One of the core experiences of travelling is the sensation of realizing the gap between expectations and realities. The expectations are set by postcards, elementary-school geography lessons, and travel blogs; and these are tested against the realities that the traveller uncovers upon first-hand experience, upon physically occupying the spaces that define the ‘destination’. This sensation may be positive or negative, depending on how well or how poorly the reality matches with the expectation.
Before my first visit to Legazpi City in Albay province, it was in my mind only a collage of images: of Mayon Volcano, of natural hazards and disaster risk management, the governance of Joey Salceda, and the trademark commodities: síli, píli, and abaca. But when I saw its many faces for myself, it left me a convincing impression that this eastern city is perhaps among the most beautiful in the archipelago.
The urban portion of Legazpi City is divided into two districts. On the western side, inland and next to the town of Daragá, is Albay District, where the city hall, a cathedral, and the provincial capitol are located. To the east, next to Albay Gulf, is the Legazpi Port District, home to the city’s port and commercial districts.
There are alternative names for the districts: “Albay Viejo” (Old Albay) for the port district, and “Albay Nuevo” (New Albay) for the present-day Albay District. The port district area, which in its earliest form was a community called Sawangan, is historically the older settlement between the two. Albay Nuevo, simply known to the local jeepney drivers as Albay, is called as such because it was established only after the destructive 1814 eruption of Mayon Volcano.
Legazpi Port District is decidedly the busier side of town, with noisier roads and more hurried people. There are charming streets possessing the look and feel of Manila’s Escolta district, with American colonial architecture.
This is also where Albay’s first mall of its kind, LCC, can be found. LCC malls and supermarkets dot the Albay landscape in the same way SM stores dominate metropolitan Manila. While wandering inside the Legazpi branch, I found decorations celebrating the retailing firm’s 70th anniversary; these markers were displaying the theme, “Taking Care of Bicolanos for 70 Years”. I later learned that LCC stands for Liberty Commercial Center—this, along with the knowledge that the company was established around the time of Liberation at the end of World War II, helped me appreciate the mall with its sense of history and homegrown pride.
Albay District, on the other hand, has a much more laid-back and municipal feel. Hills crowned by tropical trees, on Legazpi’s farther barangays, could be seen from Peñaranda Park, the central space surrounded by St. Gregory the Great Cathedral, Legazpi City Hall and the Albay Provincial Capitol. Peñaranda Park is Legazpi’s version of the plaza found in all towns with a Spanish heritage, an open area always surrounded by the church and the town hall. On a Monday night I found young locals hanging out at this park, where Pinoy street food was sold from kerosene lamp-lighted kiosks. It was the part of Legazpi that reminded me most of my childhood in Malabon town.
Skyline and the end of the line
There is a hill, called Ligñon, towards the north of Legazpi famous for its tourism park. From a viewing deck there, at dusk and facing southwest, I watched Legazpi’s dazzling night-time lights. However, this side was missing the grandest feature of the city’s mostly-flat skyline (and the skyline of all other towns and cities in Albay). I turned to the northwest, and there, glorious yet dangerous and looming over everything, was Mayon Volcano.
Mayon is what makes Legazpi picture-perfect, but it is only part of the image. There is another element that lends Legazpi prominence in Philippine maps—the railway. In my imagination, Mayon features as the backdrop to this city which lies at the southern end of the old, thousand-kilometer Philippine National Railways line. Back then, in more glorious days, I imagine that Filipinos from as far north in Luzon as La Union in Ilocos would board a PNR train, travelling south for hours and days, picking up Tagalogs and Manileños and Bicolanos before the train reached the end of the line at Legazpi station, and then the commuters would step out onto the majestic shadow of Mayon.
Legazpi station today is a neglected place. The PNR line is broken at several points along the old route, and the trains now only ply shorter inter-city routes. Yet, with the knowledge of history and some imagination, I looked at the terminal in a different light. I tried to picture it in its better days, when thousands of tired souls from all over Luzon happily disembarked at the end of the line.
