I was once invited to attend a wedding in Tayabas, Quezon but had to decline because of other personal commitments. But since then, I’ve always thought of going to that historic town which is one of only eight villas during the Spanish era. Being one of the centers of evangelization, Tayabas grew into a prosperous and important town endowed with the most amazing colonial structures. When I finally went there last October, I looked for its fabled arched bridges but found more than what I was looking for. Tayabas is one of those towns that you have to walk around, soak in its delightful rustic atmosphere, and hear stories from locals about their town’s past especially if you are a history buff. Although not as well preserved and impressive like its sister villas such as Vigan and Pila, it is a pleasant old town with historic buildings possessing its own natural beauty. There are still many superb walks around La Muy Noble Villa de Tayabas.
Roughly two kilometers away from Sariaya, Quezon, the main road (Mahárlika Highway) to Tayabas forks left if you’re coming from Manila. Its importance to the Spanish authorities was manifested when the capitolio of the whole province of Tayabas (now known as Quezon province) was transferred from the town of Unisan (formerly known as Calilayan) to Tayabas town. I was surprised that this town is now a city even with less than a hundred thousand residents and with its rural facets still intact. For a city, Tayabas is well-provided with countryside resorts, but I haven’t tried them yet (I could imagine that they can provide a nice place for special occasions particularly during the summer months). When Franciscan founders Fray Juan de Plasencia and Fray Diego de Oropesa first arrived at the place, they followed rocky trails leading to what they heard was already a populous settlement. But as always the case, the population was scattered and disorganized. Catholicism was the uniting force which created a cohesive and compact community. Thus, these Christian missions later became towns (in a process called reducción a pueblo. In the case of Tayabas, it became more than a town. It became a villa, an honor it shares with Madrid, Spain and other Filipino villas during that time.
This is what many people, including some historians, don’t recognize. Many still have the illusion that things would have been different without the intervention of these missionaries. We should understand and consider that during that glorious epoch, there were a series of colonial conquests going around the Pacific and the Americas. God so happened to place our islands in a strategic location, at the very gates of the Orient; it would be unimaginable for the shipping powers of the world not to take notice of it. We were in the middle of these historical shifts, the West meeting the East. We should not just ignore these peculiarities especially since most of us are still steadfast to the religion of the West’s reyes católicos. What we should reassess is how our ancestors made their culture theirs as well. There is nothing we can do to undo what our ancestors acquired from these historic clashes and meetings. We should instead celebrate the outcome of this merger because what came out of it is us, the Filipino.
I read that among the most excellent examples of arched bridges ever built in the country can be found here. Such is the case of the spectacular Malagonlong, a centuries-old arch type bridge built during the mid-1800s. It never fails to astonish first-time visitors with its durability, design, stability, geometry — our ancestors constructed Malagonlong as well as other magnificent bridges employing techniques that were years ahead of its time! Such bridges that were built during Spanish times would have been the pride of other countries if they were only built there. And during that time, our Asian neighbors were still making timber bridges, but here we are, already duplicating what is being accomplished in Europe. It is unfortunate, however, that some view this architectural masterpieces as nothing but colonial accomplishments and not Filipino milestones. It is but a terrible error for our history books to declare these structures as products of an enslaved people. Fortunately, as a form of recompense, a historical marker was unveiled by the National Historical Institute (NHI) headed by its current chairman, Ambeth Ocampo, finally marking its importance to Filipino architectural heritage.
Malagonlong historic marker
There are other bridges in Tayabas that are definitely worth visiting such as the Mate bridge which is the main bridge going to Maúban, Quezon during the colonial years. It was built around the same time as Malagonlong, and is now obscured by thick vegetation. The other bridge is Lakawan which was, sadly, demolished to give way to a new one. There was another one that I forgot to look at, but I believe I passed by this bridge several times: the Puente Isabel III which crosses Río Iyam. This has been repaired during the American era and is still the primary bridge to nearby Lucena City. Looking at the recent available images, it no longer bears any trace of its original construction. This bridge was originally constructed in the mid-1800’s.
It is a sad fact that the majority of colonial bridges not only in Tayabas but in the whole country have been neglected, if not threatened with future destruction.
