Bacolod: Bacolod’s Buena Vida

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The New Bacolod-Silay Airport was busy but not chaotic. Taxi drivers barked for passengers to ferry, but it was a far cry from the density and panic of busier airports. It is impressive that even at its doorways, Bacolod knows how to do subtle.

Of course, Bacolod City is still provincial and the lifestyle is a slowed down version of Manila. Viaje Negrense Tours flew us in a week before the Masskara, and even in the bustle of the preparations of Negros Island’s biggest festival, there is a prevalent haze of refined restraint superimposed on the crowds. The city girl in me is glad that here, there is activity after 8 P.M.; the nightlife offers a choice of club music, art exhibit openings, drinking strips or simply having coffee and desserts at Cookies N’ Crumbs to catch up with friends. There is a casino but most people would find their gambling fix in cockfighting derbies. Undeniably, Bacolod bears the unseen sigil of a small cosmopolitan town, where people have enough time and disposable income to indulge. On the other hand, you will not see here the bright lights of Vegasian proportions. No, you go to Bacolod for its quiet affluence and sophisticated tastes.

A finer way of living

“Bacolodnons have a higher standard,” said tour guide Bambi Borromeo. “And it’s not just the alta de sociedad families.” At Aida’s, he said, he once overheard regular folk debating the subtle differences of the inasal along Manukan Country. It is this distinction and enlightened palate that makes Bacolod food irresistible despite the fact that many restaurants were put up by people who did not go through formal training. “Negrenses are proud of their food,” said Sugarland Hotel manager Toots Sison, and we find that that is an understatement. To be oido, a Spanish term for someone who can replicate music through just listening to it, is almost a common thing in Bacolod: only, Bacolodnons do it with food.

At Wamba’s, a newly opened bistro at The Azotea arcade, we experienced our first foray into Bacolod’s impeccable palate. Fini Alonso opened this restaurant on her mother’s 90th birthday, as homage to Lilia Tomasa’s Sunday luncheons. “I like calling it ‘Homestyle Tisoy cuisine’,” Fini said. Lunches were slow luxurious affairs, and partaking of the acclaimed corned beef steak and comforting habichuelas at Wamba’s was a peek into that culture. It was not hard to imagine the wooden tables here to be laden with food, the flurry of the typical Filipino family a blur around it.

In Bacolod, family is still very important, and at every turn, the surnames become more familiar: the Luzuriagas who donated the land where the city hall stands, the Aranetas whose legacy marked one of the main thoroughfares of Bacolod City, the Lacsons and the Locsins who hailed from Chinese-Filipino tradesmen, the Lizareses who own the in-city resort Palmas del Mar, the Villanuevas, the Montelibanos.

To do more than live; to thrive

“When God scattered white sandy beaches, he must have been mad at us,” Bambi said one night as we ate dinner. “On the other hand, He gave us volcanic soil that makes sugar cane sweeter.” It seems like a fair trade-off. Despite the lack of the usual breathtaking beaches that the Visayas is known for, the northern part of Negros Island makes up for it with bustling city life and culture. That which makes the beaches silty and unswimmable has let anything planted in Negrense soil thrive, catapulting Bacolod’s economy with a verve that could rival the nation’s capital.

It is impossible to be in Bacolod and not feel the reverb of the sugar industry. Quaint vintage trucks haul the year’s harvest to and from Bacolod and its surrounding cities, the lifestyle mirrors the lifecycle of the sugarcane, the culture builds around the rise and fall of the sugar trade. Hard to believe, but the Negros Island was largely uninhabited aside from the Ati tribes that lived here until the late 1890s. That era witnessed the “sugar rush” from Iloilo to the Negros Island, with many ancestral families like the Lopezes, famous owners of ABS-CBN, staking claim in many lands for the sought-after “white gold”.

Such a rush, of course, harbors a community organically, and the Hawaiian Philippine Silay Corp. is no exception. It houses a community of its own, complete with a school, church and plantation-style housing for its employees. We toured the facility to gain insight into one of Bacolod’s distinct products: sugar, muscovado in particular. Once upon a time, raw sugarcane was fed into a press pulled by a carabao, but today’s modern technologies have rendered the carabao-pulling for nothing but show. Regardless, the process at the Hawaiian Philippine Silay Corp. stays true to its traditional roots, the middle ground between the efficiency of mechanical presses and handling, and the soul of manual labor. The traditional kawa, the huge metal bowl used to condense and distill the sugar cane juice, has been replaced by a row of metal vats that increased in temperature as the juice reached the consistency of caramel toffee. The caramel is then set to a metal plate to be shoveled into submission. It is an interesting experience to see the poured liquid sugar slowly transform into a peanut butter-like quality before crystallizing and starting to look more like the powdered bronze substance that has launched Bacolod from dense forests into the progressive and beautiful city it is now famous for.

