recruited old friend Rogie Reyes, who was then still based in the US, by inviting him to stay in Taal for three weeks. Charmed by the town people’s warmth and friendliness, and inspired by Lito’s vision, those three weeks turned into months until finally, he decided to call Taal home. He now lives at Casa Victrola, an old house he and Lito restored into a quaint B&B.
Randy Siopongco, who was based in London for 28 years before moving back to the Philippines with his partner Dan McMahon, were Lito’s next recruits, along with Giney and Beth, and Marjorie de Castro and Benjamin Pulta, owners of Tampuhan Café and Casita. 
 
Randy and Dan run Casa Conchita, a B&B that was once the ancestral home of Doña Conchita de las Alas-Lualhati, the grandmother of singer/actor Ogie Alcasid. The house is also home to Visions of the Old Philippines, an exhibit of lithographs, photographs and illustration of 17th to 18th century Philippines.
They call themselves Taalywood (“Because we are all stars”), but what’s interesting to note is that everyone in this ragtag team is not from Taal. With the exception of Marjorie, who is a Batangueña, all of them used to live at least 80 kilometers away from the town. They keep an eye out for old houses that are for sale or for rent, and are ready to welcome other members to their small tribe with open arms and a lot of food, local food!
Lito and Rogie offer guests unique tour of the Heritage Town, through Villa Tortuga’s Colonial Tour. The tour takes participants to the Basilica, Our Lady of Caysasay Church, two heritage houses, and the market, where one can buy tapang Taal, biya (dried fish), suman, tulingan, barongs and embroidered gowns. Guests then play dress-up at Villa Tortuga, where a variety of colonial-era costumes, from a friar’s brown robes to a complete baro’t-saya ensemble, are available for guests to wear. Photos are taken before lunch is served in the main dining area.
 
Although Taalywood’s main focus is in the restoration of ancestral houses, the group wants to push the idea that there is more to Taal than just old houses and churches. Marjorie tells us of future plans to explore dive sites in nearby Mabini, and their goal towards making the town’s main street a safer one for walking and bike tours. 
Giney and Beth reveal that they’re on the lookout for activities that guests can do outside town. The volcano this side of Taal is different from the one accessible through Tagaytay, and they’d like to start offering tours so guests can experience the other side of the caldera. They also recently discovered the town of Laurel’s Simbahang Bato, where mass is held in a cave-like area naturally carved into mountain.
 
“People ask us ‘why Taal,’ when we tell them about Feliza, “says Chef Giney. “But they understand why once they come here and see the beauty of Taal. I mean, come on! Taal is the home of balisong and burda. How can this town not be interesting? Imagine, something as delicate and intricate as embroidery, and something as strong and dangerous as a butterfly knife.”