In and around the plaza in Iriga City, Camarines Sur, looming under the shadow of Mt. Asog, you will find the heartbeat of the city.
Here you will come upon the historical church of St. Anthony of Padua, health and fitness matronas limbering up before the monument of Rizal and the Muse of Literature, behind them an ersatz Statue of Liberty, the Iriga Plaza Hotel, a colonial, “dysfunctional” City Hall, the Emerald Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes above a modern, tube-like Convention Center; a bahay na bato, the Trinidad Building; and a shopping arcade.
Iriga recently celebrated its 44th Charter Foundation Anniversary, under the aegis of “cool” Mayor Madeleine Alfelor-Gazman. Guest of honor was young Migz Villafuerte, entrepreneur and gubernatorial hopeful.
A 1939 plaque of the Philippine Historical Committee informs the visitor that the first church burned down in 1585, while a second was damaged by a typhoon and destroyed by fire. The same fate awaited a third church constructed in 1727. The present church, along with the two belfries, was built shortly afterwards.
The parish has since been repainted in modern pastel colors but retains its majesty, accented by the two belfries. The watch tower in front shows signs of wear-and-tear, but remains charming with its sculptural heads of little cherubs.
City Hall has been relocated elsewhere but the old building, in need of restoration for some other purpose (a call center or hotel), retains its air of decaying colonial splendor.
One hopes that they will not renovate it in the same way that the Art Deco Jai-alai building in Manila was demolished and recreated into a nondescript modern building, during the term of Mayor Lito Atienza.
Iriga lies 478 kilometers south of Manila, bracketed by Naga City in Camarines Sur and Legazpi City in Albay.
The place to stay in the city is the Iriga Plaza, an elegant and tastefully decorated boutique hotel with fan-shaped windows, translucent curtains, a porthole which approximates a flower in bloom; and mini-chandeliers with capiz shells.
The city has two volcanoes, Mt. Asog (where a rare and endangered flower specie, Rafflesia irigaense, has been found) and Mt. Isarog; two big universities, the University of St. Anthony of Padua and the University of Northeastern Philippines; a Gawad Kalinga Character Village; and a kind of museum known as “Nora Aunor’s Nook” (the superstar was born and raised here).
Iriga lacks a night life, strange for a city that is rapidly progressing. But you can have beer in the hotels and sing in the discreetly located videokes. Singing “My Way,” however, is a no-no, because the NPAs who are supposed to infest the province just might shoot up the place.
The foundation anniversary celebrations lasted for five days, and emphasized sports and physical activity.
These included a Fun Walk, medical mission, tree planting, the Mt. Asog Extreme Bike Challenge, a bar association exhibition game, billiards tournament, scouts run, shootfest, a civic-military parade and finally a pop-rock concert.
The parade drew contingents, including prancing children, from all over CamSur.
Before the parade there was a rousing dancefest featuring folk dancing, choral singing, modern ballet, hip-hop, gymnastics and an interpretive tribute to the late Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo, a Bicolano, and of course a tribute to Bicolandia’s patron, Nuestra Señora de Peñafrancia.
All these activities took place under the watchful eye of Our Lady, high up in her Emerald Grotto.