Inside the Walled City: Intramuros

Last month, I went on a trip to the walled city of Intramuros at the heart of Manila with a friend who also likes taking photos.

Intramuros, which in Latin literally means  “within the walls”,  is the oldest district of Manila.  With stone walls measuring 20-feet thick at the top, 40-feet thick at the base and rising up to 20 feet high,  Intramuros is a bona fide citadel, and more importantly, it is the seat of government of the Spanish territories  (collectively called the Spanish East Indies) during the period when the Philippines was under Spanish colonial rule. Construction began in 1590 and continued through 1872, with fortifications added through different periods of time under different Governor Generals. It is the seat of government, arts, religion, culture, trade and commerce, and is the standard against which other cities in the Philippines were measured. A small clue as to its consequence during that period may be gleaned by how Intramuros was viewed: all other districts beyond the walls were called extramuros (“outside the walls”)It is an independent city within a city, with historic churches, universities (including the original campus of my alma mater, the 400-year old University of Santo Tomas, until it was destroyed during WWII), commercial establishments and residential houses. To this day, it has retained a distinctly old world feel to it,where  streets and important buildings still go by their Spanish names, and horse-drawn carriages treading down the cobblestone streets are a common sight.

Our first destination was Fort Santiago.

The façade of Fort Santiago.  That's the inner moat in front of it.

The façade of Fort Santiago. That’s the inner moat in front of it.

There were busloads of tourists when we arrived, and we were greeted with dancers dancing tribal dances to welcome us to Fort Santiago.

Fort Santiago is a fortress inside Intramuros, also a fortress itself. And as Intramuros is called “a city within a city”, therefore technically, Fort Santiago can be described as a fortress within a fortress within in a city within a city!  Tunnels, wallwalks, ramparts, and yes, dungeons!- they compose the majority of the structure of Fort Santiago. During WWII when the Japanese invaded Manila, Intramuros was used as a stronghold, holding tens of thousands of captured Filipino and American soldiers in Fort Santiago’s crowded dungeons.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

A stray cat living in the barracks of Fort Santiago.

True to Murphy’s Law, anything that could go wrong, DID in fact go wrong that day.  A heavy downpour started, albeit intermittently, not long after we arrived at Fort Santiago, and didn’t let up until we were preparing to leave. The Rizal Shrine (a building inside Fort Santiago housing the prison cell where Dr. Jose Rizal spent his last days before his execution by firing squad and later converted into a shrine), usually a popular tourist spot, was closed for renovations , and so was the Manila Cathedral, but by then we could only sigh in mute acceptance that it was just not our day.

A “carruaje”, or a horse-drawn carriage. (These are modernized version of the carruaje, looking like it got its inspiration from Disney fairytales.) It was the mode of transport during the Spanish colonial era. Called “kalesa”in Tagalog, it is still in use as transportation in Binondo, Chinatown, sporting a more authentic look instead of looking like Cinderella’s carriage. 

After the rain…

Closer look at the façade of Fort Santiago. Fort Santiago was named for St. James the Great, patron saint of Spain. (In Spanish St. James is called Santiago, hence, Fort Santiago.) The upper part of the front gate is adorned by a relief of St. James (that’s him on the horse) and the arms of the King of Spain. This is actually the reconstructed gate after the original gate was damaged during the liberation of Manila in WWII. (Photo of the damaged gate here.)

Gate to Fort Santiago.

Since the Rizal Shrine was closed for renovations, we contented ourselves with a photo of Rizal’s statue, and a quick visit to the Rizaliana collection (items and things used by Rizal and members of  his family).

A statue of our national hero, Dr. Jose Rizal. Rizal’s prison cell where he wrote the famous patriotic swansong, Mi Último Adiós, spending his last days of incarceration inside Fort Santiago before his execution, was later turned into the Rizal Shrine.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Overlooking the Pasig River…

A sentry tower?

That’s the Binondo district across the river.

