“Bai” is a Cebuano word which means a brother or a friend, and is typically used in addressing a person whose name you don’t know.
Roughly 5 years ago, my former company sent me to visit one of our offices in Cebu. The 2-week stay was short. It’s sweet nonetheless, because I got easily drawn to the charm of this city.
Re-visiting Cebu after 5 years is like meeting an old friend. I recall the consistently friendlier, more courteous and honest Cebuanos. Taxi drivers would return fare change in almost exact amount. Staff in restaurants, shopping stores or hotels would give you a smile, greet you politely and cordially help you meeting your needs. Or just any Cebuano passing by, you ask a question or help, they’d go the extra mile.
Filipinos in general love to eat, but particularly in Cebu, when it comes to food they’ve got so much to offer. Cebuanos take pride in their multitudes of cuisines and delicacies. From the popular ones like dried seafood and danggit (rabbit fish), lechon (suckling pig), dried mangoes, rosquillos and otap; to common dishes cooked ala Cebu, such as kinilaw (raw fish cooked in vinegar and spices), escabeche (sweet and sour fish), kambing caldereta (goat’s stew), tinola (another unique chicken or fish stew), sinigang (a pork, fish or chicken sour soup), pochero (a pork stew), ginisal (vegetable dish that includes bean sprouts, bamboo shoots, beans cabbage cooked in soy sauce and vinegar), inu-unan (sour fish stew), pinakbet (fried vegetables dish), Sutukil (Sugba-Tula-Kilaw, in English, Grill-Stew-Eat, a known Mactan cooking style), seriously, Cebuanos got it all. Restaurants are everywhere, from hole-in-the-wall to fine dining experience. And there seems to have a neverending flow of locals going in to and out from these food havens. For food trippers like me, Cebu is another place to be.
Luckily I got a chance to return to the Philippines after 2 years. I chose to stay in Bohol for a few days together with my mom, and since Cebu is just an hour of boat-ride away, I also decided to come around. I visited Cebu’s tourist spots and historical landmarks, which I never paid my attention to when I first came. I was able to see what’s new, particularly in Ayala Center, as I heard there are a few things worth seeing. And lastly, I salivated and enjoyed the famously sumptuous but cholesterol-heavy, fattening Cebu lechon, like there’s no tomorrow.
Get to Know Cebu
Cebu is the oldest city in the Philippines and the first European settlement established by the Spanish Cortés in the 15th century. In history, Cebu is considerably the starting point of Catholicism and of Spanish colonization in the country. It started in 1521 when Ferdinand Magellan, on his quest to find the Spice Islands, accidentally set foot in Cebu, befriended the king, Rajah Humabon, baptized the locals and erected a large wooden cross on the shore signifying the bond between the Spaniards and the Cebuanos. Magellan was slained by another king in nearby Mactan island however, and so the survivors of this expedition brought tales about the ‘savage’ island of Cebu. From then on, several Spanish expeditions were sent to the island but all ended in failure until 1564 when Miguel Lopez de Legazpi traveled from Mexico, landed in the shores of Cebu and later established a colony, naming the settlements “Villa del Santisimo Nombre de Jésus” and “Villa de San Miguel.”
Being the main center of commerce, trade, education and industry in the Visayas, Cebu is also one of the most developed regions in the Philippines nowadays. Cebu has the Mactan International Airport, Cebu International Port (the largest shipping hub in Visayas), and notable Cebu Business Park, Asiatown IT Park and Mactan Economic Processing Zones where multinational companies and national and international corporations can be found. Cebu has a flourishing furniture-making industry, a very capable IT hub, and an enduring shipbuilding industry as well.
With rich, colorful history and steady progress, there’s no denial that Cebu is indeed the queen city of the country’s south.
Churches, The Cross and A Taoist Temple
Mom and I visited first the Ciudad del Santisimo Nombre de Jesus or more commonly known as Cebu Metropolitan Cathedral, which is located in the midst of Cebu’s old central business district. Its construction started in 1689, but took many years due to frequent interruptions and unexpected events. Its architecture is typical of Spanish colonial church in the country, as defined by its thick walls intended to withstand typhoons and other natural calamities; and the Spanish royal coat of arms displayed at the top of its main entrance door, somewhat reflecting the contribution of Spanish monarch to its construction.
