Every second Friday of September tens of thousands of ardent pilgrims and tourists struck with wanderlust flock to Naga City filling hotels, restaurants and booking rooms for a festival in honor of Our Lady of Peñafrancia, the Patroness of Bicol. It is a celebration that culminates on the third Sunday of September, when the Divino Rostro (“Divine/Holy Face”) and the image of Our Lady of Peñafracia are brought to the venue (Naga Cathedral) for the Traslacion. This follows nine days of novenas at the shrine and accommodations are made for the supplicants; bishops and delegates from other dioceses attend a High Mass celebrated by archbishops outside the shrine to commemorate the feast of the Divino Rostro.
The events this year are the grandest to date, starting off with the Miss Bicolandia Pageant on the 5th of September, where a bevy of beautiful women and their handlers chatting in coffee houses and rehearsing questions in various restaurants become a common sight. The venue for this year is the JMR Coliseum and this is a much lauded even by local hopefuls dreaming of making in big. This is the time of the year when Bicolanos in Manila or abroad make reservations months in advance, so rooms are guaranteed because this is the only time before the Christmas season when they are reunited with their families. This is a time when parties, debuts and destination weddings, where hotels and restaurants offer wedding packages and promotions to accommodate the influx of clients. The Penitential Procession of the Image of Our Lady of Peñafracia or ‘Ina’ (as the locals call her) begins early morning on September 7th starting from Peñafracia Basilica, where the image housed in a private room, to the old Peñafracia Shrine, the original venue of the feast. The Traslacion begins after mass at noon the same day, where the image is taken at a stately pace to the Naga Metropolitan Cathedral passing the narrow street filled with vendors and pop-up restaurants ready to accommodate the tired and hungry participating in the procession with fares as simple as a cup of brewed coffee, sweetened with coconut sugar, which is a local favorite. The most anticipated events, from a leisure perspective occurs on September 13th, the Civic Parade of the Government workers, and different associations, and organizations in Bicol, and the Float Parade that is joined by hundreds of floats, honoring Ina – the Voyadores Grand Parade. The venue for this event starts at Panganiban Drive and ends at Plaza Quezon. The night before you see hundreds of people working on their ornate floats burning the midnight oil, consuming coffee by the gallons, and street vendors and hawkers ply their wares, while restaurants and hotels extend operating hours providing accommodations for the hungry army. For the millennials, the event that arouses their excitement is the Festival Street and Pilgrims Dance Competition, where dance troupes perform elaborate displays of agility rehearsed months ahead of the competition.
Tourists wishing to partake of this bacchanalia need to place reservations months in advance because most hotels and venues are already booked a month before the festivities. While religious fervor is the impetus and pretext of the celebration it is the pageantry and feasts done in hotels, restaurants and other venues that delight the senses and forever brand this tradition in our collective consciousness, and it is as natural to us as taking our morning coffee. The Bicolano cuisine is among the most popular and robust celebrated in restaurants and hotels across the country, and this is front and center of the festivities, where households and vendors deliver their own ‘procession’ of gastronomic delights. From spicy appetizers like the ‘Kinunot’ (a dish made from sting ray meat, red and green chilis and coconut milk) and ‘Labong’ (bamboo shoots simmered in coconut cream, garlic and ginger) to the ubiquitous ‘Bicol Express’ (made from off-cuts of pork, lemon grass, fermented shrimp, chilis and coconut milk) and ‘Tilmok’ (coconut and crabmeat sautéed in garlic, onions, chilis and coconut cream then stuffed into an empty crab shell). Bicolanos have become masters in bringing out subtle nuances of flavor from the chili and then cooling it down with coconut milk and imparting a velvety and creamy texture to all their dishes, and it is these two ingredients that prop up the culinary temple that is Bicolano cuisine, fiery dishes that many believe impart their heat to the demeanor and passion of the Bicolano people.
These signature dishes and many more for the offering will be enough to fill the nine days of festivities and the culinary parade will provide fresh fuel to a week-long holiday filled with various activities and literal processions enough to keep even the most active and avid tourist occupied. A time when local hotels, restaurants and household open their doors to the people and accommodations and venues are altered to reflect the rich tradition of Naga City, and Bicol as a whole, a perfect stew of Spanish, Chinese and Native influences. In the end, the Peñafrancia Festival is a perfect intersection of taste and activity with each experience building on the other and forms a perfect metaphor and mosaic of human interaction of salt of the earth people and unpretentious delicious food that delivers a truly unique experience.