Five days before Christmas Day we went on a 24-hour road trip that took us to a Ghibli-inspired Christmas village, a 400-year-old watchtower, and a city with cobblestone streets and ancestral houses.
The initial plan was to drive early in the morning to Bayambang, Pangasinan, to check out the Christmas village that features some of Japan’s famous Studio Ghibli characters. I suggested to my husband Charles and our buddy Yam that a visit in the evening, when the place is illuminated by Christmas lights, would be much better. But Bayambang is only a three-hour drive from Manila. Where to kill time for a maximum enjoyment of the Christmas village?
I guess the hodophile in us was sufficiently triggered because we decided to travel farther, to Vigan, Ilocos Sur. The trip to Vigan would take seven hours from Manila; after a brief stay, we’d be in Bayambang by nightfall.
So, armed with nine pieces of mini siopao asado and soda and bottled water in a cooler, we left Manila at 3 a.m. on a Toyota Wigo, the Buban household’s trusty vehicle for a decade. (It goes without saying but let’s say it, anyway: Whether your vehicle is old or brand-new, make time to have it checked by a mechanic before going on a long drive.)
Driving in the early morning hours when it’s still dark is a challenge because some areas on the North Luzon Expressway, Subic-Clark-Tarlac Expressway, and Tarlac-Pangasinan-La Union Expressway are without light posts—an unsafe condition, especially during a heavy downpour. To be sure, these expressways have helped commuters reach their destination faster. But the issue of lighting should be addressed soonest.
Daybreak found us in Agoo, La Union. The sun peeking through the bronze-colored sky was soothing to the eyes after more than three hours on the road and seeing mostly nothing but the beam of our car’s headlights on the pavement or on the vehicle in front of us. After another hour we reached the city of San Fernando, where we stopped at a McDonald’s for breakfast. It’s funny that while we were stuffing ourselves with hashbrowns, cheesy eggdesal and hotcakes, we were already planning what to eat when we got to Vigan three hours away.
Like La Union, Ilocos Sur is also known for its beautiful beaches. But if you’re a traveler pressed for time, there’s an area along the Santa Maria highway that offers an unobstructed view of the sea, where you can stop and take photos. It was picture-perfect: We took our shots against the backdrop of the waves crashing on the rocky shore.
We congratulated ourselves when we saw Vigan’s welcome arch and immediately headed to the public market on Alcantara Street to buy longganisa and bagnet, two of the many popular Ilocano delicacies that most tourists never fail to take home. As expected, we had a hard time looking for a parking slot. But we felt that the 15-minute search was worth it when we emerged from the market with our yummy loot.
Leaving the market meant looking for another parking slot. By a stroke of luck and with the assistance of people manning the city’s parking areas, we immediately found one near the Vigan Cathedral aka the Metropolitan Cathedral and Parish of the Conversion of Saint Paul. The cathedral has been closed to the public since July 2022, when a magnitude 7.3 earthquake hit most parts of northern Luzon, badly damaging its structure. Repair work is still ongoing, and we were told that Masses were temporarily being held in Plaza Burgos.
In the same plaza one can find stalls offering Filipino dishes that, locals claim, would remind you of food cooked by your mom or grandma back in the day. We decided to ditch the restaurants with rave reviews on the internet and to buy our lunch from one of the stalls. We settled at the designated dining area with wooden tables and benches and enjoyed: sisig, pork steak, tortang talong and pinakbet (there was a choice between pinakbet Ilocano or pinakbet Tagalog; naturally, we chose the former), and a cup of plain rice each. A soup called sinanglaw (made of beef innards and skin, of which I’m not a fan) came free with our orders.
Our lunch cost us around P600. We capped it with the popular Vigan empanada, which was being sold in five kiosks in a separate area of the plaza. The generous amounts of eggs, longganisa and green papaya in this delicious fried turnover made it all the more special.
Before leaving Vigan we took a 5-minute walk along Calle Crisologo, the city’s most famous tourist attraction, with beautiful ancestral houses lining it and clip-clopping horses drawing carriages on the cobblestones. One hopes that this heritage site will continue to benefit from the government’ preservation efforts.
Like Vigan, the Baluarte watchtower in Luna, La Union, was not in our initial travel itinerary, but its photos on the internet somehow drew us in.
A cool sea breeze greeted us upon arriving in Luna’s Barangay Victoria. We parked 10 meters away from the watchtower, and were hounded by a local offering to take our photos while showing us various photography tricks she could do with her smartphone,
This 400-year-old watchtower, a witness to tumultuous events during the Spanish colonial era and World War II, had been badly damaged by two strong typhoons in1996 and in 2015, only a year after it was declared a national cultural treasure by the National Museum of the Philippines (NMP). It was completely restored in 2017 through the efforts of the NMP and the local government of La Union. In restoring this important landmark, fabricated adobe was used on the damaged portions, and the existing original materials made of adobe and coral blocks were retained.
At past 8 p.m. we were still on the road to Bayambang, our last stop before heading back to Manila. But this time the streets were alive with Christmas lights blinking on posts, commercial establishments, houses and churches. It was a welcome sight that perked us up after traveling for four hours straight through what seemed like all of La Union’s 19 municipalities and sole component city. We were still in La Union, but now just one town away from Pangasinan.
It’s hard to miss Bayambang’s Christmas village. Not when it’s located in the town plaza and, at 9:15 p.m., the only place in town where one can see people walking in droves amid blaring Christmas music from establishments decked with fancy Yuletide lights. It was a busy and festive atmosphere not unlike in holiday areas in Manila, except that there’s a bonus in Bayambang: a bit of the “Studio Ghibli experience” for free.
Inside the Christmas village we were transported to a Ghibli fantasyland filled with some of the renowned Japanese animation studio’s characters from films like “My Neighbor Totoro,” “Spirited Away,” “Kiki’s Delivery Service,” and “Princess Mononoke.” We had a good time, as did (we observed) the other visitors. But it was disheartening to see that a couple of Ghibli characters on display had already been damaged. Sure, the Christmas village has been open for more than a month now and visitors can’t be monitored all the time, but I hope that the organizers would be able to do something before it closes its doors to the public in January. Besides, would a Ghibli character with a missing hand or nose make for a lovely souvenir photo?
It was finally time to head home. We left Bayambang around 10 p.m. and were quiet (being tired and hungry) in the car. But after a quick stop at a gas station on NLEx where we grabbed paninis and coffee, we were back to talking nonstop and praising ourselves for accomplishing a seemingly impossible and foolish road trip. We arrived safely in Manila around 3:30 a.m. buoyant from our 24-hour adventure.
Was it the Greek fabulist Aesop who said that “adventure is worthwhile”? What a truly worthwhile adventure we had!
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