I remember the Cavenaugh bridge in Singapore which, up to know, still stands, superbly preserved and restored by its government. It is located in the heart of the island country’s financial district. I also find it fascinating that instead of demolishing it to build a new one, the Singaporeans decided to leave it alone and build their modern bridges around it. The bridge is basically a footbridge, a busy one as it links two important districts in the Quay area. It amazingly survived the Japanese occupation. An amusing old metal board located at the foot of the bridge warns people against crossing the bridge with their cows and horses. Rizal even wrote about this suspended bridge in his journal.
I just wonder when we will ever start to notice the importance of our heritage structures. From what I’ve seen so far, we are so detached and disinterested; we don’t seem to have the heart to care for these relics. In a way, this goes back to how we are taught to “appreciate” Filipino history.
The rain has restricted me to roam freely in the glorious calles and barrios of Tayabas. I came early but had to spend a lot of time in the shade because of the October rain; it was like that the whole time during my stroll there. Adding to my frustration was when I went to the famed Casa Comunidad de Tayabas, it was closed. I heard that the NHI made attempts on restoring the former tribunal. It is where the controversial Hermano Pule (Apolinario de la Cruz) was sentenced to death in 1841 after he was found guilty of instigating a mutiny based on his own spiritual convictions. Referred to as “ang símbolo ng Tayabas”, this splendid executive edifice was constructed utilizing community funds from the once prosperous town called La Muy Noble Villa de Tayabas. One could only imagine how Tayabeño life in those days must have been. The town naturally was a showcase of the colonial state, and it has called the attention of many illustrious Castilas like Don Enrique de Borbón, a descendant of King Philip who once stayed in Tayabas as a regal executive.
Not far from the Casa Comunidad is the elegant Minor Basílica of St. Michael. Shaped like an old key, the church of Tayabas, once repaired by a Franciscan saint, has been around for hundreds of years. Its old age is already showing as there are obvious signs of deterioration on its wooden materials. Nevertheless, one could just imagine this church’s history and its deep connection to the early natives just by observing the attachment and pride that Tayabeños still have for it. It comes as no surprise that Tayabas locals consider the church as the most grand, the most beautiful, in the whole province of Tayabas/Quezon. The legend of its gold and other veiled possessions has aroused the curiosity of many thieves. The church clock located in its campaneria is the oldest in Asia.
Just like their forefathers, Tayabeño life starts and ends inside this most magnificent example of Filipino architecture. The religion has remained strong throughout the centuries, and this can be gleaned through the Tayabas way of life as well as its surrounding cultural landscape. It has touched every aspect of Tayabeño life. While I was inside, a mass was being held in respect for a departed Tayabeño; there were two other deceased, and their respective families were waiting in line. It was a busy day praying for the dearly departed.
A local tourist guide from the municipal office who was with a group of students that were rappelling down the new bridge opposite the picturesque old Franciscan bridge of Malagonlong told me that their church has been the victim of numerous pilfering. He recounts that it had upset the people because it was just incomprehensible that someone would loot a holy place. Now, reality has set in that burglars would care less if it is a church or a convent that they are desecrating. They have security personnel now in place but damage has been done. I tried to speak with the local priest, a certain Padre Antonio. He was a very cordial gentleman, articulate, and at the time of my visit he was in the middle of a meeting. It was perfect timing because he was with a group of enthusiastic people making plans of organizing a parochial museum that would showcase some of the Church’s antiquities. After sometime observing them, I had to excuse myself because I wanted to continue my Tayabas walk.
The plaza near the town hall has some historical markers. What I found odd are the caged monkeys near the official town hall (no, I’m not referring to its local politicians). Whatever happened to natural conservation? These animals are being taunted by naughty children who, naturally, do not know that they were hurting the poor monkeys. It was not a pleasant experience. They should be freed, all of them.
To cap it all, I had a great time seeing Tayabas firsthand. It is not only a wonderful place for heritage-loving tourists but also to those who want to see nature at its very best. Rivers are still flowing graciously, and in some parts even pristine. I found anglers along its banks, indicating that the waters are still teeming with fish (although there were already signs of pollution due to impending urban activities).
With sufficient interest and appreciation towards Philippine history and culture, one could fill in an enjoyable and worthwhile visit to this once glorious and “Very Noble Borough of Tayabas”.