Intramuros: The Walled City | Daily News


Intramuros: The Walled City

San Augustin  Church
San Augustin Church

Ever wondered why the Central Business District (CBD) in Colombo is called the Fort? It is very easy to guess. Colombo once had a Fortress or Fort erected by the Portuguese for defence purposes. While much of the Fort has been demolished, one can still glimpse a few intact sections of the Fort, most notably at the Commercial Bank Headquarters Building. A few other cities, including Galle, have more or less intact forts. The one at Galle is a World Heritage Site.

But fortifications are by no means confined to Sri Lanka. The Portuguese, the Dutch and the Spanish built forts wherever they conquered and ruled, though the British were no big fans of forts. But they let them be if they did not stand in the way.

Manila has one of the most famous fortifications in the world, though it has been redesigned and rebuilt partly from the original structure. This fort area, called Intramuros, is one of the most visited parts of Manila. What does Intramuros mean ? Naturally, this is a word with Spanish roots, but if you know English well enough, you can instantly guess the meaning. Intra means “within” and Muros means ‘the walls”. Taken together, Intramuros means “within the walls”. It is very similar to our own “Ethul Kotte”, which also means “within the walls or fort”.

Intramuros or to give its real Spanish name “Ciudad Murada” (walled city) tells the story of the Philippines. Walking “within these walls” (just 0.67 Sq Km) one gets a palpable sense of Philippines’ colonial history. Visiting Manila as part of an East West Centre, Hawaii, Journalism Fellowship, I was intrigued by the fascinating story of Intramuros. It was just a few kilometres from our hotel and Annalisa, the Philippine journalist in our group of 14, arranged a tour.

It is always better to learn about a country from someone who has lived there long enough. David, our guide, was not a local per se, but an American who has been living in Manila for 32 long years. As he put his battered old jeep into gear and drove us towards Intramuros, he mentioned only four words: “Intramuros is living history”. Yes, this is a living, breathing historic area populated by 6,000 people.

Once we were within the walls, David gave us a little history lesson. “Humans first came to what is now the Philippines nearly 60,000 years ago. The first arrivals are believed to be have been from [what is now] Andaman Islands, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and islands in the region.”

David then fast forwards all the way to 1521, when explorer Ferdinand Magellan is believed to have set foot on one of the 7,641 Philippines islands. (For the history buffs out there, the Portuguese came to Sri Lanka just a few years earlier, in 1505). The Spanish colonial period begins in 1565. In fact, the very name Philippines is derived from King Philip II of Spain. Eventually the name Las Islas Filipinas (the islands of the Philippines) would be used to cover all the islands of the archipelago. Interestingly, Magellan died in an attack by native tribes after a botched invasion of the Mactan Islands in the Philippines in April 1521 itself. (A similar fate would befall another explorer – James Cook – two centuries later in Hawaii.)

However, this did not stop the Portuguese from sending further expeditions to the Philippines and the last expedition by commander Legazpi in 1564 managed to return to Mexico across the Pacific. “This was the beginning of the Spanish galleon trade which would continue for the next two centuries. The ships linked Acapulco and Manila’s Intramuros, making two rounds per year,” says David.

Manila Galleons

The Manila Galleons were also known in New Spain as “La Nao de la China” (The China Ship) on their return voyage from the Philippines because they carried mostly Chinese goods, shipped from Manila. The galleon trade was supplied by merchants largely from Fujian who travelled to Manila to sell valuable commodities. Cargoes included goods from all over Asia - jade, wax, gunpowder and silk from China; amber, cotton and rugs from India; spices from Indonesia and Malaysia; and a variety of goods from Japan, including fans, chests, screens and porcelain. Once the cargo arrived in Acapulco it was transported by land across Mexico to the port of Veracruz, where they were loaded onto ships bound for Spain. Silver, seeds, sweet potato, tobacco, chickpea, chocolate and cocoa, watermelon, vine and fig trees, wine, olive oil were in the return cargo to Manila. The transport of slaves from Asia to Mexico (and the Americas) was the dark side of the galleon trade.

