Naga City in Camarines Sur, Philippines held a population of ~67,000 during my youth. Now, the booming metropolis is populated by some 196,000, according to the 2015 census. Around 167.3 miles south of Manila, Naga sits as the reigning queen in lush Bicol region touted for its perfect cone Mayon volcano in the province of Albay; Cagsawa Ruins, a bell tower and belfry emerging above ground while the rest of the church was buried underground during a massive earthquake in Daraga in the 16th century; the pink sand beach of Irosin, Sorsogon; the hot springs pools of Panicuason at the foot of Mt. Isarog in Naga, among many other wonders.
Besides being the center of the colorful, age-old tradition of the week-long and widely attended Penafrancia fiesta, Naga also is home to the old and charming Penafrancia shrine of the Lady of Penafrancia, and the handsomely renovated cathedral. The city grew and expanded the past decades. The presence of several prominent universities underscores the high quality of education in the community. What were small streets of modest residential areas are now commercial hot spots. The increase in restaurants, hotels, stores and shopping malls speaks to the buzzing business life of the city.
Naga is where I stayed for a week’s visit this month. It was a pleasure being hosted the first half of the week by our auntie and uncle in their lovely home. Fronting the home is a beautifully landscaped garden that offers a refreshing welcome to anyone that enters its gates. My brothers, their wives and I thoroughly enjoyed aunt’s and uncle’s hospitality which started every morning with fried rice, fried bangus (catfish) or daing (dried salted fish), fried eggs or omelets, tomatoes and fruit – a balikbayan’s dream breakfast. (A balikbayan is a Filipino returning to the Philippines for vacation or temporary stay.)
Our Saturday trek was a tour of Legazpi, Albay so ably lead by my cousin. She knew exactly what would please us – an exhilarating view of the city from top of a mountain; a walk to mysterious-looking Cagsawa Ruins; stopovers at nearby crafts and pili nut candy shops; Filipino cuisine cooked to salve a balikbayan’s nostalgia for authentic Filipino food; sidewalk vendors cooking fried bananas called baduya, or steamed puto from sticky rice flour. We all oohed and aahed at the sceneries and delicacies.
Fun at Biggs Bistro in Centro, Naga was an unexpected delight. Biggs is a modest hangout for fine Filipino cuisine, drinks – and enjoyable music. The night we were there, a band of three male singers played. More enjoyable was a male soloist accompanying himself on the keyboard. He sang mostly old songs, some of which charmed listeners out of their seats; they danced spontaneously and unembarrassingly on the center or side floor. I remind you, Biggs is a listen-to-music joint, not a dance-to-music joint. It didn’t matter then. The night grew livelier as more onlookers happily joined the enthusiastic ladies and gentlemen, all from our group. Tables were moved back to accommodate the dancers, who danced the closing number to the pumped-up tune of YMCA. The restaurant closed an hour later than planned, much to the customers’ delight and surprise. It was a grand night, totally unanticipated. My group changed the aura of the bistro that night. We made history for Biggs.
It rained the next day, so we stayed at the Carmen Hotel to rest and nap after brunch, a most welcome respite from the rigors of the past days. What’s best about the Carmen, in my opinion, are the warm, cozy beds layered with snow white blankets and a thick and feathery soft comforter that billows around you when you lie underneath it. The pillows are large and billowy as well, obviously packed with down feathers inside the cases. We napped longer, of course, the best part of the day, I thought.
The evening was topped with dinner at Avenue Hotel. We were the only customers at that posh place, an advantage, we surmised – we would get fast service. As it turned out, the waiters were mostly occupied with a big party for young adults at the poolside behind the restaurant, some, looking like teenagers flashily attired to claim the night all to themselves. As it was, they claimed all the waiters to themselves, and we were left waiting on the limb for our food to be served. Facing the front of the entrance to the restaurant, some of us didn’t really mind the wait, as long as we were entertained by the spectacle of young people parading to the poolside, some of them, pretty-looking cross dressers. Suddenly, we realized, we were hungry, and the steady stream didn’t matter anymore. We nicely demanded for our orders. They all came at once – the appetizers, soup and entrées. Were the waiters mesmerized by the young customers in “high fashion” that they forgot to serve our food? Hmmm … we really didn’t care to know …. We just started to gobble up.
The activity after dinner turned out to be entertainment for the seniors in our group, who watched enthusiasts of ballroom dancing at a club in Villa Caceres Hotel. The music was poundingly loud, perhaps because we took the available seats right by the amplifiers. I think though, if we were kilometers away, the music would still be deafening. The seniors in my group (myself included) contentedly watched the younger relatives move expertly with the DI’s (dance instructor) leading. I was impressed — my relatives danced quite gracefully. And I bemused, one actually looked like she just came out of the closet. Interesting, on the dance floor with them were a popular lady judge, known business figures and community leaders of the city, a medical doctor, a college professor. In their midst was a tall, statuesque lady DI whose smooth and velvety moves magnetized everyone’s attention. It was more than watching Clara of Nutcracker Suite Ballet; it was like watching Cleopatra. She was the queen of the ballroom dance floor, and she swayed like she knew it. The seniors had enough of the long day, and left ahead of the young relatives.
The next day was the beginning of a tropical typhoon. We started our drive back to Manila in pouring cats and dogs. But that did not stop us from stopping at Sipocot, an old municipality just about an hour away from Naga. Sipocot looked like the Sipocot I knew in my youth, where my uncle held a medical practice and delivered my two youngest siblings. Not much change in the place, I thought. The big difference, in my biased opinion, is that an aunt and her husband built a large house and bought the commercial building in front, soon after they retired from their jobs in California. Their imposing house loomed above old structures in the neighborhood. I heard that they’re selling the property and moving back to the US where their children and grandchildren live.
The best part of that stopover, besides a sumptuous late lunch at my auntie’s place, was visiting an ailing, bed-ridden aunt and her family. The heavy, pounding rains outside her window were no match to the sweet and fragile smiles she gave as she gazed at each of us to express her profound gratitude and joy for our visit. Her smiles, accompanied with tears, were touchingly magical. That, in my opinion, topped our trip to Naga. Our trip offered exquisite views, authentic Bicol cuisine, fun dancing, great laughter and camaraderie – but none more heartwarming and moving than the smiles from our sick and feeble aunt.
Oh yes, very important, we visited my father’s tomb in a cemetery beside the old Penafrancia shrine – my first visit since I left Naga several decades ago.