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Inside the Walls: Exploring Manila’s Intramuros district


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Sarah MacDonald recently visited Manila, Philippines, where the historic walled city, Intramuros, captured her interest. Blending different cultures and traditions, the neighbour is a fascinating place to explore.

No visit to Manila would be complete without a tour of Intramuros, the walled city which is home to the oldest district. Intramuros, which is Latin for "within the walls," is located just off of Manila Bay and along the Pasig River. It's a neighbourhood steeped in history and culture, both inside the walls and just beyond them.

Intramuros has been inhabited for over 1,000 years. For centuries the strategic location at the mouth of the Pasig River and beside Manila Bay was a centre for Asian trading between the local Philippine communities and Chinese, Indian and Indonesian merchants. In the 16th century it was invaded and colonised by Spaniards, who founded the city of Manila in 1571. To protect their settlement from other invaders, they build walls approximately 4.5km long enclosing an area of about 64 hectares. Armed with cannons and protected by a moat and drawbridges that could be closed at night, the walls protected residences, churches, government buildings, palaces and schools, as well as Fort Santiago, the centre for defence.

Over the years other European powers, including Dutch pirates, tried attacking Intramuros. The British even succeeded and occupied the city for two years before giving the Philippines back to Spain. In 1898 the Americans came to power following the Spanish-American War.

During World War II the neighbourhood was occupied by Japanese forces, and its fort became a centre for interrogation and death. In 1945 Intramuros was heavily damaged by fighting between the Japanese and Americans, an eight-day battle in which thousands died. Though the walls have been rebuilt, there are still traces of the war, as some buildings have been left abandoned and full of holes from shells and bullets.

In 1946 the USA recognised Philippine independences, so now Intramuros is back firmly in Filipino hands. It has been greatly restored, but the various cultural influences all left their marks on the neighbourhood. Whether it's the Spanish colonial architecture with touches of eastern influences, or the Asian animal sculptures, or the Jeepneys, which were American army vehicles that have since become a staple mode of transportation in the city, the blend of cultures is evident.

As you make your way through the old walled neighbourhood, which is home to about 5,000 people, there are several places of interest. Fort Santiago is a must-see, as it was the base of various armies over the years and has interesting architecture, too. The park in front of it is also beautiful, full of flowers, trees, and sculptures. There are a number of churches worth visiting, including the Manila Metropolitan Cathedral and San Augustin Church, which is the oldest in the country. At any time of day you will be sure to see Filipinos there praying. The Plaza San Luis Complex is the ideal stop to find gift and speciality shops as well as restaurants were you can enjoy typical Filipino food, such as adobo chicken or pancit noodles. There are also neat places to visit around the walls, such as the moats and drawbridges, terraces lined with old cannons, and a little park that pays homage to the country's presidents.

Throughout Intramuros vendors will no doubt approach you selling hats, rosaries, toys and other trinkets. Be sure to barter, but don't be too tough; their smiles alone are worth a few extra pesos.

These days Intramuros has a very youthful energy, thanks to several schools and colleges. Teenagers in uniforms line up at street food vendors and practice dance moves on the open spaces near the top of the walls, while university students chat outside their campuses, textbooks in hand.

A charming way to make one's way around Intramuros, as well as surrounding neighbourhoods, is by kalesa, a traditional horse carriage. Many of the drivers are quite knowledgeable about local history, too, and like most people in their country, are incredibly friendly. The kalesas are also great to venture beyond the walls because just outside Intramuros there are several other interesting sights.

Rizal Park, also known as Luneta Park, is a popular place for locals to relax on Sundays or holidays, and it's also a major tourist attraction. It was named for the Philippines' national hero Dr José Rizal, whose execution by the Spanish colonial occupying powers led to the Philippine Revolution. A monument containing his remains graces one end of the park. Other sites in the park include a Japanese garden and a dancing fountain.

Just a short Jeepney or kalesa ride over the Pasig River from Intramuros is Manila's Chinatown, also called Binondo. After passing through a traditional Chinese gate, you'll find a couple of Buddhist temples and streets full of neat little shops and restaurants, as well as street vendors selling fresh fruit and vegetables. If you have an adventurous appetite, you can venture into the Arranque Market, where seafood and exotic creatures like snakes, frogs, rabbits and pigeons are sold, only to end up on people's plates. The neighbourhood is full of vibrant colours, especially if you happen to visit in January or February when the Chinese New Year celebrations take place. Then the streets are decorated with red lanterns and revellers light fireworks and crackers and participate in dragon dances.

The historic Manila Hotel is also worth visiting. Adjacent to Intramuros and opposite Rizal Park, it opened in 1912, making it the oldest hotel in the city. While it has a newer 17-storey addition with modern rooms, some of which have views over the bay where the sunsets are unforgettable, the original entrance and lobby are absolutely charming. The staff dress in early 20th century clothes and the furniture and interior are made out of rich mahogany, complementing the marble floor. Manila Hotel has had its share of famous guests, including the Beatles, American President John F. Kennedy, and Michael Jackson. In 1986, after President Ferdinand Marcos was deposed, it was also taken over by military officers who were loyal to him, and for two days they declared the hotel the seat of the government.

So if you're ever in Manila, where you'll be greeted by a million friendly smiles, be sure to take the time to discover the treasures inside the walls at Intramuros.

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