When one flies to Bacolod City, one doesn’t really land in any airport within Bacolod. Like most airports named after major cities, they’re usually actually located in a neighboring city or municipality where there’s much more open space. This is the case with the “Dumaguete Airport” located in Sibulan, the former “Manila International Airport” located in Parañaque, the “Iloilo Airport” located in Cabatuan, and of course, the Bacolod Airport, which is located in the city of Silay.
Prior to my 2012 Western Visayas trip, I knew nothing about Silay, but I had to research on it since it would actually be the entry point to Bacolod and the entire province of Negros Occidental. I learned then that the city boasts of a heritage district made up of Spanish-period colonial buildings which were once prominent as homes of the province’s sugar barons when the Negros sugar industry was a big deal.
So upon disembarking, I followed the instructions I found in travel blogs and walked outside the airport, crossing the parking area all the way to the exit gate where some tricycles were waiting. I was pleased to find out from the trike driver that the P60 fee from the airport to the heritage district was still (then) current, so I hopped in and sat back at the sidecar while I gazed at vast fields of sugarcane while we drove by the provincial road. It also began to drizzle a bit so by the time I arrived at the heritage district, the skies were already pouring.
It was by then early Sunday morning. According to my itinerary, I had a few hours to spend in Silay before making my way to Bacolod at lunch time to check in at my hotel and meet an online friend who lives there and who has graciously agreed to show me around. So as a consequence, I roamed around Silay lugging around my heavy backpack and a rudimentary Silay map in hand, which I printed a few days before I left.
But first, I had to wait for the rain to stop, so I must have spent an hour under a waiting shed. I could have easily walked towards the famous El Ideal bakery to have some breakfast first, but at that hour, it was still closed. I had no choice but to wait and look around as best I can from my perch under the shed. Eventually, the rain weakened to a very light drizzle so I figured I can already start my walking tour. I just put on my bush hat, wrapped my backpack in its rain cover and placed my camera in my dry bag so it’s easy to take out to snap shots.
THE SAN DIEGO PRO-CATHEDRAL
The waiting shed was near the town plaza and the San Diego Pro-cathedral, so that was naturally the first place I went to. It was a good thing that at some point soon after I set off, the drizzle stopped but it was still cloudy, so I spent the morning in rain-free weather that didn’t get too hot.
What sets apart this church from others is that it’s the only one in the entire province that has a dome. In addition, its designation of being a “pro-cathedral” is one of only two in the Philippines (the other one being the San Miguel Pro-cathedral in Manila.)
Typical of Spanish-period churches in the Philippines, it was built to be the center of the town and it faces a plaza. Although the church dates back to the 18th century, its present design only dates back to 1927.
I would have wanted to take pictures of the interior of the church, but there was a mass being held at the time of my visit. I didn’t want to be more conspicuous than I already was so I just took a look inside without snapping shots.
EL IDEAL BAKERY
After about an hour of roaming within the immediate vicinity of the church – and after trying to find the district tourism office, but discovering that they were still closed – I walked over to the El Ideal bakery to see if they were already open. By this time I was already getting hungry. My quick very early breakfast back at home in QC was already seemingly a distant memory. I was pleased to find out that they already were open so I eagerly entered and found a nice seat by the window.
It’s called a bakery because of its main business, which is producing baked goods for daily consumption and pasalubong, but it has also since become a well-known cafeteria throughout the years. In particular, it is famous for its guapple pie, which people either consume within the cafeteria or take it home as a treat for family and friends. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to taste this because I was looking forward to a breakfast that leaned more towards protein and carbs (i.e. any variety of -silog).
Honestly, I no longer remember what I ordered, but I was quite sure it had eggs and fried rice in it. It might have been tocino. I remember walking to the counter and giving my and paying for it. There were still very few people in the cafeteria, but I could already hear a buzz behind the counter which signified that business has already begun and was already in full swing. Soon enough people were already streaming inside to buy bread, probably for their breakfast at home.
THE BERNARDINO-YSABEL JALANDONI HOUSE
Newly energized from my breakfast, I once again walked around to look for places of interest. Using my rudimentary map, I found my way to the Bernardino-Ysabel Jalandoni House. It’s important to refer to it using its full name because simply saying “Jalandoni House” can refer to a number of different houses within the heritage district. (i.e. Jalandoni is a pretty common name there.)
Upon arriving at the distinctively pink-hued house, I found out that it was closed. This was not entirely a surprise since I have been warned that they have somewhat erratic business hours. Good thing they opened soon after I arrived, but I did spend some time just standing outside their door contemplating on what to do next.
The heavy wooden door opened, and a kind-faced old man welcomed me in. I paid the museum entrance fee (P50) and placed my backpack somewhere near the front desk. I was basically told I was free to go everywhere within the house, I was free to take pictures, and that the in-house guide will catch up with me in a few minutes.