Preparing to leave…

I’m pretty sure these are statues of the three Filipino martyrs, the priests Gomburza (short for Gomez, Burgos and Zamora). But wait, there’s a fourth one…hmmmm…

Statues of friars

After we left Fort Santiago (and had a terrible lunch at the only fastfood store that was open that day), we went to the Manila Cathedral. As I mentioned earlier, like the Rizal Shrine it was also closed for renovations. Just our luck. We were laughing ruefully by then, because not one thing has gone our way so far. Lack of a wide-angle lens meant I had to forego taking a photo of the front façade. We decided to go on to our next destination to try our luck. Couldn’t resist snapping this, though, as we traipsed on to San Agustin Church.

The dome of the Manila Cathedral

These quaint, cobblestone streets are everywhere in Intramuros, further adding an atmosphere of age and history despite the modernities dotting the scene. This one is just across the street from San Agustin Church.

Children playing in the streets.

Our luck changed for the better when we arrived at the historic San Agustin Church, because we were just in time to catch two weddings in succession. (Yep, we crashed a wedding ceremony!) We were hesitant at first to take photos, because we didn’t know them and some people do mind their pictures being taken by strangers without their permission (I would). But San Agustin Church is a popular tourist spot, and there were a lot of other tourists just like us (busloads of them!) who couldn’t believe their luck in chancing upon a wedding ceremony, no less! I should’ve been used to it, it was  a Sunday, after all. But after a series of unfortunate events, we were mightily encouraged by our good fortune, and the fact that the newlyweds and their families didn’t seem to mind.

San Agustin Church. Again, what I wouldn’t do for a wide-angle lens just then.

Detailed and intricate wood carvings on the enormous heavy wooden doors of the San Agustin Church.

The bridal car – a very classic vintage Jaguar, the Jaguar Mark 2 (or MK2), a rare sight to behold in downtown Manila. As bridal cars go, this one is as good as it gets.

The bridal car, a Jaguar MK2.

The wedding ceremony.

The church towers against a blue sky.

We tried to be as unobtrusive as possible, getting out of the way of the professional wedding photographers with their professional gears and tall cranes for those high bird’s eye view shots. There was a slight drizzle all throughout the ceremony, but we didn’t mind.  I love taking photos of people. I love seeing the emotion coming though, and being able to freeze it at that particular moment in time. I look at the newlyweds and their family and friends around them, and I could feel myself (yes, me – a stranger!) being enveloped in this aura of happiness and joy. I look at my fellow stranger/tourists snapping away and met their smiling eyes.

Yep, we were all smiling. 

A second wedding ceremony was lined up immediately after the first one (San Agustin Church is very popular for weddings and christenings), but as me and my friend were planning to go to Manila Bay to capture the sunset, we left not long after it started. While it only drizzled during the first wedding, it was a downpour by the time we left.

For once I came prepared. I had checked the time when the sun will set before we set out on this trip just to be sure (5:27 pm), and as we had more than an  hour to while away, we decided to relax a bit and go for a cup of coffee at a popular restaurant along Roxas Boulevard. We never thought that we’d miss the better part of the glorious sunset because someone took their time making a cup of friggin’ latté! Grrrr! We should’ve just left after reminding them every 10 minutes that they still haven’t served our coffee yet, but as usual we were too nice (e.g. wimpy) to do that. They were not busy as far as I could tell. It was 4 in the afternoon, and not lunch or dinner time. Hmmph! By the time our coffee was served we could already see the big, fiery sun beginning its descent. We gulped down the steaming hot coffee in as few mouthfuls as our burning tongues would allow and then hurried outside. I managed to take a few shots before the sun disappeared from the horizon, and then just stood there and enjoyed the sunset.

Manila Bay is known for its magnificently spectacular sunsets.

Manila Bay is known for its magnificently spectacular sunsets.

I did enjoy the trip tremendously, despite all that. Intramuros is a place of history. Everywhere you go you could feel the presence of those who have walked these streets hundreds of years ago. It permeates the air, so strong it is almost tangible. It’s certainly visible, with the colonial architecture and the carruajes passing by every now and then. And although it was a place where many suffered and died horrible deaths, it was also a place of great courage, bravery, and patriotic sacrifice.

I know that what I’ve seen is only a small part of Intramuros. One of these days I’m going back, and discover those little secrets that this great citadel holds. ^_^