Portuguese history, gambling and its own cuisine
MACAU: Here, on a tiny territory one can see provincial China, old Portugal and luxury glam of Las Vegas and Dubai at a time. Macau is a former Portuguese colony located on a peninsula and two islands at the mouth of The Pearl River (Zhu Jiang), and, since 1999, Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China, where, under the policy of “one country, two systems”, it maintains its own legal system and Portuguese as one of the two official languages.
East is east, and west is west, and here the twain meets. James Bond creator Ian Fleming took a trip around the world visiting “the most exciting cities in the world” and writing a series of articles about his travel impressions. Macau was one of the chosen and the articles originally written for the London paper made it into a book titled “Thrilling Cities”, first published in 1963. Macau is really thrilling.
Old and new. Yet it is still undeniably the East. Within a short distance one can find Taoist temples of the Ming Dynasty and baroque churches from the 18th century; Dom Pedro V theatre built in 1860 as the first western-style theatre in the East, and neon-lit casinos; dusky markets and soaring high rise; colonial palaces and Chinese courtyards – a wonderful mix of Europe and Orient, old and new.
Macau embraces an amazing range of architectural styles ranging from a Moorish barracks integrating architectural elements of Moghul influence – built by the Portuguese in 1874. Turn a corner and you could be in Portugal; cross a square and you are in China. If you want to evoke Europe, explore Largo do Senado (Senate Square) with its quintessential Portuguese architecture and a wave-patterned calçada.
An altar of the city. The most iconic attraction and Macau landmark is the Ruins of St. Paul’s, which rear up dramatically from a small hill in the heart of the old city. Built by the Jesuits between 1602 and 1640, the cathedral was the largest Catholic Church in Asia at the time. The fire destroyed it in 1835, and only its great-carved stone façade remains.
Goddess of the Sea. At the south-western end of the peninsula, one of Macau’s best-known landmarks and the one to which it owes its name, is A-Ma Temple (Goddess of the Sea). It was erected in 1448, prior to arrival of the first Portuguese, and is considered to be the oldest in Macau.
Great poet’s legacy. If the A-Ma Temple is a Chinese prelude to Macau history, the Portuguese one is Luís de Camões Garden with its grotto, in the northwestern part of the city. The garden and grotto honour the most famous Portuguese poet who lived in Macau in 1557. According to tradition, Camões penned some parts of his great epic poem Os Lusiadas in this rocky grotto. The bust of the poet is installed there, close to stone slabs inscribed with pieces of his poetry. This romantic garden comes alive in the mornings with dozens of men and women practicing Tai Chi.
Gambling is Macau. Macau is Gambling. What in Macau attracted Ian Fleming the most was the gambling. While in Mainland China and Hong Kong gambling is strictly prohibited, for more than 170 years, the former Portuguese colony has been a gambling Mecca. In Ian Fleming’s times, the biggest and most luxurious casino was imposing nine-story Central Hotel. And it was, as James Bond creator wrote, “the largest house of gambling and self indulgence in the world”. Now the hotel still functions in Avenida de Almeida Ribeiro but has lost all its charm and has become a seedy two-star lodging.
Moviemakers’ heaven. Moviemakers love Macau for its authentic and exotic atmosphere as well. A scene in “2046”, a romantic drama written and directed by Wong Kar-wai was filmed in San Va Hotel. Macau is also featured in “The Man With the Golden Gun” (Ian Fleming not only described the city in his travelogue, but also sent 007 there), “Johnny English Reborn”, and film parodying the James Bond genre and starring Rowan Atkinson, “Around the World in 80 Days”.
Fusion. Chinese cuisine in Macau is represented in Cantonese style with regional specialties. Since the Cantonese are the most predominant cultural group in Macau, Cantonese food (one of the eight regional foods in China) forms the backbone of home cooking and dine-out scenes.
Macau has developed its own cuisine, Macanese. When the Portuguese arrived they brought foodstuffs and cooking ideas from their settlements in Africa and India as well as from home. These were combined and adapted by local Chinese to create a truly fusion cuisine. Macanese fare is a combination of Portuguese and Cantonese cuisines flavoured with spices like turmeric, chilli peppers and cinnamon, coconut milk and piri-piri sauce, giving special aromas and tastes. Macau is really thrilling.
Make it Happen!
Touch Down: The nearest major international airport is Hong Kong (Macau has an airport serving Mainland China and Southeast Asia. There are regular hydrofoil ferries to Macau, which take about one hour from central Hong Kong (turbojet.com.hk). It is also possible to get a ferry from Hong Kong airport. Some big hotels and entertainment/gambling centres in Macau offer free shuttle bus service to and from airport and turbojet wharf.
Stay: Sofitel Macau at Ponte 16 Hotel, situated on Macau's picturesque waterfront in a walking distance from historical centre, and The Banyan Tree (part of the Galaxy Hotel and Casino) on Cotai Strip offering relaxing deluxe atmosphere and a pool with artificial waves.
Eat: The best option is a three star Michelin restaurant Robuchon au Dôme, situated at Grand Lisboa Hotel in a vaulted glass dome with a magnificent view of Macau. But the lavish dining room never overshadows the food. The contemporary French menu is as luxurious as the furnishings. And the epic wine list features over 14,600 labels and is claimed to be the most extensive collection in the whole of Asia. A must try in Macau - might be the cheapest Michelin starred restaurant ever to exist! Book well in advance! From the open-air street stalls and inexpensive dim sum and noodles eateries to the most upscale restaurants, Macau provides an unlimited variety of Cantonese food in every class. But try hot pot, the Chinese version of fondue, at Seasons Hot Pot at Fisherman's Wharf. Hot pot goes excellently with warm Huangjiu (literary “yellow wine”), Chinese rice wine. The best Portuguese is Casa do António (widely known as just António) in Old Taipa Village, Taipa. The restaurant bears the name of its chef António Coelho, a cooking celebrity in Macau. The menu comprises a number of classic Portuguese courses, such as Caldo Verde (green vegetable soup), Arroz de Mariscos (seafood rice), Chouriços (grilled sausages) and Leitão Assado (roasted suckling pig). Best Pasteis de nata at Lord Stows Bakery in Coloane. For the authentic Macanese cuisine, one should go to restaurant O Porto Interior at the Inner Harbour. The must is Gambas a Macau (Grilled King Prawns Macanese Style), giant dragon prawns in a sauce made of white wine, red chilli peppers, shallot, spring onion, garlic, bay leaves and butter. Local Macau Beer makes the best pairing. Don’t miss the most popular local dessert Serradura (Macau sawdust pudding), made of whipping cream, Marie biscuits, condensed milk and vanilla essence. Quite simple, but tasty!
Play: Grand Lisboa is the tallest building in Macau and a casino offers 800 mass gaming tables and 1,000 slot machines. Another hot spot is Cotai Strip with mega hotels, shopping and great entertainment. The Venetian Macao is the largest casino in the world, and the largest single structure hotel building in Asia. No surprise that Macau's gambling industry is seven times bigger than Las Vegas!
Mini Guide: Macau is a bargain-hunter's dream, whether you are looking for cameras, porcelain, electronics, mobiles, watches or cashmere and silk clothing. Gold, silver, pearls, precious and semi-precious stones are all imported duty free. Asia and Europe walk hand in hand along Macau streets.