Stepping into the past with Batangas’ 19th century  heritage town

Underneath the nostalgic beauty of the houses in Taal is a rich history preserved by its present day residents.

When one hears of the town of Taal, the volcano immediately comes to mind. But its complex formation and renowned lakeside scenery hardly encompass what the province of Batangas has to offer. Around 112 kilometers south of Metro Manila is the Taal Heritage Village, where every corner of every street holds a story waiting to be uncovered.

These stories are not told but rather shown through ancestral houses that generations of Filipinos called home. Such structures stand firm and remain undeterred despite their proximity to an active volcano. Today, the heritage town of Taal is an integral spot that not only boasts the best of Philippine architecture but wholly immerses tourists in the cultural past of Batangas.

A blast from the past

A place that birthed historical figures like Felipe Agoncillo and Ananías Diokno is definitely one worth seeing. Beyond the allure of these people are the houses they left behind, most of which hold evidence of the Spaniards’ enduring influence in the country. However, Taal’s history is also rooted in pre-colonial cultures and traditions. The town constituted many trading routes and saw ethnic groups like the Proto-Malays and Sanglays partake in local commerce and agriculture, bringing continual prosperity to Taal for many centuries.

Through its indelible mark in charting the country’s history, the site is officially recognized by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts and the National Historical Commission of the Philippines as a heritage town.

Derrick Manas, a heritage, culture, and tourism consultant for the vice governor of Batangas, supplements that the town’s early 19th to mid-20th century architecture was a mark of Batangueños’ view that a house does not exist solely as a roof over their heads but also to showcase their taste and wealth.

A testament to this stands the renowned Villa Tortuga, constructed around the 1850s by the Gahol clan, who originally owned the antiquated abode. Interestingly, the ancestral home’s name hails from turtles—or tortuga in Spanish—laying eggs in the backyard during reconstruction. The idea came from its present occupant, fashion designer and interior designer Lito Perez, who, 12 years ago, was looking for an ancestral place to rent. He was instantly fascinated by a house described by the owners to be like “the house of Rizal.” From there, Villa Tortuga became an extension for Perez to showcase his craft in costume design, where tourists could also take part in prolonging the history that swathes the house—donning their 19th-century themed attires.

Social class and hierarchy relevant to a particular period are also reflected in many of the houses’ rooms. There was a protocol in place among houses owned by the principalía or the ruling family. “[When] you enter the door, you are not allowed to go up unless the owner invites you in,” Manas illustrates. “There is what you call the receiving room or what we call the caida. There is [also] a mezzanine floor or a waiting room, which we call the entresuelo.” It is in rooms like these where traditions and norms from the old days live on—its walls memorializing history.

The Basilica of St. Martin de Tours is one of the landmarks that attests to Taal’s rich history and culture.

Navigating modernism

These ancestral architectures, also called bahay na bato, are to Manas a fruit of “Filipino taste, craftsmanship, art, and history” that has impressively stood the test of time. While some of its rooms no longer serve their original purpose, owners and lessees find the need to repurpose these houses into business establishments to accommodate tourists and preserve the novelty of these dwelling places in the present time.

For one, Perez shares that he has to keep reinventing the house and its presentation to adapt to recent trends among tourists. Once Villa Tortuga opens its doors, it becomes a sensory and interactive experience of the past. “Guests can have a sit-down lunch or dinner in full costume and [feel] the ambiance of the 19th century,” he describes. Tourists are also in for a quest as Villa Tortuga recently kicked off their murder mystery night activities. “We are not just any other house you can visit. We [also] have [an] additional dimension for your entertainment,” Perez says.

Inevitably, however, the structural integrity of these houses is relatively marred with the passage of time. “Maintenance [is difficult because] there’s [always] something broken with these old houses,” Perez laments. Although some of these vintage houses are made from stone, most of their structure heavily relies on wooden materials, often damaged by termites. To avoid this, Perez religiously visits and conducts regular maintenance and cleaning. Fortunately, now, there are heritage architects who can oversee construction repairs in these century-old houses.

Preserving and propagating these heritage sites also requires comprehensive support from the local government unit (LGU) as part of its tourism sector. But, as an ancestral house lessee, Perez reveals that they receive minimal financial assistance from the LGU. The municipality instead implements the Heritage Conservation, Preservation, and Restoration Code of 2009, which protects the continuing existence and well-being of these heritage sites. “You cannot just destroy, demolish, or restore [a house] without seeking permission from the LGU,” Manas explains. Even infrastructures intended to be built around the Taal heritage site have to blend well with the edifices of the area, remaining faithful to the ancestral roots of the town.

Cultural resonance

People tend to flock to places recognized for their beauty and symbolic history, especially with a town as fascinating as Taal. Many people visit heritage sites for aesthetic reasons, many to take photos, but “some are curious about the stories,” affirms Manas. It’s not merely about capturing picturesque shots but about unraveling the historical narratives. Perez shares, “There are some visitors who come to reminisce their grandfather [or] grandmother’s place, or where they grew up, and some have personal ties to the house.”

While the allure of these heritage sites is evident, the responsibility for their preservation rests upon collaborative efforts among the community, tourists, and the government. By investing in these invaluable cultural assets, the government plays a role in ensuring that these heritage sites continue their purpose of educating the youth while developing tourism in the Philippines.

Manas explains, “You [first] teach your children, students, [and] the young people of this country how to appreciate their own culture first.” Nurturing one’s cultural heritage isn’t just rediscovering structures and traditions of the past—it’s about navigating the true meaning and impact of cultural identity within one’s self.

Ultimately, heritage houses serve as a bridge that connects history and culture, propelling the youth to decipher their origins. This newfound reverence for the past paves paths for a future that can stand as a testament to cultural progress.

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