Macau: A city layered with cultural quirks

There's more to this vibrant Chinese region than giant casinos, as Tom Peck discovers on a walk through its colonial past

Order a generous slice of Macau and you'd be brave to swallow it whole. This is a historical layer cake of clashing flavours. Long, unremarkable centuries of sleepy ancient Chinese fishing villages infused with a whiff of incense from Taoist temples. A slab of Portuguese colonialism – rich, centuries-thick and packed with spices. And on top, a great slathered-on crust of neon candy – luminescent pink, saccharine sweet, saliva-inducing.

But then, why not take the risk? Macau, after all, is a city that loves you if you double down. Red or black? Stick or twist? When the Sands Casino Resort opened here in 2004 – the city's first giant leap down the now well-trodden path towards Las Vegas – a 15,000-strong crowd desperate to get to the tables broke through the plate glass doors before the ribbon cutters could get there. This is a special administrative region of China – along with Hong Kong, which is about 40 miles east across the Pearl River delta – and it was a Portuguese colony until as late as 1999.

Nowhere is this odd but intoxicating contrast starker than at the foot of the Grand Lisboa. Macau's tallest building is an 856ft-high golden lotus flower, towering over the delicate churches, gardens and temples of the Unesco-listed historic centre. In its glass dome stamen is the three-Michelin-starred Robuchon au Dôme, regularly named the finest restaurant in Asia. For those who can handle just the one Michelin star, The Eight – still inside the Grand Lisboa – is an extraordinary dim sum restaurant.

On leaving the Lisboa, look out for the 218-carat "Star of Stanley Ho" diamond on display in the lobby, the largest of its type in the world, and named after the nonagenarian billionaire gaming mogul who owns the place. For 40 years from the late Sixties, he held the monopoly over gaming here, and is one of Asia's richest men. He bought the diamond three years ago, and has been cagey about the price, revealing only that it's "in the hundreds of millions".

Back in daylight, turn left and walk for a quarter of a mile round the curving Avenida de Praia Grande, past the pink columns of the Macau Military Club, once the Portuguese officers' mess, now a popular colonial-style dining room. Pass the pretty flowerbeds of the Sao Francisco Gardens, and turn right again up the steep hill of Calcada de Sao Joao, until it opens into one of the many colonial promenades of Macau's historic centre. Here, is the Cathedral, part of which dates back to 1622, about 50 years after the Portuguese had turned what was then a little peninsula at the Pearl River delta into a trading port of world importance. It is only one of 30 or colonial relics – churches, barracks, squares and fortresses – in the historic centre, where for hundreds of years east met west like never before. Follow the bend round and head down Travessa do Bispo for 50 yards or so, and turn left on to the pedestrianised walkways of Rua de Sao Domingos. After another 50 yards bear right on to Rua da Palha, glancing left at the beautiful St Dominic's Church, where, in 1822, the first Portuguese newspaper was printed in Macau.

Past 300 yards of designer boutiques set between lemon-coloured columns is what was, until the super-casinos rolled in, Macau's postcard-perfect view. Only the façade of the 400-year-old St Paul's Church remains. The rest was destroyed by fire in 1835.

Turn right down Calcada do Amparo and at the end turn right on Rua dos Mercadores and follow it round until it meets with Avenida de Almeida Ribeiro, Macau's central thoroughfare. Here, just to the right of the junction, in a tiny alleyway between two nondescript shops, resides one of Macau's lesser-known stars. The congee stand here was always popular. Congee is a rice porridge served with nearly anything, including pork, beef, pig's innards, or fish. But after the chef, who likes to sing at his customers, was featured on a Malaysian TV programme, he found himself sought out by Malaysian tourists, and eventually by everyone. Congee is an acquired taste, somewhere between semolina and rice pudding, and served here with big lumps of meat, but it's certainly popular. To the left of the junction is Senado Square, where Macau's government met in the Leal Senado buildings until 1999.

From here it is a little more than half a mile's walk to the peninsula's most famous temple, A-Ma. Take the Rua de Alfandega at Senado Square's far end, turning right on to Rua do Padre Antonio. You'll pass dozens of squares and churches, as well as the Pedro V theatre and the Moorish barracks. Your nose will tell you when you've arrived: incense coils hang in the air above the largest and oldest temple in Macau, built in 1488, in order to honour Matsu, the goddess of seafarers.

Three hundred yards north, this time up the Rua do Almirante Sergio, is Café Litoral. For all the lobster tail and wagyu beef flooding into Macau, its native cuisine is unique, and not to be missed. Culinarily speaking, the Portuguese brought all the distant corners of their empire here, where it met Chinese traditions. The cafe's Chinese-style rice is full of delicious hunks of Iberian sausage.

In the absence of a mass transit system, jump in a taxi to cross the Ponte da Amizade, or "Bridge of Friendship". It links the peninsula to pretty Portuguese Taipa, the green parks of Coloane, and the reclaimed land of Cotai, which is turning at breakneck speed into the Las Vegas strip. The Venetian hotel is already open, a near replica of its Nevada sister. There's a St Mark's Square, completely indoors and without windows. At the Grand Emperor Hotel, the door is guarded by Eastern Europeans dressed as Her Majesty's Household Cavalry.

The Galaxy, the Four Seasons and a brand new Sheraton (set to be Macau's largest hotel) are all recently completed, as is the vast City of Dreams complex, with a £5m House of Dancing Water theatre show – think Cirque du Soleil meets Tom Daley's Splash!. After a day of historic churches and temples, it's time to go back to the future.

Fresh cuts

Newly opened Pink Grill in the Cotai district serves Asian-influenced steak and seafood: Kobe beef served on hot stones and raw Australian lobster with chilli sauce (00 853 2885 2928; pinkgrill.com).

The recently opened Sheraton Macao will, once fully completed, become the region's largest hotel, with 3,896 rooms that start at HKD 1,388 +15% taxes (£131) (00 853 2880 2000; sheratonmacao.com).

The new China Rouge in the Galaxy Macau is a 1930s Shanghai-style nightclub. It's technically a members'-only establishment, meaning only those fully dressed to impress will make it past the velvet rope. Quite a challenge, if you like that sort of thing (00 853 2888 0888; galaxymacau.com).

Travel essentials

Getting there

Virgin Atlantic (0844 209 2770; virgin-atlantic.com) flies daily from Heathrow to Hong Kong. Returns start at £659. Other airlines serving Hong Kong from Heathrow include Cathay Pacific (020-8834 8888; cathaypacific.com) and British Airways (0844 493 0787). From Hong Kong, ferries connect to Macau: Turbojet (turbojet.com.hk) and Chu Kong (cksp.com.hk).

 

Staying there

The MGM Macau (00 853 8802 8888; mgmmacau.com) offers double rooms from HK$4,025 (£328).

 

More information: macautourism.gov.mo

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