More than a decade had passed since I last crossed the arch going into the main courtyard of Fort Santiago, Intramuros. Thanks to my Aunt’s friends who dropped by Manila for a short tour, I was able to come back and reminisce the painful past of the one person I really admire, and all Filipinos as well, on the fort’s very room and dim hallways.
It was probably the last day of the storm that passed by the Philippines as we entered the walled city. However, it seems to work for us, especially for me who is not fond of the blazing sun over my head. And as well, the gray skies lend an appropriate background to the gray history that surrounds the fort.
Because of the bad weather, only few people loiter the narrow streets. There was no traffic at all. Kalesa drivers route the horses around the area. Intramuros is the only place they are welcome, it seems. One can hardly see a horse-drawn carriage the farther you are out of the walls. We parked by an old gate and gave our tickets to a standing guard wearing a replica uniform of a Spanish guardia civil. These replica uniforms, like the kalesas, are typical here in Intramuros.
We passed several little galleries by the entrance, opting instead to walk up the ramp leading to the battlements. I spoke a brief history of the place to our visitors, since my sister nominated me, the history buff, to be the tour guide. We peered inside a cellar that served as a prison. It was dark and wet, much like any prison in the world, except this one have an arch of bars for walls, like any archways on Spanish homes.
There is a sprawling garden in the middle off the entrance, with delicate iron benches, flowering trees and graceful fountains. We were enchanted. We took a group shot with the fountain as background. Then, it started to rain. Umbrellas went up but the two guys with us just shrugged the rain off, walking bareheaded. We crossed a nice bridge, leading off to this intricate beautiful arch. Colored lilies grow on the still neglected pond. We crossed the arch and the view opened into another smaller garden full of flowers and trees.
This served as a main fort back then, with artillery building, look out points over the Pasig River, Rizal’s prison and the ruins of Rajah Sulayman theater. Circling it, we came on another ruin built from bricks, with vines and small trees growing into it. Somehow, the rich ochre color reminded me of our town church in the province. I was the first to enter that romantic ruin. It feels like a rendezvous for secret lovers in the middle of the night. I wonder if it was more beautiful when it was still intact then than the ruin it is now. I doubt it somehow.
Connecting to the ruin is the museum of Rizal, which houses his other works, copies of his poems and most of all, the room where he was imprisoned before his execution. We were told not to use flash on our cameras. The museum more or less looks like a normal Spanish house, complete with a courtyard, patio, a wooden staircase and lots of rooms. As I moved down the few steps leading to his prison room, more like a guestroom located at the back of the house, I was fronted with a wall carving full of words. I paused and froze, my heart went sighing for a moment as I beheld his famous poem, “Adios, patria adorada,” written in Spanish. For a second, my mind transported me to that moment in 19th century when he was here himself. I walked the last five steps into a dim alcove, peered into a dark long room and I saw him, just there, sitting behind a wooden desk under a single lamp. An oppressive invisible force hovers the place, as if you know, that just outside the house, real Spanish guardias civil walk and patrol the fort grounds and it is still 1898. Then the moment passes and you stare only at a wax statue of Rizal sitting behind the desk. We exited through a balcony on the second floor that leads straight to a walkway above the wall itself.
The narrow walled stone path brought us under the huge leafy branches of mango trees. I looked up, searching for those yummy yellow fruits, an old habit through the years every time I pass by these fruit trees. All I saw are shiny, young green fruits instead. Yards away, a bright opening looms and all I could see is a glimpse of open sky. Intrigued, thinking it is probably a dead-end, I took the last few steps out of the greenish tunnel with curiosity.
I walked out into a bright, circular open rooftop, overlooking Pasig River and Binondo on the other side. It was a city scenery out of an old postcard. Escolta area, where Chinatown is located, used to be the bustling commercial heart of Manila. Even now, you can still see vintage buildings, narrow streets, arches covering sidewalks full of merchants selling from toys to clothes.
On the inner part of the open court side stands a small charming red-roofed chapel-like gallery, Rizaliana Furnitures. I peered inside and saw wooden shelves full of trinkets, huge benches and cabinets. We walked carefully among the broken stones, with weeds growing everywhere and upon the edges, parts of the floor caved in, revealing weedy steps spiraling down or dark rooms underneath. I didn’t want to think they were dungeons. Later on, I found out the rooms below served as storage for artillery shipment dropped off directly from ships by the river. Beside the gallery, rails surround a sunken roofless room. A lot of little coins were thrown in. I wonder why. Is this a sort of wishing for-the-lurking-shadows-to-go-away-well? Really, looking down below is creepy enough, what with vines growing in abandon and mossy wet stones.
We climbed down the wet stone steps, very tricky considering it stormed for days just before this trip. We reached a landing, which curved away from us to the river where it opened up into another open courtyard, just like the one above. It looked sort of an amphitheater. Now, I get it. I think it served as a pier for docking ships by the river. The level of the courtyard is high enough from the water for an anchored ship to just throw out its gangplank and, voila! At the corner is a small guardhouse, and there stands a sentinel guard wearing guardia civil uniform. We took pictures of him, posing and looking out the river.
At the back facing the garden, I saw an old painted board tacked into the wall, and it says Artillery. Obviously, cargoes of artillery crossed the ship’s gangplank and into these dank rooms.
Down the garden, as we walked back to the exit, we passed a ruined skeletal building that used to be Rajah Sulayman’s theater, as it says on the wooden board on one of the walls. A line of Japanese tourists strolled past us, following their tour guide. I could understand only a little of what they are saying.
Walking past the arch, the pond with it’s lilies, crossing the bridge again and back to the garden with fountains, there stood a free-standing flat poster boards shaped into people wearing vintage clothes (Maria Clara piece, men vintage tux and hat, chemise and farmer pants, guardia civil suits, and checked skirts), with holes instead of faces. My companions laughed and ran at the back of the posters to fit their faces on the holes. One even tried to put her face into a male guard suit!
The iron benches, we can’t get enough of their charms, so we took photos of my sisters and I sitting there, even though the fort exit is only steps away. Outside, a kalesa driven by a gray horse stands. We skipped the ride. I can still remember my sister taking a pity on the horse when we rode one in Vigan years ago. Plus, there’s almost ten of us.
And so, we got out of walled city gate in two cars, with the wake of little bits of history kicking up dust behind us.