The Reunion: Not all that happens in Bacolod, stays in Bacolod

If you’ve got a weekend to get away, hop on a plane to Bacolod City and go on a heritage, art and food adventure. That’s what I did last March 3-5 with over 20 of my former college dormmates.

On a factory tour at BongBong’s, we got to make our own piaya—the sweet flatbread that’s synonymous to Bacolod—filling the dough with muscovado, rolling it flat, baking it on a griddle, and then eating the fruits of either our successes or failures.

All this while behind us, a machine—completely stress-free—did the same filling and shaping of dough much faster in an assembly line for flawless mass production.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that when anything akin to a photo wall appears, you make a run for it. So at the Bacolod City Hall, we all jumped out of our bus when we saw the city’s name carved out in giant Insta-worthy red letters.

Balm for the soul was the next stop, Punong Gary’s Place, a leafy waterside enclave accessed through a tree-canopied path. Its tranquility was broken only by the clicking of our phone cameras, and later, by the lectures we got on brain surgery from our doctor friend Emil, and on immigration from former expatriate Raymund, which we digested with our lunch.

Heritage houses

A trip to Bacolod is not complete without a visit to the nearby heritage houses, foremost of which is The Ruins, the mansion of sugar baron Don Mariano Ledesma Lacson in Talisay City. This “Taj Mahal of Negros” was built in honor of his first wife, Maria Braga, who died in 1911 while pregnant with their 11th child.

The largest residence ever built at the time, the Italian-style building with neo-Romanesque columns survived its World War II torching by US forces and Filipino guerilla fighters aiming to prevent its use as headquarters by the Japanese invaders.

It was in this structure where I torpedoed my chances of video stardom when, distracted, I failed to strike a pose when the tour guide’s phone panned to my pillar to take my part of the video of our visit.

In next-door Silay City, the Manuel Severino Hofileña Ancestral House on Cinco de Noviembre St. was built in art deco style in 1934.

Hofileña’s son Rene showed us the family’s collection of paintings and heirlooms including a 3,000-year-old Israeli oil juglet gifted to the family, the world’s smallest dolls and—with a naughty look—the piano downstairs which he said was “out of tune at night.”

He said actor Rey “PJ” Abellana and daughter Carla were clan members.

Standing out among Negros Occidental’s heritage houses, though, is one named after a woman, Enrica “Tana Dicang” Alunan Lizares.

Proof of her influence is the matriarch photographed in no-nonsense terno and shades, seated between President Manuel Quezon and Vice President Sergio Osmeña Sr. during their visit to her house in Talisay City.

A stone house built around the 1880s, “Balay ni Tana Dicang” features meeting rooms, a trapdoor under her bed through which she could disappear if she didn’t want to see visitors, and—in the era before CCTV—small holes on the upper floor of the house through which she could see her workers below.

Tana Dicang gave birth to 17 children, lost three in infancy, adopted the ancestor of future Cabinet official Raffy Alunan, and still had time to run six haciendas (400 hectares each) and a sari-sari store. So it’s worth going over to her house to see how this superwoman lived.

Wine and dine

As for us, ordinary mortals, we stayed at the Circle Inn of our friend Orson, whose function room on Friday night looked fit for a state dinner, complete with singing, dancing and spelling bees by John and Chloe, Masskara dancers by Marigold, and wine brought in by Peter from Cebu (that sparked five announcements over the Mactan-Cebu International Airport’s public address system seeking the owner of the liquid cargo).

The weekend exploration also had us sampling dishes like the kadios, baboy, langka or KBL (pigeon peas, pork and jackfruit soup soured with the batwan fruit), alupi (cassava suman) and treats like Quan’s inday-inday and crunchy stuffed panara, as well as Emma Lacson’s empanada and pili squares.

That’s on top of the barbecue and seafood spread that was Saturday dinner under a tent in the garden of Orson’s home.

Did you know that U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur of “I shall return” fame went to Silay City? Well, a photo at Casa A. Gamboa, a 1939 mostly wooden structure built by Aguinaldo and Alicia Gamboa that we visited Sunday, showed the general descending the stairs of the 42-door house.

The couple’s granddaughter Reena said the structure housed a Japanese colonel during World War II and three American generals when it became the headquarters of the 5th American Division.

Over lunch at Ilaya Highland Resort, we exchanged banter, extra in its hilarity, amid the crisp mountain air and the backdrop of lush lawns and villas—our gratitude to God for the blessing of our friendship overflowing at the mass with Fr. Rene back at the hotel.

Lunch at Imay’s and dinner at Maria Kucina Familia (with after-dinner drinks at Quedan) bookended the three-day Ateneo de Manila University Cervini-Eliazo Bacolod 2023 reunion arranged by our hosts Orson Ong, Angelie Yulo, Carla Cuenca, Chloe Medalla, Pinky Corona, Jennifer Go-Ong, and siblings Irwin, Geoffrey and Marigold Ponce, who pulled off a fun-filled escapade, images of which are still clogging our Viber group’s chat space.