Caught Up with Cebu's Colonial Past
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Despite its changing landscape, there are a number of things in Cebu that have remained virtually untouched by the relentless wave of urbanization that continues to bash its shores. Take for instance the ancient landmarks that speak so much about its colorful history.
One of the city's more prominent historical shrines I've visited on several occasions is Magellan's Cross. Located just a stone’s throw away from city hall, it was put up in honor of the Portuguese navigator who landed on Sugbu (Cebu’s old name) in April 1521. Following a mass held in the island, Magellan planted a wooden cross on the very spot where the shrine now stands and then gave the Sugbu chieftain’s wife an image of the Santo Niņo.
Housed inside a roofed chapel-like concrete kiosk, the cross or, more accurately, a replica of the original that was planted almost 500 years ago, never fails to attract the crowds. Every time I go there, the place is often packed with curious tourists, beggars and itinerant peddlers selling a variety of items — guitars, rosary beads, sweets, to name some.
On one occasion, I found myself accosted by women devotees on my way to the covered pavilion, selling candles and offering to say a prayer for me, for a fee, of course. I politely declined and asked them to leave me in peace. Along with other tourists, I turned my attention to the kiosk’s center of attraction, the wooden cross standing on top of a pedestal. Below the cross is a sign claiming that the real one is encased inside the replica made of tindalo to protect it from people who have been chipping it away for its alleged miraculous healing powers.
Looking up, I noticed the colorful mural on the pavilion’s ceiling that depicted the various events during the arrival of the conquistadors in the island — the conversion of the natives, the image of the Holy Child, and of course, the planting of the cross, among others.
In one sortie to the city, I stumbled upon another famous historical landmark: Fort San Pedro. Located at the city’s port area near Plaza Independencia, it was originally built in 1565 under the orders of conquistador Miguel Lopez de Legazpi to protect the settlement from the persistent attacks of Moro raiders. Rebuilt in 1738, the triangular-shaped fort was once called San Miguel but it was renamed to Fuerza de San Pedro later.
Through the years, the former Spanish fortress stood as mute witness to the unfolding of historical events in the city. It became a barracks and a school during the American regime; a refuge and hospital during the Japanese occupation; and an army camp during the early postwar years. Starting in the 1950s, the crumbling bastion, or some parts of it, was turned into a mini-garden, a clinic, a public works office and — guess what — a zoo!
By the 1960s, it was so dilapidated that a major rehabilitation effort became very imperative if only to save this important historical landmark. It took the collaboration of the city government, a civic club and the tourism board (now the Department of Tourism) to mount the massive undertaking. The restoration work was said to have progressed slowly but the facade, the main building, the walkway and the observatory roof garden were faithfully restored after one and
a half years.
At present, the fort houses the DOT office, an open-air theater and a park. Part of it has also been turned into a museum where I came across some well-preserved legacies of Spanish rule in the country such as documents, paintings and sculptures.
Cebu also holds the distinction of having the country's oldest street — Colon, which has been in existence since the time of Legazpi. Located in the downtown area, it was named after Christopher Columbus, the Italian navigator credited for bringing the Americas into the forefront of European attention following his explorations in 1492.
In its heyday, Colon used to be the hive of the city’s business and commercial activities. Following the rise of shopping malls and the exodus of entrepreneurs and merchants into the city’s booming uptown area in the 1990s, it lost quite a significant portion of its customer base.
The economic crunch in recent years, however, has brought back many shoppers to Colon which has always remained a haven for bargain hunters. Most of its old shops and even the newer ones offer quality merchandise at prices way below those sold by their counterparts at the malls. That's why I often buy the items I bring home as pasalubong from the stores there.
At the rate things are going, there’s no stopping to Cebu’s march to progress. With the passage of time, its landscape will continue to change but its historical must-sees will be there to provide fixedness to a city that’s forever in a state of flux.
Where I stayed
Park Place Hotel (a.k.a. Cebu Rajah Park Hotel)