Histories, written and told
At the back of the city hall complex, on a warm Monday afternoon, I found the city museum, near a bust of the conqueror Miguel López de Legazpi (after whom the city is named). It is a humble museum with simplete exhibits, with no gallery lights to cast elegant shadows upon its displays, and there is no air-conditioning. Regardless, the museum has many stories to offer the occassional curious student or tourist.
There are three main themes told in the museum. First is the impact of Typhoon Reming, which in 2006, aided by volcanic materials spewed by Mayon, battered towns and cities in Albay. Reming devastated houses and roads, and felled bridges; Reming is also the force that broke PNR’s railways in Bicol, and disrupted the Manila-Legazpi routes which up to now has not been restored. It was the most destructive storm in recent Albay history—and I was guilty of not remembering it, guilty that until my visit to this museum my only recollection of typhoons in 2006 was Milenyo, the only one which affected Manila.
The Battle of Legazpi is another huge topic in the museum. This was an encounter fought in January 1900 during the Filipino-American War, when Filipino revolutionary forces defended the city against U.S. invaders from the sea. The battle was quite easily won by the Americans with their superior arms, and it ended with a last stand by the Filipinos at the foot of the old San Rafael Bridge in present-day Legazpi Port District. Museum exhibits on the topic include several posters and miniature terrain models depicting the flow of battle. One interesting note, oft-repeated, is that the Battle of Legazpi proves that the revolution and war at the end of the 19th century was not just a Central Luzon/Tagalog phenomenon: Bicolanos fought for their freedom too, and paid for it with their blood.
The last major theme is Legazpi’s economic history from the mid-19th century up to the time shortly after American invasion. Legazpi was among the towns in the Philippines that benefitted greatly when the territory was opened up in a declaration by the Queen of Spain in the early 1800s. Specifically, Legazpi was made an open port of entry in 1842. Commerce boomed in the area, and by the time of the arrival of the Americans there were already numerous warehouses in the port area owned by enterprises of various nationalities. This is where I learned about Jose Maria Peñaranda: he was the governor of Albay who oversaw this time of trade revitalization, and for his contributions the people honored him with the name of a park, and more recently, with a stately statue of him standing in the same park.
One gap in the history presented by Legazpi’s city museum, however, is World War II: I found nearly nothing here about that conflict, save for a mannequin donning a WW2-era U.S. GI uniform, surrounded by some unreadable news clippings. This was a donation by a military museum from the state of Arizona (or was that Arkansas?), but there was no clear narrative of what took place in Legazpi in the war.
The only time I learned something related to the war in Legazpi was when I talked to a teenager manning the hostel where I stayed in. This kid, who grew up in Naga City in nearby Camarines Sur province, had the peculiar wish of joining the police or army because he knew that by joining the uniformed services he would get a pension upon retirement. What a forward-thinking boy! Though he did reveal to me that he was also inspired by his grandfather who was recruited into the war as the Bicol region became a battlefield between the Japanese and the Americans. He told me this as he pointed fingers at the region’s map on the wall of the hostel, claiming that his grandfather hiked to the east coast of the Bicol peninsula and helped fight Japanese reinforcements sent against the returning Americans.
Focal point of national identity
Where does Legazpi’s beauty lie? Is it in its Spanish and American heritage, strongly represented in its stories and architecture? Is it in its natural beauty, possessing a skyline unlike any other city in the archipelago, crowned by the perfectly-shaped Mayon and hugging the coast of a gulf? Is it in its people, who speak the languages of Bicol known to have among the most diverse dialects of all major languages in the country?
It is, in my view, all of these, individually and together. These elements may not be unique to the city, but they live here in a confluence, with an intensity difficult to find anywhere else in the Philippine archipelago.
I found additional historical notes from a VisitMyPhilippines.com page about Legazpi (courtesy of the Department of Tourism):
- VisitMyPhilippines.com. (Undated). Legazpi City. Retrieved December 2015, from http://www.visitmyphilippines.com/index.php?title=LegazpiCity&pid=772