September 19, 2008 / 9:09 AM / 10 years ago

Manila's historic Spanish quarter to get a makeover

MANILA (Reuters Life!) - It outlasted centuries of colonial Spanish rule, was almost wiped out in World War Two, and now the historic, and neglected, heart of Manila is poised to beat again under a widescale restoration plan.

A view of the San Agustin Church, one of the four baroque churches in the Philippines, inside Intramuros, Manila August 21, 2008. REUTERS/John Javellana

The 16th century quarter of Intramuros, translated as “within the walls”, is located along the south bank of the Pasig River and was the fortress-like district from where the Spanish ruled the Philippines for over three centuries.

Yet despite its rich history, it rarely features on the itinerary of tourists to the country, who often prefer to skip crowded Manila altogether and head to the tropical beaches.

In a bid to attract visitors, the Intramuros Administration, with a new team, is reviving a plan to clean-up and preserve the quarter, which includes structural repairs as well as removing squatters and making it more secure.

“In September, we intend to put a roof over the Almacenes Reales and some windows, so it can be used,” said Anna Maria Harper, the new head of the administration, referring to the former royal warehouse at the area’s Fort Santiago.

“It’s not quite a restoration, but it’s a pity to have something like that and not do anything with it,” she said, adding that there are also plans for a museum in the area.

Many of the structures within Intramuros were reduced to rubble during the bombardment of Manila in World War Two. Some buildings, especially the former barracks and the dungeons, were used by occupying Japanese forces as prisons.

After Warsaw in Poland, the Philippines’ capital suffered the worse destruction during the conflict.

One of the buildings still standing is the Manila Cathedral, a colossal stone structure reworked in the 1950s.

Nearby, San Agustin, the oldest Baroque church in the Philippines built in the late 1500s, is also largely intact and is cherished by historians and locals for its hand-painted interior and intricately carved wooden doors.

But other structures are not as lucky.

The Convent of Santa Clara, once renowned for its reclusive nuns, is now an abandoned lot. Another church, once used as a warehouse after the Second World War, is now little more than a bombed-out shell, with young boys playing in overgrown plants where the floor used to be.

Throughout Intramuros, modern roads have been built over the old cobblestone streets, and gutters are stuffed with refuse. Crime from bordering neighborhoods spills into the quarter, raising concerns about safety.

But many in Manila hope that cleaning up Intramuros will finally bring it the recognition it deserves.

“Once the clearing up is complete, then poverty and crime decreases,” said Carlos Celdran, a history enthusiast who leads walking tours in Manila. “Then there will be a boom.”

Editing by Miral Fahmy

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