The sweet life

Sugar cane is the renaissance man’s trade. It takes 10 months to grow, and there is nothing else to do for those quiet months as the sugar thrives on its own. Many plantation owners would plant their crops early in the year, and then luxuriate until September and October for ‘galing,’ harvest time.

In the days when the sugar is taking its time to mature, farmers have to find ways to amuse themselves. Sugar was a lucrative business—harvest time usually renders enough to last them the rest of the ‘dead months’ and then some. That much idle time could understandably breed a culture of perceived laziness, although the great will always find the time to make it worthwhile.

Some plantation owners traveled: to imbathe in the cultures of Manila, the US, Europe, because they have the money and the time to do so. It is clear that these trips have influenced the upwardly mobile of Bacolodnons at that time: houses along the thoroughfare from Silay City to Bacolod boast of impressive architecture, and museums and provincial buildings tell of a time when art was more than a caprice; it was the way of life.

It is this zeitgeist of cultural influence and economic mobility that allowed for farmers like Generoso Villanueva to build an ancestral home ahead of his time. The Daku Balay is a boat-shaped building on Burgos Street, arguably the biggest residential art deco structure in the country. If the exterior was mind-boggling to 1930s Bacolodnons, the interiors are as awe-inspiring to both tourists and locals alike now that it’s open for tours. Like The Ruins in Silay City that has already garnered its fair share of media mileage, Daku Balay presents Bacolod in the context of its artistic genius.

Beneath the Masskara smile

Harvest was also the time for the annual Masskara Festival, in which Bacolod is stirred into a frenzy of people, food and street parties. I have heard it described as Bacolod on steroids, but it was at a cost.

“Life is hard, life is difficult, but suffering is optional,” Elsie intoned. Elsie Gonzaga owned Topsi-Tur-B, a mixed food restaurant. It was Monday night at the 24-hour resto, the pre-Masskara crowd gathered at the nearby New Government Center, and we were enjoying one of Bacolod’s little known secrets: Elsie Gonzaga’s heavenly mousses.

Over the desserts she kept in fridges right next to the beer coolers (her store sits literally in front of a call center, an industry that is springing like mushrooms all over the Visayas), Elsie and our hosts recounted the life during the late ‘70s when the sugar industry crashed. On top of that, the luxury liner MV Don Juan marked one of the biggest sea tragedies in 1980—taking with it family members of practically everyone in Bacolod. Elsie tells of a time when whole stretches of neighborhoods were illuminated by candles outside of people’s houses, one for every relative lost at sea.

This ‘double whammy’ had left Bacolod City reeling. The Masskara Festival served as the city’s literal brave face: a jovial mask to hide the city’s pain. Even in grief, the Bacolodnons were classy.

In my 5-day stay in Bacolod, I have heard numerous jokes poking fun at the Bacolodnon predilection to indulgences. “People from Bacolod, they love the good life,” said Melissa Salgado, who operates the high-end spa Spa Natura. This love for the good life translates to impeccable customer service in most Bacolod City establishments. Yes, the city loves the good life, and it wants you to love it too. “Sundays are boring, darling,” Bambi had drawled. “We have to entertain ourselves.”

Where to stay

Sugarland Hotel

Sugarland Hotel was at one time the ‘It’ place of Bacolod. However, instead of basking in its once glorious days, it evolved with the times, catering to a ‘hacienda-style’ living with a contemporary design that fits its boutique hotel vibe. General Manager Toots Sison boasts of its 87 rooms that have once played host to former US President Jimmy Carter.

Araneta St., Singcang, Bacolod City. (034)435-2690. rooms@sugarlandhotel.com

Palmas del Mar

While Bacolod City is devoid of white sandy beaches, one can find a sunny relaxation in Palmas del Mar, located just in the outskirts of the city. What was once a prawn farm has been transformed into a 55-room resort with three pristine pools and breathtaking sunset views, a vista favored by many who plan their garden weddings here. The Negros Island-shaped miniisland in the middle of the lagoon also provides a romantic and intimate getaway.

