Time at a Standstill in Tayabas

Dine at the original dampa, check out a reconstructed community center, and visit a distinguished house of prayer at this old-world Quezon town.

By Katrina Stuart Santiago
January 22, 2011

Writer Katrina Stuart Santiago recommends a visit to the picturesque City of Tayabas in Quezon for a visual, spiritual and culinary feast.

The trip to Tayabas, Quezon from Manila may be a long one (it takes three and a half to four hours), but it is rewarding. The town gives harried visitors a change of pace, a break from the hustle and bustle of everyday city life. Once you take the time to get here, you will find when you arrive that time in turn stands still.

Floating Food Trip

One of the major draws of Tayabas is a simple seafood restaurant, one that has spawned copycat establishments of the dampa and paluto variety. Looking for the original, Kamayan sa Palaisdaan, can be difficult: for one thing, it can be tempting to just go to the center of town and pick a place that claims to be the original restaurant of this kind; for another, the long upward stretch of almost empty road wasn't easy to find or traverse (at some point you have to enter, then exit, the town through narrow, unmarked roads).


We put in the effort not just for the food, but also for the ambiance: authentic native huts float on bamboo rafts in a pond within the restaurant. Guests are faced with a careful walk towards the huts, as the bamboo walkways necessarily sink a little with every step, but the moment you're seated inside, you know you're in for a treat. The huts are made of bamboo and coconut tree leaf, surrounded by waters that seem murky but don't smell at all. Water lilies and water-based plants grown in abundance without attracting insects. Fish dart in and out of sight under the rafts throughout the meal. It's a reminder of a time when such huts were normal, when building was about living with nature: a time when being quiet and relaxed was the default state.

(The food was also worth it, by the way: the grilled squid was fresh and perfectly cooked, soft without being mushy, chewy without being tough. The ginataang tilapia was unlike any of its kind, with less ginger and more garlic, and with green bell pepper that gives the dish a startling but refreshing crunch and bitterness. And in this land of coconut trees, naturally, the recipe used fresh coconut milk.)


Community House, Communal Home

With bellies full of food and hearts full of childhood memories, we set out see the rest of this place, and to get a glimpse into what seems like the not-so-distant past. The city is quiet even as children and townsfolk loiter around the town center where the Church of Tayabas and small local restaurants are. I'm distracted by the Casa de Comunidad de Tayabas, which from the outside looks like a usual unpreserved and unprotected Spanish colonial structure with old window awnings and balconies, but from within gives you the impression that time has stood still.

Originally built by Gobernadorcillo Francico Lopez in 1776 as a place for community activities and for visitors to the town, the Casa de Comunidad de Tayabas has since been rebuilt a number of times as the result of weak building materials and fires. This present structure was built from surviving walls and posts in 1945, to honor the original interiors, which in this place, are still relevant to the community.

Everything within the structure seems to have been saved and preserved as much as a possible. One room is filled with vintage furniture and home fixtures, with an old kalesa sitting in one corner; another room holds an exhibit of the political history of the town. Another exhibit highlights Lambanog, the local vodka. The architectural details also evoke the past: dark wood floors and a bahay-na-bato feel.

Moving outside to the community spaces, such as the church and plaza, we find more of the same old town feel. The Church of Tayabas, though nondescript from the outside (no bright colors or extraordinary exterior details, save for a red door and window grills) still retains its original Spanish colonial baroque architecture. The church, also known as the Minor Basilica of St. Michael the Archangel (originally built by Franciscan friars) conceals bright surprises behind its simple exterior. It has a long stretch of aisle and a beautifully painted blue and beige ceiling across the nave. The art on the ceiling seamlessly connects with posts on the sides of the church, making it seem like one complete painting across the interior.


A closer look at that ceiling makes it even more special: it is made of tiny pieces of wood that create an uneven vintage distressed look, keeping the blue from looking too bright and tacky. Also, instead of huge chandeliers that would be fitting for a minor basilica, it only has small light fixtures in black. Other details make the Church of Tayabas infinitely fascinating to me: its transept, altar, and apse that are connected and by arches and domes, connecting these elements and creating space for more pews facing the altar. At both ends of the transept are smaller retablos, less grand than the one that's behind the altar, all filled with religious icons and saints. All these details create a sense of homeyness and dignified age.

As I let myself get lost in the majesty, I am engaged by a group of street kids who strike up a conversation, telling me they live here in this church. I am amazed and pleased that street children are allowed to live here, and that the compound lets them stay, as any church should. I, on the other hand, can only dream of living here, in this place where time stands still, within this beautiful church or outside of it, right here in Tayabas, where history is still lived every day.

How to Get There

The Town of Tayabas in Quezon Province is approximately 150 kilmeters south of Manila, and 10 kilometers from the capital city of Lucena. It's a ride of about 3 1/2 to 4 hours on the road. Go on the South Luzon Expressway to its end, and take the Lucena / Legaspi / Batangas exit. When you hit Sto.Tomas Junction, turn left and go through the cities of Alaminos (Pangasinan) and San Pablo (Laguna) before you see the Quezon Arch. You will pass through the towns of Tiaong, Candelaria and Sariaya. Follow the highway that until you see signs to turn left towards Tayabas City. Following that highway through Lucena City will also lead you to Tayabas City, it's just a longer route.

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