The Manila galleons sailed for 250 years until 1815. Just six years later, Mexico gained independence and the Philippines came to be ruled directly from Madrid instead of from Mexico. Each voyage lasted more than four months. There is still a lot of interest about finding some of the ships that were lost in the voyages as they are believed to have carried such valuable goods - between 1565 and 1815 Spain owned 108 galleons, of which 26 were lost at sea. Incidentally, descendants of the galleon trade operatives still live in Mexico and the Philippines. Filipinos of Spanish origin are referred to as Kastillas (after Castilian).

This brings us back to Intramuros, which is replete with such history. As we settled into a horse-driven carriage (called “Kalesa”), David told us the story of Intramuros which was founded by the very same Legazpi who discovered the route to Mexico. “Like all forts, Intramuros and its Fort Santiago were built to keep the enemies at bay. Construction of Fort Santiago began in the late 16th century after a vicious attack by Chinese pirates.”

The Walled City was originally located along the shores of the Manila Bay, south of Pasig River. The Spanish rulers told their governors in the Philippines “to enclose the city with stone and erect a suitable fort at the junction of the sea and river”. Leonardo Iturriano, a Spanish military engineer specializing in fortifications, headed the project while Chinese and Filipino workers built the walls. The construction of Intramuros and its buildings spanned a couple of centuries from 1590 to 1872.

Intramuros attractions

Just one year later, many buildings in Intramuros were destroyed in an earthquake, but the biggest damage would be caused by the Battle of Manila in 1945. It was in Intramuros that the occupying Japanese Army fought against Allied soldiers and Filipino guerillas. The fierce battle destroyed churches, universities, houses, and government buildings in Intramuros that dated to the Spanish Colonial Period. When you visit Intramuros today, just be aware that some of the fortifications and buildings have been totally rebuilt (and sometimes shifted from the original location due to sea reclamation), though nothing seems to be out of place. Planners hope to do some more modifications in the future.

Intramuros is best seen by horse carriage as we did, but if you don’t like this idea due to ethical reasons, it can easily be navigated by trike (a slightly different take on the three wheelers seen here), bicycle or even on foot. Begin outside the walls with a huge “Intramuros’ sign and work your way in. It is free to enter, though some attractions may levy a fee.

When exploring along the cobblestone streets of Intramuros, first things first. Begin with the shrine commemorating national hero Jose Rizal, though there is another monument at Rizal Park near the Manila Hotel, just outside Intramuros. To get to the shrine, all you have to do is look down. On the ground you will see imprinted footsteps, which represent the way that Rizal took on the way to his execution.

The steps lead you to the shrine which bears a sculpture of Jose Rizal inside his cell. Nearby, there is a museum dedicated to his life and times. To learn more about Rizal, visit the Bagumbayan Light and Sound Museum which has a one-hour show which combines different visual effects, soundtracks, and other technologies to narrate the story of Jose Rizal. You can also see the Memorare-Manila 1945, which honours those who fought to liberate Manila.

Then head over to the Manila Cathedral (rebuilt eight times and visited by three Popes in living memory) and the St. Augustin Church, a World Heritage Site. The latter has a museum with two floors, several galleries, and hallways teeming with religious art. Look for the Library of San Agustin Convent, which has thousands of books from 1522 onwards. The whole library is closed off with glass, though. Note that both are ‘living’ churches and tourists are not allowed to enter while religious events are in progress.

If you crave more museums, Casa Manila is the place to visit. This has a good collection of Spanish era art, furniture and collectibles that collectively show how Filipinos lived in the Spanish colonial era. But photography is not permitted. If you are curious to learn about the Chinese in Manila in particular, the nearby Bahay Tsinoy Museum is the place to be. (100 Peso Entrance Fee)

All this walking will naturally make you hungry and thirsty. You can visit a number of heritage-themed restaurants within Intramuros. We were taken to Barbara’s, an Intramuros institution but you can select from a number of other restaurants, especially the 10th floor rooftop bar of the Bayleaf Hotel. Try visiting in the late afternoon just before sunset for breathtaking views of Old Manila and Manila Bay. Before you leave Intramuros (and perhaps Manila itself), why not buy a souvenir at Manila Collectible Company in Intramuros, where David parted ways with us after a delightful tour that lasted more than two hours.

Though right in the heart of the city, Intramuros is a world away from the traffic chaos that is Manila. If you want a bit of solitude with history all around you, Intramuros is the one place in Manila that gets you there.

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