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Manila, my Manila

With the state Manila is in today, you may think that she is losing out to the hip places like Makati, Bonifacio Global City, Ortigas Center, Alabang and even Eastwood. But don’t count Manila out just yet.

So what does Manila have that these shiny places don’t? It’s history—more than 400 years of it. Take Binondo, for example. The Ramada Hotel opened just recently in the world’s second oldest Chinatown. If you don’t know where to begin exploring, just contact Old Manila Walks tour and know more of the district’s culinary delights and cultural highlights.

Another good example of Manila’s revival is Divisoria. Shopping at this renowned bargain-hunting mecca in Manila is no longer difficult, with the presence of shopping malls like 168, Tutuban Center and 999, complete with parking, air conditioning and food courts, while prices remain the lowest anywhere in the metro. In fact, you can even find hotels in Divisoria for that much-needed nap or even stay overnight to make it ahead of the crowd, the likes of De La Chambre Hotel at the back of Lucky Chinatown Mall or Orion Hotel inside Tutuban Center.

But nowhere is Manila’s struggle to survive more evident than in Intramuros. To draw in more visitors, some major attractions underwent serious makeovers. The Manila Cathedral is one, which reopened last April 2014 after two years of extensive refurbishment. The result? A brighter interior where one can see clearly its glorious architectural details, a flat-screen TV that replaced hymnals, and side chapels renovated to accommodate events like baptisms. Overall, it does feel more inviting to come inside and talk to God. But before you leave, do check out the cathedral-themed souvenirs for sale at the entrance.

“What Manila does have that these shiny places don’t is history—more than 400 years of it.”

Or you can visit the Rizal Shrine inside Fort Santiago. The ground floor focuses on the trial and execution of our national hero Dr. Jose Rizal. The room where he was held prisoner was recreated, including the trial room, and a reproduced photo of his execution was placed on one side of the wall. An interesting artifact, a piece of Dr. Rizal’s spine where the bullet passed through, was also preserved inside an elaborate glass urn.

The exhibit continues on the second floor, particularly on Dr. Rizal’s life as an exile in Dapitan. Marvel at the collection that included his personal belongings, ophthalmologists’ instruments and—surprises of surprises—even several cigarette brands named after him! Overall, the makeover helps visitors’ learning experience fun and memorable.

Aside from the Manila Cathedral, the only other church inside Intramuros is the San Agustin Church. The city’s oldest standing structure and a UNESCO World Heritage site, its museum also underwent renovation. The most visible is the new exhibit hall, which used to be the church’s sacristy, where some of the church’s more valuable artifacts can be seen.

Notice as well the elaborately embroidered priests’ vestments and old carved drawers from Mexico where the vestments were stored, and be amazed by an ivory carving collection of local craftsmen who fused their Asian background with West and Catholic church traditions to create this exquisite ensemble.

The Intramuros makeover is not limited to just historical attractions though, but also souvenir shops like Island Souvenir in front of Fort Santiago and the Manila Collectible Company, with its wide selection of food-related gifts like vinegar made from honey from Lipa, Batangas, plus a good selection of local games and toys for kids.

But the most interesting has to be the “Bambike,” the hand-crafted bamboo bikes made by craftsmen from Gawad Kalinga. You can try them out around the courtyard behind the store for free, but if you like, you can join Bambike founder Bryan McClelland as he takes visitors around Intramuros atop these bamboo bikes.

As for the Intramuros food scene, just across San Agustin Church is the Ristorante delle Mitre, a favorite food hub where the menu features specialties and favorites from bishops and cardinals all over the country. Highly recommended is Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle’s sweet and delicate Silvanas (cashew meringue with butter cream filling) that just dissolve once you bite into them.

But please do try the Sky Deck View Bar atop the Bayleaf Intramuros, a former office building converted into a training school/hotel by the Lyceum of the Philippines University. The top floor has an open air bar with a 360-degree view of Manila’s skyline. In case it rains, just move to the 9 SPOONS restaurant a floor below that offers the same view, except that you are safely indoors.

But this is merely the beginning for Manila and the famed Intramuros. A number of new attractions are in the works, such as a new museum on what used to be the San Ignacio Church that will showcase the Intramuros Administration’s collection of religious-themed art works. And of course, with the new city administration, led by the indefatigable Manila Mayor Francisco “Isko Moreno” Domagoso at the helm of this dramatic change, expect more beautiful and exciting things to happen in this famed city.

With all these developments, who says Manila is losing out?

Text and photos by Anson Yu

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