On the face of it, Silay, about 14km north of Bacolod, is just another grimy, hard-scrabble town. Who would suspect that it once wore the appellation `the Paris of Negros'? Such are the fortunes of sugar.
Silay first tasted sweet success when a French resident planted sugarcane in the 1850s, and its pier swiftly became an international port of call. Silay's golden age was between 1880 and 1930, when its 31 recognised `ancestral homes' were built. The haciendas of Silay were bastions of refinement and privilege, and in the early 1900s the town became the place for European musicians and artists to hang out. But it wasn't to last. The combination of growth in nearby Bacolod, damage wrought in WWII, and the development of the sugar industry overseas resulted in a decline in Silay's cultural and industrial activity.
The staff at Silay's tourist office (%495 5145/ 0061; fax 495 0587; Green House, Plaridel St; h8am-noon & 1-5pm Mon-Fri) are extremely helpful. There are PNB and BPI banks in town:
BPI (cnr J Pitong Ledesma St & National Rd)
PNB (National Rd)
SIGHTS & ACTIVITIES
Silay's past has been preserved in the form of three grand ancestral homes, providing a glimpse of vanished splendour. Two are run as museums, and one is still occupied.
Built in 1908, Bernardino Jalandoni Ancestral House (%495 5093; National Rd; adult/child P30/20; h10am-5pm Tue-Sun) is affectionately known as `The Pink House'. Apart from the paint job, the building is said to be virtually unchanged from the days when it was home to the Jalandoni family. On display are Japanese government banknotes from the days of occupation, a 1907 Steinway piano and dozens of Ken and Barbie dolls in various historical costumes. The furniture and objets d'art on the 2nd floor are the best preserved and most tastefully displayed of the historical items in the two museums.
Also known as the Victor Gaston Ancestral Home, Balay Negrenese Museum (%495 4916; Cinco de Novembre St; adult/child P30/10; h10am- 6pm Tue-Sun) is a beautiful house built of balayong hardwood in 1901. Victor's father, Yves Leopold Germain Gaston, is credited with being the first to cultivate sugarcane commercially in the region. The house has been painstakingly restored, and furnished with period pieces donated by locals. The bevelled-glass windows and Chinese-carved lattice work are original.
The stately Hofileña Ancestral Home (%495 4561; Cinco de Novembre St; visits by appointment with owner) contains one of the Philippines' finest art collections, as well as antiques belonging to one of Silay's principal families, the Hofileña family. The house is now owned by the charismatic and loquacious Ramon Hofileña, a tireless preserver of Negros' cultural heritage. If you book ahead, Ramon will proudly show you around his house, including his collection of paintings by seminal Filipino artists.
For almost 30 years, Ramon has run the Annual Cultural Tour Of Negros Occidental (tours around P400). The three one-day tours are scheduled in December, and take in attractions from the nearby region, including the famous Church of St Joseph the Worker at the Victorias Milling Company (see p290 ).
On the main road through town, the silverdomed Church of San Diego was designed by an Italian called Verasconi. It was built in Romanesque style in 1925 and is topped by a crucifix that, when lit at night, is visible far out to sea.
No visit to Silay would be complete without sampling the delicacies of El Ideal Bakery.
FESTIVALS & EVENTS
Charter-day anniversary (5-12 Jun) A week-long fiesta.
San Diego Fiesta (6-13 Nov) Includes a colourful streetdance competition.
SLEEPING & EATING
Fortuna Pension House (%495 3981; fortuna_pen firstname.lastname@example.org; r P400-1000) One of the 31 recognised ancestral houses, it has been converted, with minimal alteration, to accommodate guests. This stately wooden home set in farmlands offers a glimpse of hacienda living, but with a friendly homely feel. There's a range of accommodation, from simple rooms to entire floors, but most have a hot-water bathroom. Breakfast is the only meal available (P180). Fortuna is less than a kilometre south of the city - turn left at José Locsin, pass the José Locsin Provincial Hospital and follow the signs. A tricycle will cost P10.
Baldevia Pension House (%495 0272/5140; bph@ babysky. net. ph; National Rd; r with fan P350, r with air-con P600-1200) Conveniently positioned off the main drag, just near the bus and jeepney terminals. It has comfortable, tiled rooms with spotless hot-water bathrooms. Fan rooms are often booked up. Attached to the hotel is the Food Stuff café, which does a good toasted sandwich (P50 to P80).
Ang Kalubihan (mains P50-80; h3-10pm) This is a breezy outdoor eatery under a stand of coconut palms. On a warm clear night it's a great place for a barbecue and a beer.
El Ideal Bakery (National Rd; h7am-6.30pm) Just south of the public plaza, in one of the less prepossessing ancestral houses, is the home and birthplace of many of the delicacies for which Silay has become famous. The bakery was set up in 1935, during Silay's heyday, to provide snacks for the wealthy gamblers who couldn't drag themselves away from the table. Some of the bakery's famous creations include lumpia ubod (spring rolls filled with pork, shrimp and the juicy tip of the coconut palm) and piaya (flat bread sprinkled with brown sugar and sesame seeds). Our favourites were the guapple(large guava) pies and the egg pies (P20 each). Delicious.
For cheaper imitations, go to the public market between 6.30am and 7.30am Monday to Saturday, and you'll see people bartering their baked goods with each other before heading off to sell them in Bacolod and neighbouring areas.
GETTING THERE & AWAY
Both buses and jeepneys travel between Silay and Bacolod (P11, 30 minutes). In Silay, all buses and jeepneys heading north and south stop along Rizal St. From Silay, there are buses all day stopping at the coastal towns towards San Carlos (P90, three hours).
There could be few more handsome or artistically gifted families in the Philippines than that of Ramon Hofileña. The photos of his eight brothers and sisters, which grace the antique, ivorykeyed piano in his waiting room, show performance shots of classical musicians, singers, actors and dancers, and even a fin de siecle beauty queen. Ramon will waste no time listing their accomplishments, or indeed his own, but the list is so impressive one can hardly begrudge him reciting it.
But don't be fooled into thinking this family is a mere theatre troupe. The Hofileña roll-call also counts revolutionaries, shipping magnates and one of the original Silay sugar barons - Ramon's father Manuel Severino. When you speak with the irrepressible Ramon, 75, in his graceful ancestral home, you begin to appreciate what a cultural flowering the golden age of sugar was for Silay.
Though an artist and writer himself, Ramon's greatest achievements have been in preserving and promoting the works of others. As he tells it, when he returned to Silay from New York in the 1970s, he found it so down-at-heel and neglected that it set him on a life-long path of restoration and heritage protection, beginning with but not limited to his own home, the first in Silay to be opened to the public.
Arguably just as impressive as his preservation of Silay's heritage, though, has been his work in collecting and publicising Filipino art. His rotating private collection, which he will gladly show you, is a who's who of Filipino painter laureates. It includes paintings by Juan Luna, Jose Rizal, and a number of works by the late Conrado Judith, an impoverished, self-taught genius who was `discovered' by Ramon and whose vivid and perfectly realised paintings would not look out of place in any major metropolitan gallery.
Anyone may visit Ramon, his house and his private collection by appointment.
Article & Photo Source: The Lonely Planet Publications (www.lonelyplanet.com)