Last Updated on March 31, 2018 by

“You are standing on what molded Philippines for over 400 years,” our guide Dustin announced.

This spot has withstood centuries of battle and hardship: over 330 years of Spanish colonization, 14 years of American occupation and decades of revolution. It has protected and stood over the country through war and victory. I listened in awe, as layers of history unpeeled beneath my feet.

We were at Fort Santiago – the heartbeat of Manila, and the center of the Philippines back in its glorious days. Here, we could smell what was left from the past and picture the scenes that had taken place through the years. Hundreds of lives were lost here during the colonization era and the war period, even the Philippines’ national hero, José Rizal, was imprisoned here before his execution.

Since its construction in 1571, this fort had always acted as a defense mechanism and formed part of the structure that protected the walled city of Manila – also known as Intramuros (within the walls). Today, the fortress is a memorabilia of the nation’s heroes and their glory – without them, the Philippines wouldn’t be where it is today.

The Gold of the Past

Manila, the capital of the Philippines, is a vibrant, palpitating metropolis packed with remnants of its glorified past and hints of its modern and developed present. Underneath the layers of shopping malls and skyscrapers lies a deep-rooted culture that proudly clings on to its past.

Earlier that day, we’d started our history lesson in Intramuros, now an eclectic district made up of a jumble of colonial buildings and churches. One of the most important sites in the area is Casa Manila, a lifestyle museum built to emulate the Spanish colonial houses of the 19th century. This was a standard house that the mestizos (people of mixed-heritage) lived in – during that era, there was a strict class system: the Spanish enjoyed the highest status, followed by the mestizos, then the indigenous people. As mestizos were generally skilled workers with substantial wealth, their houses were large, and lavishly decorated.

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Casa Manila featured a central courtyard as well as a receiving area – each room complete with furniture, artwork, and lavish antiques that were shipped from Europe to the Philippines back – the wealth during the Philippines’ Golden Age was on full display here.

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Traces of God

As we wandered along the grey walls of Intramuros, Dustin guided us into one of his favorite places in Manila: the San Agustin Church. Dating back to 1607, this is the oldest church still standing in the Philippines – no other building in the country pre-dates this Roman Catholic church. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, San Agustin is also a National Historical Landmark, designated by the Philippines government. Religion is a big part of life here in the Philippines, and to have such an old religious monument on their land is a true blessing.

We stood to observe the church from outside – its plain, pink facade clearly misleading. Once we stepped inside, the intricate columns by the sidewalk and the elaborate golden-crusted mural paintings on the ceiling had us bending our backs to marvel at the beautiful artwork. Ornate chandeliers hung from the high ceiling, while the imposing altar featured intricate carvings dating back to the Spanish colonial era. The church was laid with an elliptical foundation – which was what allowed it to withstand numerous earthquakes that had destroyed many other churches in Manila. But some of them chose to believe that God was the reason San Agustin survived till today.

Past to Present

By the end of the day, we headed back to our base, the quintessential icon of the city – Manila Hotel. Built around the 1930s, this was the first five star hotel in the country, its opulence reflected in the classic colonial style architecture and design. The landmark has also played host to world-famous celebrities and politicians including the Beatles, Michael Jackson and McArthur. Having been renovated just three years ago, its stylish rooms now spot state-of-the-art facilities including a built-in TV in the marble-floored bathroom. Overlooking the Manila Bay – which was where the history of the Philippines had all started – I literally walked straight from Manila’s past back into its present. 

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This trip was made possible by Department of Tourism Philippines. Special thanks to good friend and local expert Ivan Henares for organizing this. All opinions expressed here are entirely my own. Read more about our trip through the Philippines here or follow our journey on Twitter using the #WJAsia hashtag.