There is a breathtaking town, close to the city, where cultural heritage is given prime importance, where the glorious past is preserved for posterity, and the lore of yesteryear captivates us like no other. It is called Taal, a town in Batangas, where culture and patrimony are alive, giving soul to our country.
My recent travel to Taal reminded me of what Briccio Santos, chairman of the Film Development Council of the Philippines, once said: “Culture is a binding thing. It is the core of our existence, our very identity.” I carefully implemented his view when I embarked on a trip to Taal. I discovered that the town embraces our culture as it heralds a rediscovery of the glorious past as a tool to appreciate the present and future.
In Taal, Batangas, precious old homes are carefully being turned into tourist attractions, quaint bed and breakfast lodgings and cozy coffee shops. There is an attachment to the storied past and a consciousness in creating venues where everyone can appreciate such treasures of antiquity. The colonial ambiance of old homes and antiquated charm coupled with the haunting beauty of nature’s finest — like the ghostly outline of Mt. Makulot, the dramatic vision of Taal Volcano, the eerie appeal of Taal Lake as well as the festive spell of the town proper — has made it a favorite location for numerous TV commercials, anthologies as well as film productions.
Taal Mayor Michael Montenegro and Vice Mayor Fulgencio “Pong” Mercado expressed their desire to position the town of Taal as the “Filming Capital of the Philippines.” Their desire is laudable considering that film tourism is a growing phenomenon worldwide.
In Taal, we traveled back in time as we explored monuments, museums, and history books that informed us of what transpired before our time. Taal has metamorphosed into a magnetic haven where the culturati and literati gravitate in their pursuit of their passion for what matters most.
Visiting Taal, I was in the company of gorgeous members of the Women in Travel (WIT), an association of top female decision makers in the travel and tourism industry, led by the gracious Minki Bautista. WIT’s vision mission is to “be a potent and progressive force of women leaders who give back to the travel and tourism industry.” Its members come from the airlines, travel agencies, tour operators, hotels and resort operators, tourism consultancy, exhibit organizers, car rentals, restaurants, media and other tourist-related industries.
We attended the town fiesta where a high Mass was celebrated in the St. Martin Basilica, the largest basilica in Asia. With centuries-old architecture, culture, and products, Taal is among the few remaining heritage towns in the country. The impressive film Rosario, rated A by the Cinema Evaluation Board, was partly shot here at the Taal Municipal building. Several productions filmed in the town include Villa Kristine, Captain Barbel, Summer Love, Bata Pa Si Sabel, Ligaw na Bala, Bragansya, Garapal, Stupid Cupid and more.
I learned that Vice Mayor Mercado worked for the matriarch of Philippine cinema Mother Lily Monteverde as line producer for 29 years. In fact, Mother Lily, during the filming of Oh My Girl starring Judy Ann Santos and Ogie Alcasid, was so enamored by the vast plantation of coconut that she acquired almost 9,000 square meters of property where she utilized 4,000 square meters for her Taal Imperial Hotel and Resort. In this resort, three charming villas were created surrounded by three large swimming pools, and an activity center for kids. These three well-appointed villas are equipped with all the modern amenities one could ask for: a full kitchen where you can whip up delightful dishes for your family and friends as well as dining room perfect for family outings, conferences and group get-togethers. Mother Lily, the hardworking and kind-hearted woman that she is, always acknowledges the good Lord for her many blessings. Mayor Montenegro and Vice Mayor Mercado bestowed upon her recently the title “Adopted Mother of the Heritage Town of Taal” because of her overwhelming support, deep love and affection for the historic town. She certainly embodies the fine qualities of a true Taalena.
One of the main tourism events in the planning stage is the revival of the town summer festival to showcase local products and industries. “El Pasubat” is the acronym for panutsa, suman, balisong or barong Tagalog, and tapa, tulingan, or tawilis.
Taal’s name has been translated as “native,” “real” or “true” to Bornean settlers. Some old folks believe that the name originated from the wild palm trees on the shores of the lake and along the banks of the Pansipit River known as Tal-an, while others believe it was derived from ta-ad, an old Batangueno term for sugar cane points.
We visited the two homes of Dona Gliceria Marella Villaviciencio. Her great grandson Ernie Villaviviciencio graciously toured us around his ancestral mansions. You will be amazed by their houses as both are a study in contrast — one with turn-of-the-century appeal, while the latter, known as the Gift House in Art Nouveau style, is painted in eclectic colors. Ernie now operates a quaint bed and breakfast near his family’s historic edifices. We also had the privilege to meet Magallanes Village councilor Tony Boy Alcasid, the brother of Ogie who manages the gift shop in their ancestral home Casa Dona Conchita in Taal.
A visit to the Agoncillo museum will teach one a lot about the first Filipino flag lovingly sewn by Marcella Agoncillo, wife of first Filipino diplomat Felix Agoncillo.
History has it that after the signing of the Pact of Biak na Bato on Dec. 4,1897, Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo visited the Agoncillo family who resided in Hong Kong. Aguinaldo requested that Agoncillo hand-sewed a flag according to the design that would embody the national aspiration of all Filipinos. Agoncillo requested her eldest daughter, five-year-old Lorenza and Mrs. Delfina Herbosa de Natividad, Jose Rizal’s niece, to help her. The three worked manually with the aid of a sewing machine. Lovingly created from fine silk purchased from the former Crown Colony, the flag embroidered in gold had stripes of blue and red with a white triangle showing off the sun and three stars on it. Finished in five days, the flag became know as “the sun and the stars flag.” This was the flag that was hoisted from the window of Aguinaldo’s house in Kawit Cavite during the proclamation of Philippine Independence on June 12,1898 accompanied by the Philippine National Anthem “Marcha Filipina.” The thimble used by Agoncillo in sewing the first Philippine flag is on display at the Malacañang Palace Museum. The Agoncillo house is now managed by the National Historical Institute, which also takes care of the home of lawyer and rebel commander Leon Apacible. Like many houses in Taal of art deco design, he Apacible house was one of the meeting places of the revolutionaries in the 19th century. One very interesting photo taken in 1882 shows Leon with his classmate Jose Rizal as art students.
Taal Travel and Tours president Mimi Noble arranged our tour with prominent businessman Michael Villano who has a penchant for transporting old homes from the city to his expansive MGM ranch. He restored the old homes form different periods with architectural prowess. He has a charming turn-of-the-century carriage displayed in his ranch that Toning Pastor from Batangas wanted to acquire. Horses, deer, boars abound in his property where some scenes from the popular TV series Villa Kristine were filmed.
Michael hosted our sumptuous lunch in his family-owned Casa Cecilia, a very quaint seven-room boutique hotel where delightful dishes like fresh-from-the-lake maliputo, succulent tapang Taal, and other delicacies are served. He gifted us with mini balisongs from the town nearby and even gave us take-home goodies of freshly made suman and kapeng barako. Truly his infectious hospitality is well appreciated.
Cinematic Taal is Batangas province’s most romantic, nostalgic and historic town, with the power to spellbind you by its charm and grace. Here, you will relive your culture, your identity and be embraced by a strong sense of belonging. Like a museum without walls, a natural archive of historic treasures, Taal is waiting to be rediscovered.