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Sunday, May 10, 2015

A Day in Baguio

When the Philippines enters its summer months of April and May each year (or sometimes even as early as the latter part of March), by tradition, Filipinos do something about the heat, either by revelling in it at the many pristine beaches located around the country, or escaping it by going up the mountains of Baguio. 

Both locations are bound to be over populated by local and foreign tourists at this time.

In recent summers, my friends have been telling me that Baguio has become very different - more building, less trees; cool weather a matter of history; and more rude taxi drivers. But as luck would have it, my family had a good reason to visit - the husband had an invite to lecture. One pleasant surprise was the weather. The temperature ranged from 12-16 degrees Celsius. A blessing compared to 34-35 degrees in Metro Manila. Another pleasant surprise was that there are still a good many courteous taxi drivers, the ones who will give you change to the last centavo. A rarity in Metro Manila. Nevertheless, it was true about the trees and I lament the loss of them.

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Whether you, my reader, are a Filipino or not, let me introduce Baguio as concisely as I can: it was declared the "Summer Capital of the Philippines" by the Philippine Assembly in July 1, 1903 under the American colonial government headed by Governor-General William Taft. Thus, government operations were transferred from Manila to Baguio during the summer months, well, obviously to escape the heat. This practice was, however, stopped in 1913 when Francis B. Harrison became the next Governor-General. 

The effects of being the second seat of government are long-lasting, as many structures and the city planning itself were given priority (next to Manila during the Commonwealth period) and many are standing to this day in its original form. Hence, when one goes to Baguio, one witnesses Philippine history in person, especially during the American colonial period. 

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As a visitor here, one goes to ride horses at Wright Park, man the boats at Burnham Park, maybe have a picnic at Teachers' Village, peek at the Presidential Palace, say a prayer or two at the Baguio Cathedral, shop for fresh produce to bring home at the Public Market, or just trudge along the length downwards or upwards Session Road, the busiest street in the city. However, you need more than a day to get around all these notable landmarks.

So what indeed can you do if you only have a day in Baguio?

Of course, take your pick of the usual sights. You can make a list by just checking out Wikipedia or even a handbook on the city. But if you're like me who has done the usual places, here is what we did.

While we were forewarned about the overpopulation of Baguio, we were still astounded at the multitudes that were there. It seemed that everyone in Metro Manila had one destination in mind this year. Hotels were also mostly booked at this time. So the first thing you have to do is book a hotel in advance. Luckily, we were there upon an invitation and so that invite included a pre-arranged beautiful accommodations at the Baguio Country Club

Established in 1905, it has an 18-hole par 61 and 4,038-yard course (so if you're a golfer, this may be a serious consideration; the other one is Camp John Hay), a small boutique, a PNKY store (selling hand-crafted home deco items and some furniture), the famous Raisin Bread Cafe, the Garden Cafe, and an entertainment centre that houses a bowling alley, darts, billiards and computer gaming. It has been renovated a couple of years back which made us enjoy its spacious and airy rooms. Amenities include the usual that you find in a 5-star hotel. But not to worry, one does not need to be a member in order to be able to book a room here as long as the Php5,000-6,700 a room/night price tag is within your budget. 

But if you can, try to stay here. The club is situated in the few remaining areas of what makes Baguio so attractive - quiet roads, pine trees and good earthly views. The better to enjoy the fresh air.

For breakfast, we decided to stay away from the buffet and settled at the quiet and intimate ambiance of Raisin Bread Cafe. Named after the Club's very famous raisin bread. People pile up in the morning to ensure they get to bring dozens of these tasty loaves back to Metro Manila. Be sure to bring home a loaf or two of your own and get to enjoy a long-standing heritage recipe in your mouth.

To start the morning, there are the usual ala carte breakfast choices on the menu - American, Filipino and Continental-style breakfast plates. But since you're at the Club, we tried out the Golfer's Breakfast - Corned Beef Hash with Poached Eggs, Bread and Roasted Tomato. It truly hit the spot, and further complimented our coffee (with free refills). Yummy!

Next, instead of going where most people will go, we decided to get away from the crowd by visiting a museum housing the works of one of the Philippine's national artists, Ben Cabrera.  BenCab Museum is located along Asin Road, Tandiang, Benguet. It is an hour's ride from Baguio.

When going there without your own car, better to strike a deal with your taxi driver to wait for you while you tour the galleries. The going rate is Php350/hour of waiting but this does not include the fare rate going there and coming back to Baguio City. It will be worth it since it will be difficult to get a ride back from Tandiang, and even jeepney rides that ply to Baguio are few and far between.

Entrance fee at this time is Php100/person (Php80 for students and senior citizens so please have your IDs on hand). Be a witness to Ben Cab's diverse works of art, from his sketches to his metal and wood sculptures, and collection of Bulol (Ibaloi God of harvest) carvings.