I went straight upstairs to the second floor because I knew for a fact that Spanish-period houses of the wealthy had their bedrooms and living area there. (Clarification: Many ancestral houses in Silay were built during the early 1900s, which was already after the Spanish colonial period. But the architectural legacy of the Spanish period, in particular the bahay na bato, was still a big influence on how houses for the wealthy were built during the early American period.) I was struck by how well-maintained the place was. Although a lot of stuff were clearly old and antiquated, they were clean and arranged well.
Eventually, the guide caught up with me. If I remember right, her name is Amor and she immediately began explaining to me the history of the rooms. She also told me that everything I saw there were original and authentic, i.e. they were owned and actually used by the original occupants of the house. They also tried as much as possible to keep the appearance faithful to how the interior looked like back in the day, while at the same time utilize some space to exhibit other historical curiosities, in keeping with the house’s designation as a museum.
Amor is a good guide in the sense that she does not sound like she memorized a script. She does not over-explain things and only gives additional information when prompted. Too often museum guides have this compulsion to say as many details as they can in a mistaken notion that they have to give the clients their money’s worth.
Soon after, I went downstairs to check out the kitchen and other areas where the house servants used to work. I wasn’t able to take many pictures because the area was not very well-lit, but I guess that’s how it was in the day when people still lived here.
In preparation for my departure, I took a picture of a map of Silay that I saw in a book that was being sold at the ground floor. It was a lot more detailed than my rudimentary map and I thought I’d use that instead.
With that, I thanked Amor and the old man as I took my backpack and set off for my next destination.
THE BALAY NEGRENSE
It was just a couple of hours before lunch time and I’ve only covered half of what I wanted to see in Silay, so I briskly made my way to the Balay Negrense, which is on the opposite side of the heritage district.
Like the Bernardino-Ysabel Jalandoni House, the Balay Negrense has been converted to a museum that attempts to recreate domestic life during a more elegant period of Negros Occidental’s history. Prior to its conversion, it was called the Victor Fernandez Gaston Ancestral House. As the family name suggests, the family has French heritage, making it unique from all the Spanish and Chinese mestizo elites of early Philippine society.
The Balay Negrense benefits from being located in a quieter part of the district and built on a wide plot of land, enabling it to have a garden and even a fountain. There were already some tourists in the house when I arrived. I once again paid a museum fee of P50 and left my backpack near the front desk. Due to its location, size, and also probably its architecture, the Balay Negrense feels more open, spacious and is certainly more receptive to natural light.
Unlike the Bernardino-Ysabel Jalandoni House, the first floor of this house is in itself very appealing. I was in no rush to get to the second floor. Having said that, the second floor seemed to be a very inviting prospect due to the very elegant wooden grand staircase that one only sees in old houses like these.
The second floor did not disappoint. There was likewise an effort not to over-decorate, but at the same time give one an idea of the wealth and class of the house’s former residents. (Although, come to think of it, I’m no expert on heritage houses, so I really have no idea what constituted “over-decorating” for the early 20th century Filipino elite.)
A big sliding window opens up to a view of the front garden and the Cinco de Noviembre Street. In the distance, the dome of the San Diego Pro-cathedral can be seen. Elsewhere on the same level, there were exhibits showing the history of the former owners of the house. There was even an exhibit showing the appearance of the house before it was renovated by the city government to be converted for public viewing. By the looks of it, the external renovations were extensive, which probably explains why the wood panels used for some windows and walls did not look antique at all.
This was far from typical bahay na bato architecture. It didn’t look like one and there were some aspects of the house that felt modern. It might have been the French influence. It’s quite known that at the turn of the 20th century, France was among the most modern European countries while Spain lagged behind the rest of the continent, its golden age long past.
OTHER ANCESTRAL HOUSES
Given that there are a lot of Spanish period houses in the Silay heritage district, one might be tempted to view Silay as the Vigan of Negros Occidental. But actually, except for the occasional bahay na bato, Silay looks nothing like Vigan. For one, the streets are a bit wider and there’s more spaces between the houses to allow for trees and gardens to grow. Silay is definitely a greener city.
As I also alluded to earlier, the ancestral houses in Silay aren’t as old as those of Vigan. In the latter, some many houses date back to the 1700s and early 1800s, while in Silay, most are designed and constructed during the early American period. Yes, many are still faithful representations of the classic bahay na bato, but its peculiar identity lies in the echoes of its former elegance and grandeur, this is characterized by its post-Spanish period houses.
While the major houses got converted into museums, some have been repurposed for other uses, mainly commercial, especially the ones located in Rizal Street.
There are actually many more ancestral houses that I passed by, but did not get to take photos of, and there were parts of the heritage district that I did not even pass. It was almost lunchtime and I had to meet up with my friend in Bacolod, which was at least 15 minutes away by jeep from Silay. So with one last glance at Rizal Street, I boarded a jeep and departed the Silay heritage district.
NEXT: The Ruins of Talisay