THERE is more to Taal town than bahay na bato, balisong and Barong Tagalog. Taal is not just a heritage town but also a volcano (a furious one), a lake (a mysterious one) and an old capital (an abandoned one) of Batangas province.
A visit to this heritage town is not merely checking out the old houses and visiting Asia’s biggest church, but retracing the origin of the Tagalog people.
Most of the greatest civilizations started near the body of water. In Taal, the great Tagalog or Taga-ilog race started near the banks of Pansipit River. This narrow channel connecting Taal Lake to Balayan Bay was once very wide that big boats could enter the lake via Pansipit. This channel also made it possible for saltwater fish species to migrate to the lake and to adapt in the new fresh-water environment. This evolution resulted to the unique fresh-water sardines called tawilis and fresh-water mackerels called maliputo.
In the 13th Century, ten Bornean Datus led by Datu Puti, set sail for Panay Island, fleeing from tyrannical rule of the Sultan of their homeland. When they arrived in the Philippines, they found a safe place to anchor at the mouth of the Pansipit River. They befriended the natives and made their first settlement along the river.
When the Spaniards arrived at Lake Taal by way of the Pansipit River in 1571, they found a settlement of Taga-ilogs in Balangon, the original town of Taal, near the river. However, the Spaniards were met by the natives with bows and arrows, and bolos. After the failed first attempt, the Spaniards returned a year later led by Augustinian priest Fr. Agustin de Alburquerque. After finally subduing the natives, the town was transferred from Balangon to San Nicolas (Lumang Taal) adjacent to the lake. In 1575, the Augustinian mission started building the original church dedicated to Saint Martin de Tours.
In 1581, Batangas province was established with Taal as its capital. For more than a century and a half, the town of Taal prospered. However, in 1749, the glory days of Old Taal ended because Taal volcano started erupting violently. By 1574, the volcano made its biggest eruption, destroying completely the whole town of Old Taal, including the original church of Saint Martin de Tours.
After the volcanic destruction, the town of Taal moved to its current location atop the hill. There, the new Basilica of Saint Martin de Tour started construction in 1755.
While no longer the provincial capital, the new Taal became a commercial center of the province. A healthy trade in coffee, copra and sugar became the engine to power a wealthy merchant class. It resurrected Taal’s glory days and enabled its citizens to build grandiose mansions made from adobe.
How to get there
The easiest way to reach Taal town is to take a JAM Liner bus bound for Lemery from either the Cubao or Buendia stations. The bus makes a short stopover in Taal before finally making a stop in Lemery town. It takes three hours and less than P200 to reach Taal.
Those with private vehicles have three alternatives to get to Taal. The first alternative is to take the same route of the regular bus. Drive south via South Luzon Expressway, continue to STAR Tollway and take the Lipa exit. Continue driving at the National Highway then turn right to Cuenca (landmark is Phoenix Gas Station), pass by Cuenca town and to Alitagatag, and then exit to Santa Teresita. From there, follow the National Highway and continue driving to Taal. This route takes about two hours from Magallanes.
Another alternative is the more scenic drive through Tagaytay. Drive south via South Luzon Expressway and exit at Santa Rosa. Turn right and drive about 20 kilometers to Tagaytay passing through Nuvali. Continue driving until the Tagaytay rotonda and then take the left road to Nasugbu. Before the Nasugbu welcome arch, turn right to Diokno Highway. Continue driving until the Lemery junction and then turn right to Lemery. Then cross the Pansipit Bridge to finally reach Taal.
For those who wish to take the off-the-beaten path to Taal, there is the lakeside road. It starts in Tagaytay, goes down to the lake either via winding Sungay or Leynes roads before finally reaching Talisay. Turn right to Laurel and continue driving via Agoncillo’s lakeside road. Pass by the ruins of the Old Taal church in San Nicolas before finally turning right to Sinturisan before finally reaching Taal town.
What to see, what to do
Visit the Basilica of Saint Martin de Tours. Climb the Belfry Town (P50 entrance fee) and see the breath-taking view of the heritage town from the top. If you have some free time, drive to San Nicolas and visit the ruins of the Old Taal church that was destroyed during 1754 Taal volcano eruption.
Take the 125 San Lorenzo Ruiz Steps to reach the Casaysay Church. This is the home of the miraculous Our Lady of Casaysay. A short walk from Casaysay is the Sacred Well of Santa Lucia. Water coming from the well is believed to have healing powers.
There are also several ancestral houses worth visiting like the Marcella Agoncillo, Leon Apacible and Casa Villavicencio. But for those who wish to experience turn-of-the-19th Century Taal can book the Villa Tortuga Colonial Experience. Visitors can arrange having their photos taken wearing period costumes and dining in Old Taal-inspired meals.
Lastly, visit the pandayans at Barrio Balisong. This small barangay at the entrance of Taal is known to produce the famous Batangas fan-knives or balisong.
Where to stay, what to eat
For those who wish to stay overnight in Taal, there are several old houses converted into bed and breakfast hotels. Usual rate for double occupancy is around P2,000. It comes with free breakfast. Tampuhan Café, Paradores del Castillo and Villa Tortuga offer overnight lodging.
For dining, Tagalog favorites are available at Feliza Taverna y Café, Villa Tortuga, Don Juan BBQ Boodle House and Tampuhan. But for those who wish to sample native dishes, head straight to the public market where several carinderias (local eateries) offer Batangas lomi, mumba, pinangat na tawilis and adobo sa dilao. The market is also the best place to get Taal tapa and longganisa, atchara, peanut brittle and suman sa lihiya.
But if you wish to bring something that will remind you of the rich heritage of the town, buy the hand-embroidered Barong Tagalog at the public market. For many centuries, the people of Taal have proudly worn Barong Tagalog to remind them of the rich lineage of their predecessors who lived by the river and the dangerous lake.