It occurred to me recently that I have been touring friends and family around Manila for more than a decade now. What started as an alternative weekend activity back in college has become a 12-year-long advocacy. I have spent countless weekends – truly, I have lost count –bringing people to places like San Miguel, Escolta, Binondo, Quiapo and Intramuros.
The very last tour I gave was with friends in January last year. By then, there was already a tinge of paranoia seeping through the city with regards the presence of a strange, new virus. Yet we proceeded with our tour that took us to Binondo, enjoying plates of fresh lumpia at New Po Heng and noodles at Quick Snack in Carvajal. Two months later, my visits to Old Manila had to momentarily come to a halt.
Thus, it was great to have mustered enough courage to take my bicycle for a spin in mid-January this year. What was supposed to be a ride around my usual routes in Cubao and New Manila ended with me pedaling until I reached Mendiola. On that first sojourn, I knocked and entered, for the first time in a year, the quiet yet sumptuous abbey of Our Lady of Montserrat, the home of Manila’s only monastic community for men.
Adorned with frescoes from the 1920s by Spanish Benedictines Lesmes Lopez, OSB and Salvador Alberich, OSB, the abbey is perhaps Manila’s last hidden gem. Designed by the Swedish George Asp, the neo-gothic church is a reminder of the city’s glorious past, a melding of religious tradition and cosmopolitan air. Manila was no backwater. It never was.
A week later, I picked up my bike again but this time with the intention of really getting deep into the old city. From our home along Aurora Boulevard, it was literally a straight path to Manila. I deliberately biked on a Sunday for less cars. I still get scared cycling beside jeepneys and aggressive SUVs.
My first stop was another favorite church, more historic and culturally significant. The San Sebastián. Rising above Plaza del Carmen with its Gothic spires, Asia’s only all-steel church is currently asking for support not only for its conservation efforts but its campaign against the looming threat of a high rise condominium being built behind it.
Designed by the Spaniard Don Genaro Palacios, the San Sebastián is a truly international collaboration: with Filipino, Chinese, English, French and Belgian craftsmen, laborers and supervisors putting in their efforts and ideas to help erect the structure. The steel pre-fabricated parts were made by the Belgian Societé Anonyme des Enterprises de Travaux Publiques while the stained-glass windows were from the German Henri Oidtmann Studio.
From San Sebastián, I biked towards Ayala Bridge, turned right and headed to the Metropolitan Theater (MET). Since I couldn’t enter yet to see the renovation works, I admired the restoration from outside. The colorful mosaics are again getting a new lease on life and my hope for this Art Deco jewel was reignited. Designed by one of the Philippines’ first pensionados, Juan Arellano, the “grand old dame” has seen many highs and lows from its inception in the 1930s to the minor controversies that preceded the completion of the restoration.
This area of Manila is actually the city’s neo-classical corridor because apart from the MET, which is one of the best examples of Art Deco in the Philippines, the row of impressive neo-classical buildings built during the zenith of the American period truly makes a picturesque backdrop for any biking route. From the former Agriculture, Finance and Legislative buildings – now occupied and maintained by the National Museum – to Manila City Hall and ending at the Philippine Post Office, this strip was part of the unrealized plan of Daniel Burnham for our capital.
I made a stop in front of the Philippine Post Office as it was in here that my grandmother’s father, José Pilapil, worked during the Commonwealth, as Superintendent of Posts. My grandmother and her sisters saw the imposing building as their playground. Once a hub of activity, it now resembles a sleepy temple, a remembrance of the once bustling enterprise that is “snail mail”.
I crossed the Jones Bridge afterwards, another important architectural legacy of Juan Arellano. There were debates on the bridge’s new “old” look but one thing is certain: people flock to the bridge to have photos taken against the lamps or the views of the Post Office or the Pasig River. It’s no longer just a means of getting from one point to another; it has become a destination in itself.
From Jones Bridge, I turned right to Escolta, the former business district. I headed straight to one of the coolest spots in the city – The HUB at First United Building. For me, it is a must to have coffee at The Den, and I was happy they allowed me to park my bicycle just outside their café.
From Escolta, I biked back to Quintin Paredes Road, circled the Plaza Calderón, took a quick glance at the Binondo Church before biking through Juan Luna Street. Juan Luna is an underappreciated street that reminds me a lot of New York City. There are still grand buildings here that showcase a charming mix of neo-classical, Art Deco and Beaux-Arts styles that any biker with a keen eye for architecture would delight in.
Back at Jones Bridge, I took a right turn and entered my final stop, the historic Walled City of Intramuros. After passing by the Puerta Isabela II, the Intendencia, Plaza Mexico, I then proceeded to try a new café: the Belfry Café, located at the Manila Cathedral compound. The unique thing about this dining establishment are the bells! The massive bells grace the interiors but alas, I had to take my coffee to their outdoor area, which is a nice spot to take in the genteel vibe of Plaza Roma.
As I wrapped up my tour of Old Manila on that delightful spot, with views of the Manila Cathedral’s cupola, the Ayuntamiento or former city hall, as well as Plaza Roma with its statue of the Spanish King who sent us vaccines, I couldn’t help but ponder how we often describe Manila’s sites, streets and districts with the words “former”, “destroyed”, “decaying” or “threatened”. Nevertheless, I still feel hopeful knowing Manila is being reinvented by leveraging and reinvigorating its cultural assets.
Since 2008, it was already a routine for me to take people around Old Manila and tell its colorful story. Now with a pandemic and the novelty of revisiting these sites alone on my bicycle, the city has once again shown me a new face. It is truly ever old, ever new.
Apart from walking, nothing gets you closer to the beauty and history of these places than through biking. Despite this pandemic, it was a pleasant experience to touch base with the capital. Just remember: wear a helmet and a mask, bike with a distance from other pedestrians or riders, and bring basic tools because I didn’t pass by any bike shops along the route. Enjoy the ride and stay safe.