Get to enjoy his private collection of Filipino masters such as Amorsolo, Edades and Joya,

and some time for reflection and quiet in the gardens and samples of Igorot housing.

At the foot of the galleries, there is a cafe where you can continue admiring works of art while sipping coffee or hot chocolate. Good antidotes for most anything that occupies your mind.

Nevertheless, we did not eat there and decided to go back to the city for lunch at another Baguio icon - the Cafe By the Ruins. It is arguably the first restaurant in the Philippines to consistently serve vegetarian and Asian fusion dishes. They have been doing so for so many years, it has become as old and gracious as the city itself.

It is named so because it is located in what used to be the Governor-General's residence, and the cafe was built around the ruins left by the devastation of either the Philippine American war or the last world war, or a big fire that happened many years ago (There seemed to be different accounts on how the original building was destroyed).

They have made some changes to the menu by adding more meat dishes to the mix. However, I missed the pasta they served with an alfredo sauce and doused with different mushrooms (I already forgot the name). This was replaced by the Carbonara. It is a laudable rendition, but my daughter and I had better elsewhere.

And against my usual ritual to get their vegetarian dishes when there, I decided to try out the supposedly famous Bagnet (Ilocos-style crispy pork belly) served with mountain-grown rice, thus the purple hue in the grains, a sauce of fermented fish, and a bowl of sinigang (Filipino sour broth usually from tamarind).  Again, sad to say, I've had better bagnet, it was just pork belly fried to a deep crisp, and none of that indistinguishable flavour rush I got from other bagnets I have encountered. The sinigang was also not delivered to my table. Must be the crowds that harassed the wait staff into forgetfulness. 

So the lesson learned here is that next time I will get to visit the Ruins, I'll stick to their specialty vegetarian dishes. But do take the opportunity to dine here, it is still one of the best places to spend time in. Also try sampling their breads - the Kamote (sweet potato) bread, the cinnamon rolls and their croissants. 

After lunch, we proceeded to Casa Vallejo, up Session Road, just around the corner from the SM mall. It currently houses Mt. Cloud Bookshop, Hill Station Cafe and the Cinematique (managed by the Film Development Council of the Philippines). It also operates as a hotel, by the way. So you may want to consider this place when you visit. You may want to check out their website here or through their Facebook page here.

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Casa Vallejo is itself history standing. Aside from the Baguio Cathedral, it is the only remaining building that survived the Japanese carpet bombing of World War II, and the only government structure standing that was built between the years 1908-09 of the Commonwealth period. Thus, its unwitting reputation of being a haunted place (are you now cancelling your booking at this time? ;-) )

For our visit, we browsed at the Mt. Cloud Bookshop and got to revel in hard-to-find Filipiniana books, and some foreign prints. 

After our purchases, we headed for coffee (for myself) and a chocolate milkshake (for my daughter) at the Hill Station Cafe. The cafe area boasts peaceful views of foliage and hills and a good selection of European and Filipino inspired dishes. They also sell bottled products like pasta sauces, salsa monja and atsara. Tablea chocolates, coffee from the Mountain Province and biscuits.

Our stay in Baguio will not be complete if we don't get our own bottles of Ube Jam from the Good Shepherd Convent. Thus, our relentless travel to Gibraltar Road, quite near Mines View Park (another landmark to visit). It is a must for every traveller to the city. Not only will you enjoy good-quality homegrown food products, you get to support the Convent's apostolate activities like sending poor or indigent youths to school. 

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The convent grounds were very crowded but over the years the Sisters have organised the queues to a tee. Quite easy now to purchase their products. Aside from their much sought after Ube (purple yam) Jam (php200/bottle), there are the jars of Strawberry Preserves, Peanut Brittle, peanuts, Russian Tea Cookies and so much more. All hand-crafted and all still preserving the same recipes that they have been using through the decades. It's a marvel. To this, I suggest you try out their Chicken Empanadas (Php50/piece) which they sell at the Snack Bar, separate from the major stall. And bring some home, if you please.

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So after having assured that we have bought gifts to bring to family and friends back home, dinner is in order. Everytime we are here, we always make sure to have a meal at Sizzling Plate located right in the middle of Session Road. Maybe we can call it a tradition. My father took us here when I was 10 years old, and I remember him saying that whenever his job takes him to Baguio, he eats here too. So now, I have passed on this visitation as a tradition to my own family.

They serve cheap steaks. Your choice on whether you like the local or angus beef. Both are cut thin for the Filipino capacity. 

It is simple and rustic and always, always, crowded. 

Simply put, no matter how many times we've been to Baguio, there is always something new in these old places.

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