We walked towards the other side of Zamora street from Cebu Metropolitan Cathedral to visit the other well-visited, oldest church in Cebu.
The 16th-century old Basilica Minore del Santo Nino was built in the same spot where the image of the Santo Nino, a sculpture depicting the Holy Child Jesus, was found by Spanish explorers in 1565; and preserved in a burned wooden box, which was left behind during the expedition of Magellan in 1521. It is believed that this is the same statue that Magellan gave to Rajah Humabon’s wife, Queen Juana.
This basilica in baroque architecture was believed to be initially built out of earth, hard wood and nipa but in 1735, the church was reconstructed with hard stones, mainly out of coral. Here it briefly details how the construction was carried out:
The stones were quarried from Capiz and Panay by an army of bancas. The molave wood came from the mountains of Talisay and Pitalo and was transported in bancas hired in Argao and Carcar. Fr. Juan de Albarran Prior of the Sto. Nino, confessed that there was much difficulty in quarrying the stones. Despite the seemingly impossible task, Fr. Albarran was not discouraged. He used white stones to make the lime, with one banca transporting some 400 pieces of stones. There was also another obstacle: the lack of chief craftsmen and officers which forced Fr. Albarran to acquire some knowledge of architecture.
The church was finished not later than 1739. According to an author named Vela, “the church has all the characteristics of a solid construction to withstand all the earthquakes…” And true enough, the church withstood all earthquakes.
The fascade is a blending of Muslim, Romanesque and neo-classical features – all set in what has otherwise been described as a high degree of integration. The façade is preserved in its original stone texture and natural color, conveying an air of simplicity of line and elegance. The bell tower serves as a counterbalance to the convent located on the opposite far end. It has two blind and open windows alternating in shape, ending up in triangular pinnacles with a circular disc crowned by balusters and a bulbous dome of Muslim influence. The arched main entrance is balanced by the side rectangular corners. A double-edged triangular pediment crowns the facade.
– from basilicasantonino.org.ph, on the style of the Church
Catholics in Cebu are known as fervent devotees to the statue of the Child Jesus (Balaang Bata sa Sugbo or Santo Nino de Cebu), which is considerably the oldest of all Christian relics in the Philippines. Every year in January, Fiesta Senor is celebrated in honor of the Santo Nino, along with Cebu’s patroness, Our Lady of Guadalupe, and the Ecce Homo, the depiction of Christ before Pontius Pilate, which is another statue Magellan had presented to Humabon as symbol of their alliance. The highlight of the festival is the Sinulog, which is held on the third Sunday. It is also known as a dance ritual that comemorates the pagan origin of the Cebuanos and their acceptance of Roman Catholicism. See more about Sinulog festivities here.
Next to Santo Nino Basilica is a place that houses another symbol that represents Christianity and Cebu, the Magellan’s Cross.
Encasing the original cross is meant to protect the original cross from people who chip away parts of the cross for souvenir or in the belief that it is miraculous. Some people believe that there’s no longer an original cross, thus it is only a replica.
All throughout my stay in this church ground I got curious – what is it with the women dressed in yellow and red selling these colorful candles? So I approached one of them and asked.
As soon as I got near the old lady outrightly went towards me saying, “Padasal? Padasal ka, iha?” (Prayer? Do you want me to pray for you, my girl?)
From there I already knew what they would do, but I still asked further. “Opo, ano po gagawin?” (Yes, how is it done?)
She told me that she’d offer a prayer for my intentions by dancing in front of the cross with the candles. Neither this gesture does come cheap or for free, the candles cost 50 pesos.
Again, just for me to witness something new, I gave in. After telling her my wishes, she started chanting fast and swaying back and forth. I was able to capture familiar words as she made sure she was pronouncing my intentions loud and clear; but it was still difficult to understand because she was merely chanting very fast in her Cebuano language.
We went back to the hotel to rest a bit. An hour after, we went to SM mall to buy our pasalubong and to have our lunch. After that, off we went to the Cebu Taoist Temple.
