The Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar – A work of passion in Bataan

The sleepy coastal town of Bagac, Bataan is perhaps the last place you’d expect to go to for a culture and heritage trip. The province of Bataan is of course famous (or should I say infamous) in Philippine History for the Death March, but what in the world is in Bagac?

You would be amazed to find a portal to the past in this laid back town. No, they didn’t invent a time machine, but the efforts of one construction magnate has led to the creation of a so called “heritage resort”, and it goes by the name Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar. “Acuzar” is the surname of the founder/proprietor, an owner of a construction firm who happens to have a passion for old houses.

Las Casas is a collection of old houses situated in a seaside compound, and arranged in such a way that it looks like an old Spanish-era town, complete with a town square or “plaza” and an equivalent of a residential area. What’s even more amazing is how these houses came to be where they are now. These are not “natives” of Bagac, but rather, imported from various other provinces in Luzon. These were homes of prominent families from that era, dismantled from their previous locations while others were saved from junkyards, already broken down. Each one was then painstakingly recreated  inside the property – not an easy task, but one that requires dedication and a true heart for Philippine colonial architecture.

The houses may be the highlight of the attraction but it’s not just the reconstructed houses that give the whole place the old “centro urbano” feel. The entire property has  been landscaped to give that old colonial look, complete with brick roads, old fashioned lamp posts and statues of the “townsfolk”, dressed in the everyday clothing of the “indios”. They even have a horse-drawn carriage to add more effect, plus all the property’s personnel are dressed in the traditional Filipino clothing of that period, from the tour guides to the security guards. The owner of the place also took pains to bury all electrical cables under the ground, so despite the presence of electricity throughout the property, there’s no traces of it, until you see the lamp posts light up and the electric fans turning. Indeed, except for the occasional automobile that brings guests in and out of the place, there’s no other trace of modernity here. It is, practically, a museum, where the artifacts are measured in square meters rather than inches.

* Indio is what the old Spanish colonists called the native Filipinos.

So who says there were no streched limos back then?

“Binibining Tour Guide”

The houses of Plaza Belmonte. If I didn’t tell you where this was, you would probably think it’s some small town from the 1800’s

Mr. Acuzar also clearly wanted to share this passion of his, and other than the fact that the place is such a long way from Manila, it is actually very inviting and visitor friendly. The old Casa Mexico (a house from the town of Mexico in Pampanga, and not from the country of the same name) serves as the reception and administration building. Here visitors are welcomed by staff that exemplify the traditional Filipino hospitality. They also have a walking tour for all visitors, with a guide providing interesting facts about the story of each house. The tour takes you inside some of them, giving visitors a glimpse of life back then. And, as if the the ambiance of the property is not yet enough, the view out of the windows of some houses lead directly to farmlands. You could almost imagine yourself as Crisostomo Ibarra, or Maria Clara, as you soak up that view from old fashioned windows.

The columns of Casa Hidalgo

Interesting ceiling work, inside Casa Mexico.

Artworks, inside the Casa Hidalgo.

Las Casas also functions as a resort hotel, and guests can rent individual rooms, or entire houses. They have a restaurant and a souvenir shop, plus there are ongoing works to improve the grounds all the way to the coastline. While we only took a day tour , we did see several groups checking out from their weekend vacations there (it was on a Sunday), and we’re planning to spend a weekend there ourselves, perhaps in a couple of years.

Another noteworthy feature in the property is their swimming pool. Yes, in the midst of the old houses is a swimming pool, but the developers were careful to not let it distract from the theme, thus the result is a design dubbed by our tour guide as “batis”-style. “Batis” is tagalog for creek, and the pool’s appearance does mimic a creek or a narrow river, down to the appearance of a mossy bottom (it’s actually painted cement) as well as rocks protruding from strategic places. These rocks serve as stairs (the pool has none of those metallic ladders), as well as separators between the main and children’s pools. I found the design ingenious, actually.

Can you tell that this is a swimming pool, if I didn’t mention it?

It does look like a river.

Ongoing work at Las Casas

What is truly, THE most amazing about Las Casas though, is neither the property nor the houses. The one truly awe inspiring thing about it, is the dedication of the man who put the place together. His work wasn’t commissioned by anyone, except by his own passion for heritage. Transferring pieces of history made of wood and stone from their former locations is no mean feat, yet that is only one-half of the equation. Making sure the houses stay in one piece is the other half, and I’m sure maintaining them requires as much attention as reconstructing them from junk.

