Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — In one of the entries of Jose Rizal’s diary (titled “Memorias de Un Estudiante de Manila”), he recounts being enamored by a woman he names “K.” He wrote: “She was not the most beautiful woman I had ever seen but I had never seen one more bewitching and alluring.”
Succeeding entries divulge that the woman was already betrothed to be married to someone else. In Spanish, Rizal asked a rhetorical question: “Do you know that it is very painful for me to lose you after having known you?”
The subject of Rizal’s diary was later revealed to be his first love, Segunda Katigbak, a member of a well-to-do family in Lipa, Batangas. “Ayun sabi sa libro, nagkacrush daw si Rizal kay lola,” says Lileth Dimayuga-Malabanan, the great great granddaughter of Segunda, who now maintains their ancestral home in Lipa called Casa Segunda.
This was the home of Segunda and Manuel Luz, the man who she was arranged to be married with. Malabanan recalls how her and her cousins were told stories about how Rizal visited this house to solicit money for the Philippine revolution, as the Luz’s had been known to be one of the most prominent families in Lipa.
According to Malabanan, during the Spanish colonial era, wealthy families in Lipa, whose money mostly came from exporting coffee (kapeng barako), would have a whole block of lot unto themselves, where they built massive structures of the classic Bahay na Bato.
“But unfortunately, during the second world war, the most devastated is Lipa,” says Malabanan. She recalls being three years old at that time, seeing fire and chaos, and having to leave and hide in the mountains. “If you see photos, para kaming nasa Marawi,” she adds. “Walang natirang bahay kundi ito.”
The house, now called Casa Segunda, has the familiar exterior of the Spanish-era architectural style: extended timbered upper-story with balustrades and a concrete base usually made of cement or adobe. The entire house, which is over 130 years old, still has the same Machuca tiles, wooden floors, and solihiya accents that were common during that time.
It’s a welcome surprise to discover a place like this, more so that it is in Batangas, a province ideal for those in Metro Manila who are looking for a quick weekend escape. Lipa, in particular, is only an hour away from Alabang, through the Southern Tagalog Arterial Road (STAR). Aside from Lipa, here are other towns in Batangas that are worth exploring.
The town of Malvar may not be too popular for many, perhaps because its biggest attraction is also one that caters to a niche market — the Metro Manila Turf Club, a horse racing facility that spans 45 hectares and can host 3,000 guests during races.
Gelo Antonio, one of Metro Turf’s stable managers, says that the Philippine Racing Commission, which is under the Office of the President of the Philippines, is the governing body of all the race tracks in the country. “They give licenses to jockeys, trainers, horse owners, and horses before you can do anything,” he says.
The horses are housed in stables just a few kilometers from the race track. Each owner usually has a designated area where the horses are fed, groomed, and taken care of. Antonio says owners of horses can spend millions just for the maintenance of a single horse.
Additionally, during races, Antonio shares that the importance of the well-being of the horses is just as important as the training of the jockeys. He explains how jockeys have to remain light and small because they crouch on top of a horse, with nothing but their rope and saddle.
“‘Yung cowboy style, no one does that. ‘Yung butt touching the back of the horse, no one does that. It's gonna hurt a lot and you'll have no chance of winning also,” he explains. “The aerodynamics of it is already mastered [by the jockeys]. They have mastered the art of riding horses.”
He also says that most jockeys in the Philippines come from a line of jockeys, dating back to when it first started as a sport during American rule in the 1900s. GV Mora, a 22-year-old jockey at Malvar, says being a jockey has always been his dream. He grew up in the race tracks in Sta. Ana (which is now Circuit Makati) as his father was one of the caretakers of some horses. When the race track in Sta. Ana closed down, he went to a training school in Naic, Cavite, and trained to be a jockey for two years.
“Parang sundalo kami,” he says of his time at the jockey school. “Gising 4 a.m. tapos ensayo po, may ensayo kami sa katawan namin, na parang sundalo.” Now, he lives in one of the facilities in Metro Turf where he still wakes up at 4 a.m. to start exercising and training with his horse until noon.
Approximately an hour away from Malvar is Taal, a heritage town in Batangas where its built environment immediately takes you back to Spanish colonial-era Philippines. Its streets and alleys are still lined with Bahay na Bato houses, complete with capiz-shell sliding windows and tiled roofs.
“Dito palang sa bayan, meron kaming 170 [na lumang bahay] tapos 60 ‘yung sa mga bukid, so 230 na lumang bahay pa,” says Arich Onal, the tourism officer of Taal. “Nasa pangagalaga parin kami ng NHCP [National Historical Commission of the Philippines] so kahit anong baughin mo na lumang bahay, kailangan namin pagpaalam sa kanila.”
One of the most popular heritage houses in Taal is the residence of Marcela Mariño de Agoncillo, the woman who created the first Philippine national flag. The house has now been turned into a museum, which chronicles the life of Marcela as well as her husband Felipe Agoncillo, the Philippine’s first diplomat.
The museum also shows the story behind the making of the Philippine flag — how it was sewn in Hong Kong when revolutionary leaders (including Felipe and his family) were in exile, how the initial design was based on the Cuban flag, and how it was first unfurled to the public during the proclamation of independence in Kawit, Cavite.
Another heritage house frequently visited here is the Goco ancestral house, which belonged to the treasurer of the Katipunan, Juan Cabrera Goco. It is currently under the care of one of his grandsons, Pio Goco, where he would host guests for a private lunch.
As he welcomes us to his family’s home, one often identified as a Spanish-style house, Goco explains how the quintessential Bahay na Bato is a distinctly Filipino design, rather than a Spanish-inspired one.
“Spanish-style is a misnomer because there really isn’t anything like these designs anywhere else in the world,” he says. “This is a house made by Filipinos for Filipinos.”
During lunch, while being entertained by two singers performing Kundiman love songs, Goco served dishes of tapang Taal, their own take on the tapa that is native to the town; adobo, a yellow-tinged rendition of the classic Filipino food; sinaing na tulingan, which he says took six hours to prepare; and the Taal tablea tsokolate paired with kapeng barako. These were presented on intricate porcelains and inherited wares that his family has collected over the years.
The trip to Taal, or perhaps any town in the Philippines, is rarely incomplete without visiting the Catholic churches symbolizing the Spanish’s influence in the country that still persists up to this day. The biggest one in town is the Taal Basilica, which also happens to be the biggest Catholic church built in Asia.
Onal explains that the structure was made of coral stones as well as adobe, which is known to be popularly used in dry climates. The facade is founded with 24 classical columns while its transepts have minor altars, one of which is where a statue of the church’s patron saint, St. Martin de Tours, is displayed.
“Mapapansin niyo wala kaming masyadong mga bagyo, mga disaster na grabe. Hindi kami nakakaranas noon, kasi pag bumabagyo daw dito sa Taal, makikita niyo si St. Martin nasa ulap, nakakabayo daw, tinataboy ‘yung bagyo,” shares Onal.
She adds that many Taaleños believe in St. Martin’s protective blessing, especially since their town was never bombed during the war. Onal explains, “Noong time na bombobahin ito ng mga Hapones, ang nakikita nila from the sky is mga talahib, [hindi Taal]. So ginawa nila, di nila pinansin kaya ito madami parin kaming lumang bahay.”