The temple was built by Cebu’s influential Chinese community in 1972 in the wealthy residential suburb of Beverly Hills, which is about 6 kilometers north of the city’s downtown. The Chineses make up around 15% of Cebu’s population.
On Wednesdays and Sundays, Taoist devotees perform their rituals. They climb the 99 steps of the temple to light joss sticks and have their fortunes read by the monks.
As we got to the top of the temple, caretakers began asking visitors not to take any photos of the sacred place, where you find a huge Buddha statue in the middle; and to remain quiet as we’re going further around. From there we got a good view of Cebu city, as well as the islands of Mactan and Bohol.
Before we left, mom and I tried our luck by asking these Chinese deities. The rule here is this. In front of one of the statues, silently say your wish. Throw a coin in the well, making sure it would land on the small space surrounding the statue’s feet. If the coin falls into the water, it means the deity does not intend to fulfill your wish.
Mom felt like she was playing in a slot machine; but she’s also been asking quite a lot! Well, she hoped the coins she threw just right to the target won’t go down the drain. For her, ROI is a must. Mom being pseudo-Chinese is another (amusing) story to tell.
What’s New, Ayala?
When I first came to Cebu, Ayala Center is one of the establishments I frequented for food, shopping, or just lazying around. At that time it was going through a major facelift. Fast forward to 2008, Ayala Center Cebu unveiled “The Terraces.” 5 more years further, I have finally seen the new fascade of my favorite hangout place in Cebu.
Mom and I thought that SM Mall would be nearly closing that night, so we decided to proceed to Ayala Center. I’m glad that we did go there because The Terraces is a beauty at nighttime. It appears like Greenbelt in Makati with its signature Ayala landscaping and water features. From afar you see office buildings, old and new, surrounding the mall. Of course, there are new, fancier restaurants and shopping stores around. Then I noticed a construction somewhere and as it appears, Ayala’s about to build another bigger jungle in this spot.
Death by Cebu’s Lechon
The real highlight of the Cebu trip is actually a stop over to the best place where we can eat the succulent, sinful roasted pig in Cebu. Ironically when I first came here, I never tried. Or even in Manila, I have never ever eaten one yet. Though some people who would offer me say it’s Cebu lechon, I had not believed them because it tasted just like any other regular lechon. And so I still believe I really haven’t had any.
So then, this must be my first time to relish this infamous dish. I told mom that I won’t leave Cebu without having one, never again!
CnT Lechon is the most popular and definitely has the mass appeal. When we visited its branch near SM Cebu, the place was packed, the self-service line was way too long, and the lechon was almost finished (the head of the pig is the last part standing). I felt like my ultimate goal for this trip was about to slip away. As she saw me getting a bit saddened, mom started to ask around. One lady told us that we go to its main branch where there are less customers so we can get the best lechon parts and dine in more comfortably. She also suggested that they serve fresh lechon almost every hour so it is best we come at the earliest possible before it arrives.
After the Taoist temple visit, off we went to the main branch of CnT lechon. True enough, when we came at around half past 3, the restaurant was almost empty. We’re the first in the line. We also took the best table, just right near the counter where the action is!
Fifteen minutes after, the restaurant started to swell with many of its customers, all waiting for the “superstar” to arrive. By the strike of 4, the lechon arrived. And oh what a privilege, at long last!
The grease marked on the glass window won’t dissuade me. My eyes were just glued on this delight and I told myself, “This lechon awaits me.”
What differs this lechon from other lechons in the country is its full taste. They said Cebu lechon has special herbs and spices, as well as lemongrass, green onions, chili and peppers, that make it flavor unique. The crispiness is tough to beat, too. We definitely bought some as pasalubong for dad and little brother, and after finishing it a few days at home, the skin was still extra crispy.
I was also impressed with these yellow-and-red chopping ladies in CnT lechon. The way they do the drill, whoah, it was effortless. All flawlessly done. With those big, sharp blades in their hands, I couldn’t help myself but wonder on whether these ladies have ever found their love match yet.
So what’s my verdict? It’s massively, sinfully delicious, but it’s a big gluttonous act that I gave up finishing a plateful of my lechon (another pack was sent home for dad and brother). Nonetheless, I can definitely confirm – I conquered Cebu lechon!