Words and Photos by Cesar Cruz Jr.
Even though it was my third time to visit the collection of heritage houses in Bataan that is Las Casas, it still gives me a reason to excitedly march through its gates as if I was visiting it for the first time. After all, one cannot have it all in one go. With the myriad of fun and educational activities it offers, one could only schedule a trip back to this wonder place that links the past to the present.
What started out as private vacation property of the Acuzars, slowly turned into a beach resort, a convention center, and a dream destination for weddings. Heritage houses from all over the country, threatened by decay and neglect, found their way here as they were assembled again- ‘brick by brick, plank by plank’. Las Casas got filled up with stately dwellings which were owned and lived in by prominent people during their time. Since it opened to the public last 2010, Las Casas has been a continuous project of restoration and preservation as the heritage houses grew in number. Indeed, it is a haven of stuffs having cultural, historical, artistic significance connecting us to our past. The latest feather to its cap was the winning the Best Historic Hotels in Asia Pacific – Historic Hotels Worldwide Traveler’s Choice Award in 2021.
If I were to personify this 400- hectare estate overlooking two rivers, a beachfront, and mountain views- then it would be a woman who is socially prominent, respected an accomplished. The grande dame would reveal herself to you if you express a sincere desire and make an effort to really know her.
Get acquainted with her through the hour-long walking tour. Admire the heritage houses from inside as you are given a VIP access by a tour guide to discover the secrets it holds dear. Learn the reason behind why the flight of stairs are intentionally made steep. Know the logic behind the peep hole on the ground of the second floor of some of the houses here. As a trivia buff, the tour really stimulated my curiosity. I would get a kick out of correctly answering the questions hurled by the tour guide as if I was a contestant on Jeopardy.
However, what shook me up was learning that Casa Baliuag 1 was the ancestral house of my cousin from my mother’s side of the family. She bares the surname the owner of the house had, who was Kapitan Fernando Vergel de Dios. This bit of information was not a small thing to me. All of a sudden, the cold stones of the house became warm to me.
Moreover, a more exhilarating kind of tour I took part of was the balsa tour. A balsa is a small raft made of tightly bundled bamboos. It was tiny enough to pass through the canals of Estero de Binondo but big enough to accommodate 10 people. Get ready to journey into the Accesoria, the precursor to apartments, which lined both sides of the canal.
Architectural details such as gargoyle faces believed to ward off demons and evil spirits greeted me along the boat path. One could choose to get off Tolentino Island, named after Guillermo Tolentino who was designated as a National Artist of the Philippines in 1973. Here, one may marvel at the replicas of his most known works - the UP Oblation and the Bonifacio Monument.
A highlight of the boat tour was the Casa Candaba 2, the only house that could be accessed by boat. I cannot help but feel like Harry Potter getting into Hogwarts. To top things off, there were long staircases in this multi-floored house and several owl wood carvings. How uncanny is that! This bird sanctuary- inspired dwelling is definitely one of places to see here. This is a sure winner for your little one. Don’t let this chance fly away.
Let the grande dame show off her hospitality as she whips up a feast in one of her restaurants. When your stomach growls, troop off to Kusina ni Nanay where classic Filipino dish reigns supreme. Kilawing Tanigue, Kare-kare, Chicken Inasal, Fish Ceviche, and Lechon Kawali- name it, she has it. Furthermore, responsibly farmed seafood and locally-sourced produce are observed as a part of its food philosophy. Vegetables and herbs come from their own farm as well. Oh, and remember to order their homemade Taro ice cream. It is easy to fall in love with its creamy texture and nutty flavor.
At the end of my overnight stay, I felt that there is still so much to know and to explore. While the experience certainly connected me to my roots, discovering a branch of my family tree came as an unexpected treat. It is no wonder I feel right at home at Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar.
Who knows what surprises the grande dame has in store for me next? Only a fourth visit will tell.