When people say Taal, it usually brings to mind Taal Volcano in Taal Lake (and its surrounding area, Tagaytay). But the municipality of Taal is farther southwest, separated from the lake by the municipality of San Nicolas, created by several lakeside barrios which seceded from Taal in 1955.
Taal was founded by Augustinians in the sixteenth century, and for almost two hundred years it sat peacefully by the shores of the volcanic lake. But after the major eruption of 1754, the town center moved to a hill overlooking the western sea: Balayan Bay.
Our grandmother, who turns 80 this year, told us she has long dreamed of setting foot in Taal, but has simply never made the time. So on our grandfather’s birthday weekend, on the day before our fateful Makiling climb, we drove to Taal to see what was to be seen.
Lola Betty’s knees are no longer suited for long, quick walks, so though Taal is famous for many other things, we only had two destinations in this town that day: the churches.
The Minor Basilica of St. Martin de Tours
Taal Basilica is to date the largest Catholic church in the continent. The original church stood in what is now San Nicolas, beside the volcanic lake. But the notorious 1754 eruption, which lasted six months, destroyed the first structure — as well as most of the outlying towns.
The townsmen and the clergy fled south to watch in horror as their homes were destroyed. The basilica was rebuilt the following year on a hill facing the bay, and this is where the current structure stands.
Flashback 1754. “We left the town, fleeing this living picture of Sodom, with incessant fear lest the raging waters of the lake overtake us, which were at the moment invading the main part of the town, sweeping away everything they encountered.”Fr. Buencuchillo, O.S.A.
Inside are all the features of a normal church, albeit slightly more impressive, being relatively large. Let’s see, there were the wealthy people entombed in the pillars, an elaborate pulpit, and centuries-old confessional seats. It’s rather maximalist. Almost every blank surface is almost desperately filled with trompe l’oeil. I don’t know where we as a people got our horror vacui: from Roman Catholicism as introduced by conquistadors? From indigenous artistic origins that, interrupted by colonialism, never got the chance to develop into our own brand of minimalism? From Islamic art, our pre-colonial heritage?
At the back of the church one could climb to the pipe organ place (no idea what this part is called); then you could climb to the bell tower. The winding stairway is a rather choking tunnel which is maybe ten seconds too long. The poor sacristans of three hundred years ago! It’s musty, and there are little bats in the enclave. But don’t turn back because the view is worth it, once you’re out in the air. In the west is Balayan Bay, dreamy and blue, its horizon line fuzzy on this sunny day. In the east Mt. Maculot is faintly visible, way across Taal Lake.
The adjoining building, which in other churches are the parish schools or offices, houses a small museum.
The Archdiocesan Shrine of Our Lady of Caysasay
Caysasay Church, is one of many coral stone churches in the Philippines. It’s a quaint structure built in 1639, meant to be a visita or chapel. Though it has been iron-fortified and stuccoed many times over the centuries, it’s faded, aged, and weatherbeaten.
The image of Our Lady of Caysasay is said to have been found in 1603 by a fisherman in the nearby Pansipit River. It’s small and rather rustically carven: one eye is a bit bigger than the other. Its discovery sparked a series of alleged Marian apparitions.
Caysasay Church is connected to the main plaza (where the basilica stands) by the hagdan-hagdan, or the Steps of San Lorenzo Ruiz. It’s a rather wide and picturesque 125-step granite staircase.
Flashback 1754. “It began to rain mud and ashes at Caysasay (19km from the volcano) and this rain lasted three days. The most terrifying circumstance was that the whole sky was shrouded in such darkness that we could not have seen the hand placed before the face, had it not been for the sinister glare of incessant lightning.”Fr. Buencuchillo, O.S.A.
While the old people attended the tail end of a Mass, CJ led us maybe a third of the way up the steps, and then unexpectedly stepped over the balustrade on the left side. A small path led us to a very old, and hauntingly pretty, coral stone arch that stands over twin wells. This was the Well of Sta. Lucia, believed to be miraculous, because connected with many of the reported apparitions of long ago.
Our grandparents mispronounced the town’s name a few times, saying “Casay-casay” instead of Caysasay. It turns out it was the Spaniards who mispronounced the word a long time ago — the kasay-kasay is a type of kingfisher, a bird endemic to the Philippines. In the 1600s, two girls reported finding the carven image of the Lady standing gravely on a sampaguita bush before the well, reflected in the water. It was illuminated by two candles and guarded by a small flock of kasay-kasay. True or not, that is quite frankly a real horror-movie image in my book.
Interestingly, there are other Marian images associated with water and attributed with miracles, such as the Virgin of Antipolo, or Our Lady of Peace and Good Voyage. The Filipino-Chinese of that bygone era tended to share these devotions because they considered these Marias to be avatars of the sea goddess Mazu.
Both churches are obviously aged, and in slight need of repair, but are graceful and venerable even so. Really, there are some elements of design that age very well.
We had an absolutely satisfying boodle fight lunch at Don Juan Boodle House, complete with Taal delicacies like yellow adobo. This was followed with brewed barako coffee (which is a must when in Batangas). While we explored the wet market for empanada, cacao tablea, and sinaing na tulingan, Lola B. window-shopped for some embroidered piña clothing, but it was a bit expensive. However, the designs and quality are beautiful and worth the price — you just had to be ready to shop.
On the way out of the town, I bought a balisong and a hunting knife. We’re saving the museums and the heritage houses for another day.
The town’s interest is due to the abundance of both cultural and natural history, and the way they have blended to form a unique identity. Taal was created by friars and by lava and ashfall, and instead of being obliterated by the confusion, it thrives and proudly wears the glitter of centuries. ★