In 2016 my son and I traveled with my sister-in-law to the Philippines to visit her mom’s family. They made sure we had a wonderful trip by taking us to amazing places and showing us the history of the land. Manila has a long, rich, and turbulent history, and we learned more about that at Fort Santiago and the Old Spanish Walls. This is a particularly old part of the city where you can view the old Spanish ramparts and explore the wall that surrounded the city of Manila before it expanded and became the massive metropolis it is.
Fort Santiago is a citadel first built by Spanish conquistador, Miguel López de Legazpi for the new established city of Manila in the Philippines starting in 1590 and was finished 3 years later. A renovation of the fort was competed in 1733. The defense fortress is part of the structures of the walled city of Manila referred to as Intramuros and the 2,030 feet perimeter is triangular in shape. The fort is made of bricks and sits at the mouth of the Pasig River which gave it a prime spot for defense and later as the main spice trading hub for the Americas and Europe for 333 years.
Fort Santiago has beautiful gardens and tall brick walls, water ways (including a moat), guard stations, barracks, various storehouses, a chapel, the powder magazine, the sentry towers, the cisterns, and dungeons.
Manila and the people of the Philippines have been under constant attack or control by foreign countries as far back as they can remember. The Spanish built the original fort in 1570 out of palm logs and declared Manila the capital of the islands in 1571. This fort was completely destroyed by Chinese pirates prompting the building of a fortified structure with stones in 1590. Additional parts have been added to the fort including a large semicircular gun platform to the front called media naranja (half orange) and another of lesser dimensions to the river flank to the Bastion of Santa Barbara in the 1700s. In 1762 the British invaded and took the fort and the city of Manila until a cease-fire was reach with the Spanish in 1764. They used the fort as a base of operations for the British Navy. A massive earthquake in 1880, which destroyed much of Manila also destroyed a parts of the fort including the front edifice. The Americans invaded in 1899 with the Filipino-American war which would forever change the culture and landscape of the country. A process was set in motion to return the country to an autonomous land in 1944, but was interrupted with the outbreak of WWII. The Japanese Imperial Army captured the fort and used the dungeons, storage shells and gunpowder magazines as their own as well as massacring hundreds of thousands of people in 1945. You can still see damage from the war on the buildings.
This is an important historic location for so many reasons; it was not only important during the Spanish Occupation, but during the American Occupation and WWII.
I mentioned before that many people lived out their last days here, but the most famous is the Philippine’s National Hero, Jose Rizal. There is a museum/shrine in the Fort, devoted to the man who was a doctor, poet, naturalist, world explorer, and nationalist. He was accused by the Spanish-ruled government of starting the revolution in 1896. Rizal was held prisoner at the Fort during his trial and his footsteps, replicated in bronze, can be followed through the Fort, showing the path he walked to his death. He walked over a kilometer from the fort to what is now Rizal Park where he stood before a firing squad. His writings inspired the revolution though he never acted out, planned or participated in an action of revolution.
This was a very humbling place to visit and gave us a better sense of the history of the Philippines, Manila, and the Fort. Despite the amount of turmoil the location has seen, the gardens and walk ways are beautiful and relaxing. I found a sense of peace there as I looked up into a tamarind tree and watched the clouds float by.
If feet get tired walking around there are tours available by pedicab or horse drawn carriage, which is an additional fee to your entrance fee. There are vending machines for cold drinks inside too, so bring some change with you and ice cream vendors were pedaling their bikes around in front of the gates into the fort if you are hankering for something really cold.
From here we wandered around a bit and had a look at other historical locations. We had a quick look at and inside the Manila Cathedral. You might remember the Pope visiting Manila a few years ago and this is where he gave his speech. He also visited an orphanage around the corner and blessed the children living there. This cathedral is massive and is really beautiful. It has inspiration from the cathedrals of Europe throughout, but also an identity all it’s own.
Not far from here is San Agustin Church which is the the oldest church in Manila. The current building was completed in 1604 after several previous buildings were destroyed. The front door is an amazing work of art. The wood is carved in very intricate designs. The day we visited they had just set up for a wedding so there were extra decorations, but the whole building was just incredible. This is been designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
For lunch, we went across the street from the San Agustin Church to a perfectly gorgeous historic building. Barbara’s is situated in an old converted Spanish home and serves up an amazing buffet of traditional Filipino and Spanish foods as well as a selection of European entrees. As we sat in a beautiful room, surrounded by friends and delicious food we were treated to live music played by wandering musicians. It was so much fun and we all really enjoyed our experience!