J.R. Torres Ave., Bacolod City. (034)434-7971. sales@palmasdelmarresort.com

Where to eat

Wamba’s Bistro

The city’s arguably best habichuelas and the best of ‘Tisoy homestyle cooking.’ Fini Alonso opened Wamba’s on her mother’s 90th birthday and has been serving the best of her mother’s Sunday luncheons to the public. The Corned Beef Steak is known far and wide as the best thing ever, but don’t forget to try their comforting Arroz de Leche that would hark back to your childhood afternoons.

The Azotea Bldg. Mandalagan, Bacolod City. (034)441-2095. landawambas@yahoo.com

Italia Restaurant

artworks from Manila painters serve as a backdrop to an intimate dinner in Bacolod inside the Italia Restaurant. Now doubling as a gallery space called Charlie’s, the bistro initially opened in 2001 without a menu. More than a decade since, it has evolved into a veritable restaurant with diverse Italian dishes, including the must-not-miss Bowtie Pasta in Truffle Sauce and delectable brick oven pizzas.

No. 1 Ranol Bldg. 23rd-San Agustin Sts Bacolod City. (034)432-3704. italia.bcd@gmail.com

WHAT TO DO

The Moxa Ventosa with Lutay Massage at the Spa Natura

“Lutay” is an Ilonggo word for hilot, most recommended for when one is fatigued and feverish, and combined with hot ventosa glasses that suck out the knots on your back, it makes for one of the most relaxing massages in Bacolod City. Launched just in 2010, Spa Natura ranks at par with many high-end spas in the country, and its round-the-clock business hours favor those who need pampering into the wee hours of the night.

2nd Level, Two SanParq, San Antonio Park Square, Mandalagan, Bacolod City.(034)441-2495. info@spa-natura.com

Marvel at the Art Deco genius at Daku Balay Literally meaning ‘The Big House,” Daku Balay is a design genius that deserves more appreciation than your usual tour. Completed in 1936, it is arguably the largest residential art deco building in the country. Hunt for the concrete unicorn and the waterscape bas-relief in the bathrooms; as impressive as it is that it had withstood the war, it’s even more amazing that it was designed and built by an amateur.

No. 50 Burgos St., Bacolod City.(034) 434-5489. liliavill@gmail.com

Go horseback riding at the Bantug Ranch and Lake Place Enjoy the crisp Negrense air at the sprawling Bantug Ranch and Lake Place. Relatively newly developed, this 5-hectare property has been gouged to accommodate a man-made lake where one can fi sh and boat, tree orchards and a paddock for horseback riding. There are also ducks, turkeys and peacocks for petting, and camping grounds for those who want to stay overnight.

Had Francisco, Brgy. Alangilan Bacolod City. (034) 213-1916. bantugranchandlakeplace@gmail.com

Pamper yourself with a volcanic stone massage at the Grand Royal Spa

The Cebu-based Grand Royal Spa now has 3 branches in Bacolod City, and the day spa is still garnering a loyal clientele who want their day spa pampering. Relax under volcanic stones pressed onto your back by their expert therapists’ hands, and rest your bones with their signature Combination Massage that is popular with locals and tourists alike.

San Isidro Bldg. 6th St. Bacolod City. (034) 435-0933. grandroyalspa_bacolod@yahoo.com

Enjoy an agri-tourism demo at the Peñalosa Farms

The Negros Island is positioning itself as the ‘organic food bowl of the Philippines’ and, in that regard, the Peñalosa Farms in Victorias City is doing it right by offering a demo on simple organic farming. Feast on organically grown fresh veggies and immerse yourself in one of the Peñalosa Farms’ advocacy: No Filipino should go hungry in his own country.

Victorias City, Negros Occidental. (034)3992847. penalosa.farms@yahoo.com

Hawaiian Lomi-lomi at O’Fisher Spa

If you’re looking for a truly relaxing spa massage, try the Hawaiian Lomi-lomi at O’Fisher Spa and Wellness Center. This massage uses the forearms in relaxing strokes and leaves you without the bruised feeling that is the after-effect of many massage styles. Their new branch at the corner of 20th and Lacson Streets also features a sauna stall, and a spacious and serene venue perfect for spa parties.

20th-Lacson Sts., Bacolod City. (034)435-2487. ofi sherspa1@gmail.com

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