Where China collides with Portugal
Macao, a close neighbour of Hong Kong in more ways than one, is a mesmerising mix of old Portugal and new China; even the signs are in two and sometimes three languages. It was a busy international trading port and Portuguese territory from 1557 to 1999 and is now a Special Administrative Region of China, able to determine many of its own affairs.
Covering eleven square miles and the world’s most densely populate region, Macao offers visitors three highly contrasting areas; the busy and crowded old town with its Portuguese heritage, Cotai , full of casinos and resort hotels, and Coloane, the closest Macao gets to a rural setting.
The major industries are gambling and tourism. It’s hugely wealthy, more so than middle-eastern countries, although this prosperity doesn’t appear to have trickled down to most of the population.
I started my visit in the old town. It’s dominated by the Macau Tower, at just over one thousand feet, it’s one of Asia’s tallest and has a revolving buffet restaurant. Over dinner I admired the night-time scene as well as sampling some of the food that has led to Macao being recognised by UNESCO for its creative gastronomy. The tower is also famous for hosting bungee jumpers who raise significant amounts for charity.
The old town is full of markets, shops, street food outlets, traditional tea rooms and small open areas such as the Lou Lim Ieoc Garden, a haven of peace and relaxation. It was created by a local merchant, Lou Kau, as part of his private residence but is now owned by the Government and is popular with locals. The nearby central ruins of St Paul’s church is one of historic Macao’s biggest attractions, although having been burned down three times, all that remains is the facade.
Close by, but far removed from the hustle and bustle, is the St Lazarus district. Centred on St Lazarus Church it’s Macao’s creative centre, its cobbled streets, colonial houses and tranquillity are ideal for the artists, designers and others who live and work there.
I popped into the Hotel Royal, one of Macao’s traditional business hotels, and enjoyed lunch in Fado, prepared by the renowned Portuguese chef Luis Américo who was responsible for the revival of the hotel’s restaurant.
Linked to downtown Macao by three bridges, Taipa Village was originally home to fishermen. Its narrow streets provide visitors with a taste of Macao’s past and an opportunity to savour its diverse cuisine. I had dinner at Antonio’s, a cosy atmospheric Portuguese restaurant serving authentic food and offering its guests a traditional glass of Port at the end of their meal.
Modern Cotai is often referred to as the Las Vegas of the East and is where visitors can find huge resort hotels, casinos and lavish entertainment. I visited the City of Dreams to see their famous show ‘House of the Dancing Water’. It’s an incredible production mixing elements of Cirque du Soleil with water. The main part of the stage consists of a pool holding nearly four million gallons. The stage itself is divided into eleven parts that fit together but each one can be raised one meter above the surface and dropped to seven meters below. It’s a spectacular and unique experience; if you were only ever to see one show then this must be it.
I also took a gondola ride at the Wynn Palace Hotel and then watched the musical fountain display before heading off for a drive around the area. Like other hotels on the Cotai Strip, the Venetian is modelled on its Las Vegas counterpart, its 39 storey structure containing three thousand suites and the world’s largest casino with eight hundred gambling tables.
In stark contrast, Coloane is as close as Macao gets to sleepy countryside. Seac Pai Van Park is an open area where locals can get away from high-rise city life. The park is home to the Giant Panda Pavilion where the famous inhabitants are kept in air-conditioned comfort for most of the year. Nearby is another famous Macao landmark, Lord Stow’s Bakery. Those familiar with Portuguese cuisine will know that its custard tart ‘pastel de nata’ is a national dish, but it is claimed that the best ones come from the bakery in Coloane. I wouldn’t dispute that.
It’s just another example of how Macao blends its heritage. Portuguese, Chinese and Macanese food, a fusion of flavours brought about by Macao’s Portuguese maritime past, are available everywhere, from street vendors to the eighteen Michelin-star restaurants that call Macao home. There’s simply nowhere else like it.
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