By Apolinario Villalobos
When I came to Manila during the early 80’s, the city was just gaining a momentum toward its recognition as a prime tourist destination in Asia. The most popular district then was Ermita which would come alive just when the sun was about to set beyond the horizon of Manila Bay. From its daytime drabness the district would undergo an instant transformation into the gaudiness made heady by the loud music that emanated from the hole-in-the-wall beer joints. The jolly racket lasted until just before sunup. A night was never complete without a brawl. And when the sun finally warmed its sidewalks, giddy girls with still rouged faces lined the sidewalks for cheap jeepney ride home.
Today, Ermita has been transformed into a safe tourist haven. Roxas Boulevard is dotted with five-star hotels, and side by side with the Children’s Museum is the United States Embassy complex at the western end of the boulevard. M.H. del Pilar and A. Mabini Streets previously known for their raucous beer joints are now assuming a wholesome façade with rows of restaurants, affordable hotels, and a casino housed in five-star Hyatt Hotel that provides a highlight. The newly-renovated National Library of the Philippines breaks the monotony of T.M. Kalaw St., and a few meters from the imposing structure is the office of the National Historical Institute. A big shopping mall stands out among the condo buildings being built along the United Nations Avenue where the World Health Organization (WHO) headquarters are also located. Manila Pavilion that adds splendor to this particular section of Ermita was once the popular Manila Hilton.
Avenida, the main thoroughfare of the Sta. Cruz district, is still alive with sidewalk bazaars that overflow to the adjacent Quiapo district. Both districts have historic churches that serve as their centerpiece, and which are popular among pilgrims during Lenten season. Quiapo Church is the shrine of the Black Nazarene, the festivity of which draws millions of devotees every year. On the other side of Quezon Boulevard is the Islamic district, in the midst of which is the Golden Mosque. Though differing in faith, the residents of the two districts live in harmony.
Another shopping district of Manila is Divisoria where malls have mushroomed during the past years. It is still the most popular shoppers’ mecca of Manila where one can find practically everything – from school supply to the latest electronic gadgets. It is, however, more popular as showcase for latest fashions. Late in the afternoon, a portion of the Recto Avenue is closed to give way to stalls of vegetable wholesalers who come from different provinces. Practically, the whole area is alive the whole night until six in the morning of the following day during which the merchants begin to pack up whatever are left of their goods. It is also at this time that the sanitary teams of the city begin to haul out piles of garbage and mop up the street for daytime shoppers.
The Chinatown of Manila, known more among the locals as Ongpin, referring to the main street, is the oldest in the world. It went through different historic transformations – from its being made as a segregated Chinese settlement or “parian” during the Spanish regime, into becoming a hideaway of urban Filipino guerillas during the WWII, until finally blossoming into an elegant enclave of oriental culture today with its towering condo buildings and restaurants where one could partake of exotic cuisine, though, the reliable steadfast apothecaries are still around with their different aromatic concoctions.
The Pasig River cuts across the landscape of Manila. The Manila City Hall is found on its west bank which is lately enhanced by a newly-built shopping mall, while the Malacaῆan Palace occupies a well-shaded north bank. The so-called “university belt” because of the several educational institutions within this particular section, is located several street corners from the palace.
The Liwasang Bonifacio (Bonifacio Park) near the Manila City Hall is dominated by the Post Office building and across from it is the idle Metropolitan Theater, still trying to stand proud despite years of neglect. The structure, though, could still gain attention because of its classical architecture. The theater was once the principal venue of both local and international plays, aside from concerts which launched several singers, actors and actresses to stardom.
Across the street from Liwasang Bonifacio, the Old Intramuros beckons to those with a desire to quench their thirst for history. Within the walls of Intramuros are the centuries- old Manila Cathedral and San Agustin Church. On foot, going around the Walled City, including leisurely stops for refreshing drinks or snacks, takes only about three hours. However, if the Fort Santiago is included in the itinerary, one should add another hour to their stroll. Inside the fort, one can find cells where prisoners were confined during the Spanish regime and the WWII. Local horse-driven coaches or rigs are available for leisurely ride that can be contracted for a jaunt up to Rizal Park or Luneta.
Rizal Park was known in history as Bagumbayan where Jose Rizal, the country’s national hero was shot for purportedly instigating rebellion against the Spaniards. Behind the grandstand, one can find the H20 Hotel and Ocean Park which are just a few steps from the historic Manila Hotel. Lately, the park has undergone facelifts that made it more alluring to regular visitors. The park’s administration is not daunted by the small area of the park, instead, defied this limitation by using resourcefulness and creativity. The park’s crowning glory today is the cluster of renovated fountains that “dance” with the music and lights. The imposing Department of Tourism building is located on the T.M. Kalaw side of the park with its façade facing the giant bronze statue of Lapu-lapu that stands at what was once the skating rink, and a few meters from them is the National Parks Development office that manages Luneta. The Philippine map lagoon has been made more stroller-friendly with the floating lane that diagonally cuts across it.
The mentioned landmarks of Manila are accessible via the Light Rail Transit (LRT) system, jeepneys, buses, and aircon vans.