Sagada is a small town sitting on the mountain slopes of Mountain Province in the northern Philippines. Though relatively remote, it is considered one of the best tourist destinations for people looking for a peaceful and quiet rest amid a picturesque and unspoiled setting.
The town is 275 km to the north of Manila, and since it has no airports, the only way to get there is by car or bus. From Manila, you can take either of two routes –one is via Baguio, the summer capital of the country, and the other is through Banawe, where the UNESCO World Heritage Site rice terraces are. Both places are also worth visiting so most tourists take one way going to Sagada and the other coming back.
Arriving in Sagada, the first thing you will notice is the smell of pines which cover most of the mountainsides. There is virtually no pollution in town. With a population of only approximately 10,000 souls who prefer walking to wherever they are going, you rarely hear the roar of engines. In fact, you can walk in the middle of the road for most of the day.
It’s not only pollution that you’ll miss in Sagada. There is also no nightlife. There are no blaring discos and karaoke bars to keep you up late at night, or to distract you if you just want to curl up with a good book.
With an elevation of 1,500 meters, the climate is cooler than in the lowlands. Indeed, it can get rather chilly in the months of December until February when it can drop to 4 degrees C. From March to May, temperatures rise to as high as 30 degrees in the middle of the day, allowing you to enjoy a dip in the pool beneath the Bomod-ok and Bokong Waterfalls.
Walking along the main street of the town, you’ll notice coffins hanging on the sides of the stone cliffs in the distance. If you want to get more acquainted with the long gone, there are also ancient coffins made from carved out tree trunks stacked at cave openings. If you’re lucky, you can even spot a worn out coffin revealing a mummy inside.
If you are feeling a little adventurous, you can go down deep into the bowels of the earth at the Sumaguing Cave. For something a little less exciting, you can go mountain biking or trekking on the town’s numerous mountain trails. You can even camp out and toast marshmallows on bonfires if you want.
In the early mornings, you can enjoy watching the sun rise up from behind the mountains as you alternately draw in the smell of clean morning dew and the aroma of a freshly brewed locally grown Arabica coffee.
San Fermin was the son of a Roman official in Pamplona who was converted to Christianity by Saint Honestus and baptized by Saint Saturninus. He was ordained a priest in Toulouse and later returned to Pamplona as its bishop. Returning to France on a preaching mission in 303 CE, he was beheaded in Amiens, for which reason he is now considered a martyr of the Catholic Church, and, along with Saint Francis Xavier, a patron saint of Navarra.
In Pamplona, the capital city of Navarra, the feast of San Fermin is celebrated from July 6 to 14. Evidence indicates that the feast has been celebrated since the 13th century. Although it was meant to be a religious celebration, over the years, dancing, music, drinking, street theaters, and rowdy revelry began to be incorporated into the festivities. Indeed, as early as the 17th century, the clergy were complaining of the loss of the religious significance of the event.
Bull running, called encierro in Spain, also began to appear during the feast of Saint Fermin as early as the 14th century. According to Spanish tradition, bull running began out of the need to transport cattle to the market for sale. To speed up the animals, men bullied, browbeat, and even frightened them. Since the first to arrive at the market would get the best location, their owners became adept at hurrying the cattle, and over time, this turned into a competition.
Bull runs are held in several cities and towns in Spain, Portugal, France, Mexico, and even Nevada, but the most famous of these, thanks to Ernest Hemingway, is the Pamplona bull run.
The Pamplona run is held everyday from July 7 to 14. Before it begins, the participants (who could be anybody who is at least 18 years old) intone a benediction, first in Spanish and then in Basque, seeking the blessing and protection of San Fermin. The runners dress in the traditional white shirt and pants, with red neckerchiefs and waistbands.
A rocket is fired at exactly 8:00 am which signals that the gate of the Santo Domingo corral is opened. A second rocket tells the runners that six bulls have been released and that they should begin running. From the corral they head to the Plaza del Ayuntamiento, sprint down Calle Estafeta until Curva de Telefonica, and into the bullring at Plaza de Toros.
A third rocket is fired once the bulls reach the bullring, and a fourth signals that they are already in their pens and that the run is completed. The distance of the run is 826 meters, and is usually completed in approximately 20 minutes running at an average speed of 24 kph.
If you are intimidated by the bulls, you can still enjoy watching the bull run from behind the fences. Be sure to arrive early though, perhaps as early as 6:30, to get a good spot. If you are the friendly kind, you can sweet talk one of the locals who have a house with a balcony overlooking the route of the run into inviting you in.
There is an enduring legend, despite its dismissal by many historians, that Mary Magdalene arrived in the south of France having either fled or been exiled from Israel. She is said to have landed with Martha, Lazarus, Maximin (others also specify Joseph of Arimathea) and other Christians along the coast of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur. The place is now called Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer or St. Marys of the Sea. Mary preached the Gospel among the Gauls, but in the last thirty years of her life, she went to live as a hermit in the Sainte-Baume mountains to the east of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer.
Today the cave is known as the Grotto of Sainte Baume, and there is a commune at the foot of the mountains named in honor of St. Maximin. A large altar has been constructed in the cave where daily masses are said. There is also a reliquary of bones believed to belong to the Magdalene, in addition to the numerous shrines in her honor.
The grotto is about 20 minutes from the center of the commune by car climbing up a winding road, after which you will need to walk a footpath. A leisurely walk will take you about 45 minutes.
Along the way is a former convent that has been converted into a modest hotel called the Hotellerie de la Sainte Baume. It is run by Benedictine nuns of the Sacred Heart, and they offer simple rooms with shared baths. Most of the rooms provide a view of a stunning mountainside scenery. The hotel can accommodate up to 200 pilgrims, who can join the nuns during the five-times-a-day group prayers.
In the middle of Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume stands the Gothic Basilica of Ste. Marie Madeleine. Its construction began in 1295 by Charles II of Anjou, King of Naples, after the discovery of a sarcophagus in a crypt that was believed to hold the remains of Mary in 12 December 1279. Not unexpectedly, the commune began to attract pilgrims hence there was a need for the basilica. This had the blessing of Boniface VIII, who assigned the Dominicans to run the church.
Devotees visiting the Grotto of Sainte Baume also visit the basilica, where the Magdalene’s sarcophagus is on display along with a bronze reliquary that holds her skull. Also in the reliquary is a crystal tube that contains a piece of boned substance purportedly detached from the forehead of the skull. Legend has it that it is a piece of skin from Mary’s head, which was touched by Jesus at the Resurrection.
For devotees of Mary Magdalene, or those who wish to follow up on Dan Brown’s investigations, a visit to Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume can be an edifying experience.