You can call Las Casas many things – a small town replica, a heritage theme park, a pseudo-museum, or simply a weekend getaway. It is indeed all of that, but over and above all, it is one true work of passion.

Looking out to Calle Real (Royal Avenue) from Casa Mexico

Casa Unisan, Plaza Belmonte and Paseo De Escolta

Casa Luna, from the family of two prominent Philippine historical figures, the brothers Juan and Antonio Luna.

Casa Vyzantina, and Casa San Miguel behind it, viewed from Plaza Atienza.

Casa Binondo, seen from Calle Real

Casa Meycauayan, from the town of the same name in Bulacan. Those people stayed for the weekend, and are checking out.

Inside one of the spacious rooms of Casa Hidalgo.

View from a window in Casa Hidalgo.

Another room in Casa Hidalgo. The house is so huge, you can hold a ball in it.

Casa Meycauayan, Casa Lubao (from Pampanga), and Plaza Mayor de Tobias, seen from Casa Hidalgo.

The stately dining room of Casa Lubao. A couple were having their pre-nup pictorial while we were there.

Another look inside Casa Lubao. It was so hot and sunny outside, but it was so cool inside the house that you could forget it’s the middle of summer. The ventilation of old houses is just amazing.

Inside the Casa Luna. Here in these narrow hallways pass the “aliping sagigilid”, servants who stayed out of the house and were not allowed to mingle with the owners.

Casa Baliuag II, seen from Casa Luna.

An old Spanish-era Pavilion, near Plaza Belmonte.

Paseo de Escolta. It’s the only building in the property that wasn’t reconstructed, but rather just mimicked from the buildings of Manila’s old commercial district of Escolta.

Plaza Belmonte

Fountain along Calle Real

LUNCH

We had lunch a their restaurant called Cafe Marivent, inside the Casa Unisan – a “bahay-na-bato” inside the property. The place is cozy and rustic, and the ambiance blends well with their Spanish-Filipino menu. They have no airconditioning here, but the place is cool even in the heat of summer, and an aircon unit would just be an unnecessary contraption. This is a testament to the superior home building materials back then, as well as the excellence of their architecture and engineering.

Many tourist attractions have food outlets that just sell you something edible, that’s it – just something to get you by when you get hungry. Las Casas though takes their food very seriously, so much so that it should also be a culinary destination, as much as it is a historical and cultural one. Cafe Marivent serves most of the familiar Spanish and Filipino dishes, and then some. The variety is common, and so is the presentation, but what makes the difference is the execution. The dishes we ordered were so excellently done, that they could run rings around some of the Spanish-Filipino themed restaurants in Manila. Had Cafe Marivent been located in Serendra, then it would surely make the likes of Abe try even harder. Their price is also Serendra-esque, but it’s also definitely worth the penny (or the purple bills you have to cough up). After all, you won’t get such a combination of excellent food and exceptional ambiance anywhere else.

Cafe Marivent can be a romantic setting, outside of the mealtime rush.

What we had for that day was a mix of Spanish, Filipino and Chinese influences…a good impression of what Philippine society was like, as portrayed in Rizal’s Noli Mi Tangere. We had the Misua Con Patola, the Pescado de Malaguena and the Pochero, and I had a refreshing watermelon shake. We also came back for some Halo-halo after the guided tour, a perfect relief from the heat of walking around under the sun. I had talked about passion throughout this article, and I was glad to know that the passion extended all the way to the kitchen. If you’re visiting Las Casas, even for just half a day, then Cafe Marivent is a definite must.

Pescado de Malaguena – A spanish dish, as the name implies, from Malaga, Spain. It’s made of fish fillet with tomato sauce and olives…almost like Puttanesca without the pasta.

Pochero – A local favorite. The beef could use a few more minutes in the pressure cooker, but the stew as so delightfully good, we couldn’t get enough of it. 

Halo-halo – This is definitely Filipino more than anything else. This cup is actually larger than it looks here in the picture, and as you can see at the bottom, there’s a very generous amount of ingredients here to mix. 

Dining inside the “Bahay-na-bato”.

A fancy wall inside Casa Unisan

Dining with a view

Another look at the restaurant, during the mealtime rush.

Is there a better setting, for a Spanish-Filipino meal, than this?

* We went to Las Casas last May 2011. All photos taken with Olympus E-420 and Zuiko 14-54mm f2.8-3.5.

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