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Sit back and let marvellous Macau pander to your softer side
3:54pm Thursday 29th August 2013 in Travel
Swimming in the warm rain high above Macau made me realise I was not a fish out water after all, writes Lesley Bellew.
Here, in the city that has eclipsed Las Vegas in the gambling stakes, I decided to play the cultural card.
While giant cherub fountains massaged my back in the hotel’s rooftop pool I watched ancient fishing boats bobbing in the harbour and made my plan to head straight over to Macau’s historic centre.
A Portuguese colony until 1999, Macau’s temples and churches, fortresses and piazzas blend into a rich multicultural landscape containing 25 UNESCO World Heritage sites.
At the elaborate A-Ma Temple a sea of worshippers threw money into boxes at the foot of the altar. Women put their designer handbags to one side as they knelt at the temple praying for prosperity while the nouveau riche in their diamond-studded platform shoes and designer dresses held incense burners, displaying their wealth as they worshipped – and then dashed off. There was no time for lengthy contemplation here.
A-Ma, the seafarers’ goddess, was a poor girl needing a passage to Canton, according the legend. Wealthy junk owners ignored her pleas but a lowly fisherman took her on board. A storm blew up, wrecking all ships but theirs. On arrival in Macau, she vanished only to reappear as a goddess where fishermen had built a temple, facing the sea, in her name.
There are no set times for prayer and no communal services, so worshippers visit when it suits them to make an offering. The queue never ends such is the Chinese fixation with good fortune.
Macau’s heritage sites are in a cluster so you can walk from one to another while you get your head round the mix of Eastern and European cultures along the way. In the heart of the city are the remains of Macau’s first church and university, St Paul’s. Built in 1652 by the Jesuits, the grand staircase leading to the highly decorated stone façade is now the city’s symbolic altar.
From here you have a view of downtown where the Grand Lisboa Hotel, in the shape of a giant wave rising from the sea, dominates the skyline.
Narrow side streets from St Paul’s to Senator Square are buzzing with food stalls and shops selling dried meat snacks and almond cookies. Turn into the square and be prepared for a culture shock as East meets West in a stunning piazza, complete with traditional Portuguese black and white tiled paving in swirling patterns. Neo-classical buildings in pastel colours and fountains create a rather disconcerting but welcoming Mediterranean vibe.
It’s also an excuse to stop for Chinese almond cake or pastel de nata, the Portuguese egg tart. Try both.
By following the old city walls to the 17th century Portuguese fort, built as a defence against Dutch and other invaders, visitors so reach an area of former merchant houses, another throwback to Macau’s important trading link between China and the West.
Close-by is the Old Protestant Cemetery where birdsong is the only sound in a walled-garden sheltered from the city’s noise and neon lights.
Trees shade the graves of two Royal Navy captains; the distinguished Sir Humphrey Fleming Senhouse, who died, aged 63, on HMS Blenheim in 1844. Sir Henry had fought alongside Lord Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar but was struck by fever after ‘arduous efforts at the capture of the Heights of Canton’. Lord Henry John Spencer-Churchill, the son of the 5th Duke of Marlborough and great-great-grand uncle of Winston Churchill, suffered the same fate in 1840, aged 43, while in command of HMS Druid.
A huge memorial tablet commemorates the life of artist George Chinnery who lived in Macau from 1825 until his death in 1852. Chinnery was the only western painter resident in South China so his vivid depictions of ordinary people, street life and the Pearl River Delta are historically valuable.
Street markets remain part of life and the main Red Market, a three-storey 1930s building, is worth a look to watch locals buying everything from fruit and veg to flowers and live poultry.
The flowers are brought in from China, just across the water. Close to the Sofitel Hotel, at Ponte 16, and you can watch the quayside flower market at 7am every day. The ferry is met by women who snap up the exotic blooms for the hotels, casinos, shops and Red Market. It’s a 15-minute spectacle as huge bundles of flowers protected by cardboard are snapped up. Lillies, gerberas, bird of paradise stems and chrysanthemums flash past as the women throw the flowers onto their shoulders and load them on to flatbed trucks so they can be whisked away before the temperature rises.
Macau can be humid but the shopping malls, hotels and restaurants are all air-conditioned. Even thesmaller eating houses know it is a must to attract discerning customers.
It was almost freezing on entering Casa de Antonio restaurant, run by Portuguese chef Antionio Coelho. He prides himself on serving authentic dishes including sauteed clams, deep-fried codfish cakes and black pork fillets but when it comes to the desserts his party piece is to almost set the place alight with the booziest crepes suzettes. The air-con then came into its own. All washed down with the best Portuguese wine in town a visit to Antonio’s was a tantalising treat in, oh yes, the Far East.
Antonio’s is on Taipa Island, linked to the main peninsular by a mile-long bridge. It was on this part of the island that I felt I had really begun to play the game of chance. These were high stakes – would the giant pandas at Seac Pai Van Park be awake?
Kai Kai and Xin Xin were presented to Macau in 2009, on the 10th anniversary of Macau becoming a Special Administrative Region of China (like Hong Kong it operates a capitalist economy).
It was time to play the ace. Get there when the pandas will want their elevenses was the recommendation. It was a long way to come, via Hong Kong and a 40-mile ferry ride, but when in Macau, gamble.
The suitably giant pavilion, all 12,600sq m was a hilly landscape with streams and rocks, trees and shrubbery to make the special ones feel at home.
Good fortune was mine. Five-year-old Xin Xin was at the top of the enclosure, almost hyperactive by panda standards, munching bamboo at the rate of 30 seconds a cane. There was nothing slow about this young Miss and once she had devoured that part of her lunch she started to pad her way down to say hello. Well, not exactly, but by then I was getting a little carried away.
She stopped within two metres, rolled on her back, munched some more, showed off her teeth and posed for the camera.
One person in Macau had hit the jackpot.
Factfile: Flights: Cathay Pacific flies from Heathrow to Hong Kong four times a day. Fares from £649 in economy inc taxes. Visit www.cathaypacific.co.uk. Book a Turbojet ferry from HK airport to Macau in advance at www.turbojetbooking.com.
Accommodation: Sofitel Macau at Ponte 16 offers rooms from £115 per night. It is close to the historic centre and breakfasts are akin to a banquet. Visit www.sofitelmacau.com.
Tourist information at www.macautourism.gov.mo.
The Macau Food Festival takes place from November 8-24 at Sai Van Lake, opposite the 338m Macau Tower. Asian, European and Macanese delicacies will be served and there will be demonstrations, live music, competitions and street stalls to celebrate all that is best in Macau's gastronomic heartland.
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