Not just a medical doctor, but also a writer, artist and nationalist, Dr. Jose Rizal was pivotal in the Philippine struggle for independence from Spanish colonial rule. He is also a national hero in the Philippines as I (Merge) discovered in my two-day visit in November 2023 to Manila, the country’s capital.
I had been told by many that Manila was a large crowded city, notorious for brutal traffic, and to really enjoy the Philippines, I needed to go elsewhere in the country. They were right in one aspect – it is large, crowded and traffic-logged. But I am glad I didn’t listen to the naysayers as I discovered plenty to keep me interested and occupied during my time there.
One of the first places I visited was the Intramuros (walled city), the seat of the Spanish government during the colonial period, and the adjacent Rizal Park. Established in the late 16th century, Intramuros was built to protect the colonial government from foreign invasions and local uprisings. The district is surrounded by massive stone walls and moats, a testament to its strategic military significance. Over the centuries, Intramuros has withstood wars, natural disasters, and the test of time. Within the walls of the Intramuros are:
- Fort Santiago, a citadel used by the Spanish military, which later became a prison where many political prisoners, including the national hero Jose Rizal, were detained
- The Manila Cathedral, an iconic church that has been rebuilt several times due to damage from earthquakes and war, and
- San Agustin Church, the oldest stone church in the Philippines, renowned for its architectural and historical significance
And just next door to the Intramuros is Rizal Park, originally called Bagumbayan, and the site at which Jose Rizal was executed on December 30, 1896 at the young age of just 35.
Rizal was educated in Manila, initially at the Ateneo Municipal de Manila, followed by the University of Santo Tomas, where he studied medicine. Later, he traveled extensively, continuing his studies in Europe, notably in Spain, Germany, and France. He was fluent in several languages, including Tagalog, Spanish, Latin, German, French, and English. His time abroad broadened his perspectives and heavily influenced his subsequent writings and activities. His novels “Noli Me Tangere” and “El Filibusterismo,” played a crucial role in igniting Filipino national consciousness against Spanish oppression. When Rizal was executed, his death fueled the Philippine revolution, making him a symbol of nationalism and resistance against colonial rule. His life and works continue to inspire Filipinos in their pursuit of democracy and social justice, and his death anniversary, Rizal Day, is commemorated every December 30 as a national holiday in the Philippines.
I heard quite a lot about Jose Rizal from our tour guides, and two stories in particular, both occurring just before his execution, caught my attention. On the evening of December 29, 1896, the day before he was executed, his mother and sisters came to visit him. As they were leaving, he quietly told them that he had secretly placed two letters in the base of the oil lamp, and they should collect them after his death. The letters were recovered later and found to be addressed to his mother, and to his country. The second one was a poem titled “Mi último adios” or “My Last Farewell.” This has been published and translated widely since then. While the original is held in the National Museum, there are excerpts in the Park. The opening lines of the poem read (translated from Spanish):
Farewell, my adored Land, region of the sun caressed,
Pearl of the Orient Sea, our Eden lost,
With gladness I give you my life, sad and repressed;
And were it more brilliant, more fresh and at its best,
I would still give it to you for your welfare at most
The second interesting story has to do with Rizal’s personal life. At the time of his death, he was in a relationship with an Irish woman, Josephine Bracken, whom he had met during the time he was exiled to the city of Dapitan. Josephine Bracken had originally come to the Philippines with her doctor husband on a mission to eradicate blindness in the local population. Her marriage faltered while in the Philippines, the couple returned to Ireland, and then Josephine Bracken came once again to the Philippines to be with Jose Rizal. As the story goes, at the time of Rizal’s execution, Josephine was pregnant with their child. So on the morning of his death, just mere hours before his execution, a priest married Jose and Josephine. Unfortunately, Rizal’s mother did not accept Josephine as a daughter-in-law, and the relationship never reconciled. Josephine’s misfortune continued as she miscarried the child at seven months. Eventually, Josephine joined the revolutionaries as a nurse.
Contrasting with the 16th century Intramuros is Bonifacio Global City (BGC), a major financial and lifestyle district in Metro Manila, which started construction in the late 1990s/early 2000s. Today, BGC is recognized as one of the most modern and well-planned urban centers in the Philippines, featuring a mix of high-rise buildings, commercial centers, and residential areas, along with parks and open spaces. I visited BGC on my way to the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial which is located just west of the BGC. The land on which BGC is developed was part of the former Fort Bonifacio, which was a major American military base during the American colonial period and after World War II.
The Manila American Cemetery and Memorial, located on a portion of that land, was established to honor American and Allied servicemen who died in the Pacific during the war. Covering 152 beautifully landscaped acres, it is designed as a circular, central memorial, with a chapel, and large limestone hemicycles with rooms. Containing 17,206 graves, it is the largest cemetery of U.S. personnel killed during World War II. These include soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines, with headstones aligned in eleven plots forming a circular pattern. Beyond the graves, the names of over 36,000 missing American and allied servicemen are inscribed on the Tablets of the Missing in several rooms. These walls honor those whose remains were never recovered or identified.
During my time in Manila, I also got to try some of their popular foods. In particular, two of their desserts are very unique. First is halo-halo, which literally translates to “mix-mix.” It has crushed ice and evaporated milk as the base and is topped with a colorful variety of Filipino ingredients. These could include sweet potato, plantain bananas, sago pearls, sweetened beans, coconut, palm fruit, jackfruit, ice cream, caramel syrup and coconut milk, just to name a few. I know it sounds weird, but it actually tastes quite good. The second is bananacue – basically deep-fried bananas coated in caramelized brown sugar and sold on bamboo skewers at street food stalls.
Despite the colossal crowds and trials of traffic, Manila is a destination worth spending time in. Its colourful history rubs shoulders with its optimistic modernity, and the result is both uneasy and intriguing.