As the sun continued its descent on the horizon, the distinct sound of a kalesa (horse-drawn carriage) sauntering by on Calle Crisologo’s cobblestone, a cerveza gripped affectionately in hand, this year of 1882 was coming to a close very nicely indeed. The growing chatter in the buoyant crowd snatched away the moment of reflection, and as I turned, there he was. With his meticulously crisp mustache, the young painting hotshot, Juan Luna, just 25 years of age, full of potential, a warm smile plastered on his face, made his way through the crowd overflowing with the Philippines’ elite. He was already a much-endeared man, but two years from now his reputation would skyrocket, immortalizing his genius in history with the creation of the masterpiece “Spoliarium.”
Such was the affection for him here in Vigan, in Spanish-ruled Philippines, that his return from his European adventures was marked by the grand opening of the city’s newest luxurious four-story structure, a feat of design and engineering worthy of his name – the Hotel Luna. The preserved structure, once the ancestral home of Don Honorado Encarnacion, a wealthy local trader, was transformed to include a new wing capable of accommodating hundreds of guests – of which tonight I was one.
As I surveyed the abundance of art, scattered from the lobby, dining areas, and hallways, I stumbled across national hero Jose Rizal and Antonio Luna, Juan’s younger brother who would grow up to be a famed general. They were in intense conversation debating the merits and drawbacks of peaceful defiance over violent revolution against the Spanish regime – a bout of intellectual sparring fitting for two of the most iconic Filipino historical figures. I fought the urge to ask if they could be bothered for a selfie.
They sat in the Grand Sala, sipping wine under an intricately designed ceiling of finely carved wood, surrounded by the work of some of the most distinguished National Artists in the history of the Philippines, both old and contemporary. Works by the likes of Fernando Amorsolo, Arturo Luz, Jose Joya, Benedicto Cabrera (BenCab), Vicente Manansala, Guillermo Tolentino, Federico Alcuaz, and Elizalde Navarro lent their beauty to the magical evening. Amidst the vibrant crowd and the shining wooden floors glided a member of the hotel’s food and beverage department, Melvin Martinez, doubling tonight as a tour guide, joyously filling guests in on the history and significance of the various paintings, sculptures, and sketches – a free service provided by the establishment to all curious minds, even those not spending the night at the hotel. The highlight of the spacious enclosure, hanging on a brick wall, is an original of Luna’s very own “La Mandolinera,” a painting of a beautiful lady holding a violin – a piece which wasn’t to be completed until next year.
While the world of artists may sometimes be rife with ego, jealousy, and competition, there was no such indication when Juan Luna’s ability was the subject. Even fellow Filipino sensation, Rene Robles, who boasts over forty years of internationally acclaimed excellence in art, paid a glowing tribute to the legend. “I’ve idolized Juan Luna since I was 13 years old,” he said casually, while rapidly bringing to life a section of the hotel’s poolside on his small canvas. “Ever since I was in elementary, I would try to recreate his work.” Just above us, visible from where we sat, was Robles’ own fantastic mural, lit brightly, providing a sight to ogle at, as guests zoomed up and down the glass elevator – a mere glimpse of the man’s almost never-ending list of accomplishments.
I caught a lift to the roof deck where I got a lovely view of the rectangular opening, giving sight to the pool surrounded by four floors of railings and pillars that hinted at the elegant style of Venice, a destination Luna would visit with his wife-to-be in four years. Finally able to dodge the diverse group of interesting personalities below, I took a moment to soak in the novel idea of being in the thick of the highest luxuries 19th century Philippines had to offer. From the majestic exterior, the delicate combination of brick and wood that compose its interiors, to the exemplary collection of artwork, food and drink, this was undoubtedly a worthy backdrop for the country’s elite to gather and socialize. To experience it all firsthand would be truly a privilege for any visitor.
But as the dizzying fabrics of time, imagination, and reality interlaced loosely with the unmistakable fusion of European and Filipino designs, ideas, and creativity that followed me in every nook and cranny of Hotel Luna, I remained just ever so slightly outside the realm of the individuals whose stories filled my history books. That’s because the extravagance of a bygone era is combined with modern accoutrements: WiFi, air conditioning, flat screens, hot water, and delightfully hi-tech toilets – effectively allowing me to time-travel without the unnecessary inconveniences of an era when cubed ice wasn’t to be discovered for another 51 years.
Ilocos’ Shining Light
Starting us off with local fusion dishes of Vigan Angulas, Empanada Nachos, and Vigan Croquettes, Head Chef Raymond Quitilen is clearly eager to showcase the city’s takes on longganisa and empanada, while introducing the unique flavor of ipon, a mysterious variety of tiny fish (Sycyopterus lachrymosus) that is exclusive to the region. Born in Ilocos Sur, the province whose capital is Vigan, it’s no surprise that the driven 28-year old is keen to treat the hotel’s guests to an infusion of local flavors.
Even the Spanish Paella, the epitome of seafood heaven in a dish mixed in rice and topped with chicken, an all-time favorite among visitors, is completed with local beans to add a distinct Vigan taste. From rising from the fastfood industry to carving out his place in the city’s poshest hotel, Chef Raymond aims to blaze a path of culinary success that will inspire others to follow. “I want to make my own name here. I want to prove that if you remain diligent and follow your passion, there’s a future here in the Philippines.” With his array of Filipino-Spanish and International dishes at Hotel Luna, Chef Raymond is well on his way.