In the shadows of an ancient cathedral in the Philippine capital, wilting horses attached to carriages shelter from the tropical sun as their drivers try to interest the few tourists milling around.
Hawkers exhibit sombreros, fans and rosaries on the pavement nearby but few buyers are in sight — a depressingly familiar scenario for Manila’s historic tourist district centered on the colonial Spanish walled city of Intramuros.
Tourists generally skip old Manila in their rush to Boracay and some of the nation’s other tropical islands, but the new government of Philippine President Benigno Aquino is hoping to entice them to linger a little longer.
“Intramuros should be the top tourist attraction in Manila,” Tourism Secretary Alberto Lim, who has been in the post since June, said in a recent interview.
“We should build museums, we have so many beautiful artefacts that are sitting in warehouses, it’s almost criminal that they’re going to waste and that they’re deteriorating,” he said.
The archipelago’s cultural history includes three centuries as a Spanish colony that ended in 1898, followed by nearly half a century under US rule.
But Manila, which was once dubbed the “Pearl of the Orient”, is now better known for its sprawling slums and widespread poverty than its architectural and cultural riches.
Much of the architecture that made it one of Asia’s most intriguing cities was destroyed during World War II, when US bombs rained down to oust the occupying Japanese forces.
Efforts by post-war architects to rebuild Manila’s ruined churches were not a success because they lacked experience and technology, said Paulo Alcazaren, architect and founder of the Heritage Conservation Society.
“The conservation during that period was pretty primitive. They tried to replicate the original stone with concrete blocks and cement,” he said.
Nevertheless, nuggets of historical gold can still be found in old Manila.
Among them is the shell of Intramuros, built by the Spanish rulers as their walled enclave and where they executed Philippine revolutionary hero Jose Rizal.
Another is the Romanesque-Byzantine Manila Cathedral, which was originally constructed in 1581 and then rebuilt six times after being destroyed by earthquakes, fires and bombing.
Nearby the Spanish-era San Augustin Cathedral is guarded at the entrance by Chinese lion statues, a legacy of the Philippines’ long history of immigrants from China.
For Carlos Celdran, whose theatrical tours of the churches and nearby Intramuros are a must-see for any visitor, tourists who skip old Manila miss an opportunity to explore a historical melting pot of cultures unique in Asia.
“Our Hispanic past is unique for the region ... for a Korean tourist a Catholic church is really exotic,” Celdran said.
When tourists do stay in the Philippine capital before hitting the island resorts, many of them end up staying in hotels in the swanky Makati area, which was built on the site of a former airport after World War II.
Makati is now Manila’s financial heart, as well as an expat-haven with designer shopping malls, international hotels, chic bars and up-market restaurants.
But Celdran said old Manila was more authentic.
“Makati will always show you what the Philippines wants to be ... glitzy, shiny, new, controlled, instead of showing you what we really are ... unbridled and gloriously chaotic,” he said.
Celdran and Alcazaren see potential for Manila’s old quarter, but believe it should be redeveloped as part of a broader project encompassing the port area of Manila Bay.
Manila Bay is renowned for its golden sunsets, which can be enjoyed over a cocktail on the terrace of the Manila Hotel, a US colonial-era building that once included the Beatles among its celebrity guests.
Celdran said Manila’s port area, with its palm-tree-lined boardwalk, had the potential to be the Philippines’ version of Miami in the US.
Yet for the time being, visitors seeking a sunset vista are more likely to encounter half-naked street children scavenging along the litter-strewn beach with a putrid smell of pollution wafting off the sea.
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