Of Rosaries and Intramuros – Manila (Part 1)

You can often tell a lot about a country by the first thing you notice once you step out of the air side of an airport and into the nearest taxi, train, bus, or transit vehicle. For me, I instantly noticed something that would set the tone for the rest of my trip last weekend in Manila: a rosary hanging on the rearview mirror inside the vehicle I took from the airport to my hotel.

After meeting my friend and tour guide at the airport, we were quickly on our way to check in at my hotel to change and head off to Intramuros, the historical walled city within the metropolis that is urban Manila. As soon as we stepped into this car, I realized that we were in Asia, but the Philippines were going to be a completely different experience. The rosary would be a mere precursor for how much Catholicism and the Spanish influenced this island nation during its growth and colonial period.

Aside from the rosary, the radio stations were broadcast in English, but with a heavy American accent. It was very nice and actually made me feel like I was back at home for the hour or so ride to the hotel. Given that the Philippines were American territory from the conclusion of the Spanish-American War until 1946, I expected to see a lot of American influence on the islands, especially by means of the English language, but there were more subtle influences waiting around every corner. Streets named Taft (after President Taft, who was once Governor-General of the Philippines), fast food chains, clothing brands, snacks and candies in the convenience store, and even television channels (imagine having Lifetime, Fox News, and HBO in your room) all added American flavor to a city with hundreds of years of Spanish colonial rule.

Light Morning Traffic in Manila

Our first stop of the day was the famed Intramuros section of Manila. Everything online about this historical neighborhood in the city said it was a sight to behold and the most important thing to see in the city. After stopping by the neighborhood for a few hours, I conclude that all reviews and assessments were completely accurate.

As I have continued to travel in Asia, I’ve noticed that my interests and the things for which I look on my trips continues to evolve and change. Ever since I visited Macau in November 2013, my eyes in all new destinations have turned towards architecture. For architectural features and uniqueness alone, Intramuros is worth your visit. The sites therein hold so much history and the moss-covered walls surrounding these sites surely have countless stories to tell of Spanish and American rule and of bombing and warfare to retake Manila from the Imperial Japanese in World War II.

In the plaza portion of Intramuros, many military relics remain as a reminder of the history and military roots within this walled city. Here is an anchor and cannon which are predominately displayed.

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As I turned to the right before we passed through the famed Santa Lucia Gate, I marveled at the pure beauty of the palm trees and plants surrounding two ornate fountains. These images and gardens are unlike anything else I had seen in Asia, except for Macau, which was Portuguese-controlled for several centuries. The Spanish style and influence certainly made Intramuros very special for me from a cultural trace and architectural perspective.


Behind this fountain, the Catholic influence and tout in Manila reared its head again in the most interesting of ways with this statue on the law of Intramuros.


As the sweat continued to roll down my face and soak through my shirt, we pressed onward to Santa Lucia Gate and Fort Santiago. As we passed horse-drawn carriages in the street, I took a second to rest and chat with General MacArthur’s statue in the shade before pressing onward.

In the distance, you can see the spectacular Santa Lucai Gate. As soon as I lain eyes on this gate, my mind tried to imagine what types of people and objects had based through it over the past few centuries. From iconic images like American tanks during the Battle of Manila to regular merchants, what kind of stories could these walls share? The walls and gate show their character and age as they are in the process of erosion and destruction, certainly sped up by Japanese assault on the city in the 1940s.  Take a look at the ornate gate and craftsmanship within the stone structure.

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They say, “dead men tell no tales,” but for some reason, I think these disheveled walls have many stories to tell.

After passing through the two-tiered walls into Fort Santiago, more history was upon us in this part of historic Manila. As you can see below, gravestones and monuments overlooked a more desolate part of the sprawling and polluted city. DSC07413 DSC07418 DSC07420

Inside Intramuros near Fort Santiago helps anyone gain a perspective on Manila’s rich history and also helps the traveler realize how war torn the city has been in the past, as well. Inside of this part of the city the sites and sounds are great, but even more elegance, beauty, and history  awaits in other parts of Intramuros, namely in the Catholic churches and sites which are extremely prevalent in this part of the city.

To make it to the Catholic sites, one can take a cab or walk the streets. We decided to walk and had the chance to see many historic and Western-style buildings like nowhere else I have seen in Asia outside of Macau and perhaps Malaysia.

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Bright colors, ornate woodwork, black fencing, and stuccoed exteriors are all indicative of something you would see in Spain or other European settlements in Asia. I even felt like I was in New Orleans as I walked through some of the narrow alleyways atop cobblestone streets.

Architecturally and culturally speaking, Manila is a place like nowhere else I have visited to date. American and Spanish influence looms large in many ways of life, but inside Intramuros, Spanish architecture is King (Philip). After speaking with some locals and seeing photos, I only wish I could have seen Manila before the Battle of Manila in 1945. The colonial buildings would be a world treasure if they still existed and were not bombed out during the war.

I will devote my next post almost entirely to some of the cathedrals I saw in metro Manila last Friday.

Getting Good and Lost

As the novice traveler that I am, the only way I really know how to explore and find out as much as I can about somewhere new is quite simple. I love to get good and lost in every new city, town, and place that I go, looking for the best photo opportunities, restaurants, and family-owned shops. This happened today in Kobe, Japan, and I finally feel like I have my bearings in my new hometown. 

Following day long meetings, a friend and I set out into Kobe; to walk through Harborland and then to find some places to do shopping to pick up some new items for our apartments. What we encountered along the way truly exemplifies the modern Japanese city: bustling city streets teeming with modern life which sit alongside (or sometimes overtop) vestiges of an older world, with family-run shops, open-air markets, and shrines and temples occupying prominent locations in older neighborhoods. 

As we returned from sightseeing from City Hall’s observation deck, one wrong turn from Flower Road led into an interesting afternoon filled with the aromas of fresh takoyaki and various Chinese foods, the sounds of a bicyclist ringing his bell, and a brief feeling that we were not inside of Japan’s sixth-largest city. Suddenly, we were in Chinatown.

As we walked through Kobe’s Chinatown, we quickly were caught up in the elegance of the small shops peddling their food to passersby with the type of charm that we have come to know and love in Japan. At the same time, some boys were ringing the bells on their bicycle as they tried to pass a large crowd. Several yards later, we encountered a small shrine with seating areas and lanterns spanning the wires overhead. For a moment, we forgot that we in Kobe and admired at the great scene in front of us on this unusually comfortable late-August day in the Japanese summer. 

As quickly as this moment was upon us, we continued on elsewhere, only to end up walking through Kobe Piazza, another marketplace where vendors line every square inch of shop space underneath the JR train tracks, only separated from one and another by a five foot wide pathway spanning the length of this plaza. As our shoulders bumped into shoppers going into the other direction and as we walked in and out of the clothing, bag, and shoe stores, we realized that we had re-emerged in a familiar location: Centergai shopping plaza.

As fleeting as this moment of peace and newness was, it was remarkable to experience a new part of the city for such a short period of time.  

My friend and I were good and lost in a familiar part of town following just one wrong turn, but now we know where we can go to escape the hustle and bustle of one of Japan’s largest cities. The quaint sound of street vendors, bicyclists, and relaxation all came alive today because we were good and lost.

Sometimes, the only way to truly learn about a new place is to get good and lost. Image