Despite being just over two hours away by plane, Steve and I had never been to Macau, a former Portuguese colony which is also a hop and skip away from Hong Kong. We decided on a whim to visit this week, and it was a fabulous decision. Macau is a strange little contradiction – a Chinese city with a strong Portuguese presence and heritage, an overseas European settlement now turned Special Administrative Region (SAR) but also a part of China at the same time. We spent two days walking through very twisty streets and ate a lot of sticky sweets and delicious food, and enjoyed seeing some awesome sights.
We flew into Macau on Tuesday in the middle of the day, and it was a bit rough of a start. First, we had no Internet access initially, because the 2G internet afforded by our T-Mobile cards overseas in almost every other country we’ve been to didn’t seem to be working. The driver of the 26 bus that Google had told us to take into the city gruffly informed us we should take the MT4 instead, and I was trying frantically to figure out if we had enough coins in HKD to get on the bus. After purchasing a SIM card out of a vending machine and identifying the MT4, we finally were on our way.
Macau is best known for its gambling, huge lavish and opulent buildings like the Venetian, Sands, and the Wynn. The golden flower shape of the Grand Lisboa skyscraper loomed over the city peninsula and was visible everywhere we went. Since neither of us were much interested in exploring the gambling aspect, though, we decided to make our focus the food and European legacy of Macau. After dropping things off at our hotel the Ole Tai Sam Un, we set off by foot for St. Paul’s Ruins. It’s the second best known thing in Macau, a former church that had been rebuilt and burnt down several times, with the 1843 conflagration leaving just its front façade intact. It sits above a wide flight of stairs and a small square, and today figures into the selfies of pretty much every tourist who visits Macau. The façade is beautiful, and about two feet thick, retaining weathered green bronze statues of St. Ignatius and St. Francis Xavier. We roamed around, and then walked up the hill beside it to the Fortaleza Monte, a small fort which had some beautiful views of the city and was also home to the Museum of Macau. We walked through the small museum, learning about different architectural styles and the history of the numerous forts that had been there before.
For dinner, we tried out Boa Mesa, which was a Portuguese restaurant. I got the codfish rice, which wasn’t too bad, and Steve got the duck rice. We also had some nice bread, olives, and olive oil with balsamic vinegar. The highlight was definitely the half-jar of red sangria that we ordered, though, which tasted divine. We also enjoyed listening to the restaurant owner, who seemed like he was originally from Portugal. He kept gesturing to the TV broadcast, and talking to an employee about how it was actually snowing across many parts of Europe. Finally, we had a good chocolate mousse for dessert and coffee. Thoroughly stuffed, we went back to the hotel and called it a night.
The second day was our full day in Macau. We’d already agreed to get breakfast at a congee place just across the tiny street. After sharing a bowl, we were ready to go for the day. Our relatively early start to the day (out the door by 9 am) meant that we had Macanese workers and residents for company in the twisting and turning streets, and we got to have the first few churches all to ourselves. There was no one at St. Dominic’s, and only one person at St. Lawrence’s, which were both very beautiful, yellow-washed on the outside, and quiet and reverent on the inside. St. Lawrence’s was larger, with a terrace surrounded by palm trees, and tall stairs leading up to it in the front. Though its view of the sea is now obstructed, the stairs used to be where sailors’ families waited for a view of their returning ships. Then we took a nice long detour to the waterfront, where it was shaping up to be an awfully warm day, and circled around to climb up Penha Hill. At the top, we found an entirely undisturbed panoramic view of the city. Across the water, we could see the Chinese city of Zhuhai, which is a special economic zone partnered with Macau’s SAR kind of like how Shenzhen is considered the counterpart to Hong Kong. Further south, we could see Taipa and Cotai, both islands a part of Macau, but not as glitzy and historic as the main peninsula. We finally went inside the Our Lady of Penha chapel, a tiny chapel connected to a Cisterine-Trappestine monastery full of nuns. Their schedule was pinned to the bulletin board outside the church, and we figured out that their day starts at 3 am, with prayers before breakfast at 6 am, more prayers before lunch and siesta around noon, and they retire for the evening around 6 pm. What a day! Leaving Penha Hill, we circled down to around the water, to find A Ma Temple, a Taoist temple near the southern tip of the peninsula. A Ma is one of the oldest temples on the island, predating the Portuguese arrival in the city. We walked around a little bit, watching people pray to the ancestors, and the temple workers hoist huge coils of incense which hung in a yellow cone shape onto the rafters. The smell of incense was thick everywhere, and I accidentally sat on a spot which had a lot of incense ash on it, which was very embarrassing as I was wearing black pants. We circled out of there to check out some other things. One stop we saw was the Moorish Barracks, a former military installation with Moorish soldiers who were imported from Goa, another one of the Portuguese settlements. Native Portuguese soldiers didn’t do very well in Macau given the tropical climate, but soldiers from Goa were just fine, so they originally built this complex for those soldiers, and now it hosts some government agencies. It was a beautiful complex. One stop we didn’t get to look at was the Mandarin House, a little complex that was supposed to be very beautiful and done in the Mandarin style with several houses and a courtyard. However, it was closed on Wednesdays, so we walked on. Our destination was the Puffin House for lunch. One lesson we learned on the way was that Google Maps doesn’t know everything about how to get around in the city!
After lunch, which were some great sandwiches and wraps, we hoofed it back to the hotel to get some rest. When I felt ready to go back out for explorations and dinner, we were dismayed to find it was already 5 pm. Nothing in Macau is very far away – each of the churches we had looked at were about 5-10 minutes apart walking, and that was only because we stopped to gawk at every balcony with an interesting thing. However, what we wanted to see was the Guia Lighthouse, on top of Guia Hill, and it was nearly 25 minutes away. Some intense walking followed, and though we took a wrong turn at one point, we did finally make it up there. We started to leisurely read the World Heritage post that has been at nearly all the sites we’ve seen, but I suddenly heard a noise and darted into the lighthouse to find the guard nearly ready to close up for the day. We literally were the last tourists to get inside the lighthouse! Phew. We spent about twenty minutes taking photos of the sunset and the lovely view of Macau. The setting sun had turned everything gold, and it was lovely to stand atop the lighthouse fort watching it sink slowly. We even went inside the Guia Chapel, right next to the lighthouse. It was so old and everything inside so fragile no photography was allowed, and tinted glass framed the doors so that no light could destroy the vestiges of paint and decorations inside. Finally, we started making our way down, finding that Guia Hill was a lovely place where locals came to exercise. We were lapped several times by a cheerful band of six children doing some sort of track training, and everyone from six years old to sixty years old was doing some sort of running or jogging along the shaded hilltop. We found a cable car station at the top of the hill that cost 2 MOP (3 if you want a round trip ticket), as well as some tennis and badminton courts where many people were playing. Finally, walking down the hill, we found many outdoor exercise machines which were being used by the locals, and we tried them out as well. Back down the hill, we made a beeline for dinner at Naughty Nuri’s, an Indonesian restaurant about five minutes from our hotel. We had a lovely avocado salad, spicy beef rendang curry which just fell apart in our mouths, and Balinese fried rice which was delicious. It was an excellent dinner. Finally, we went shopping for some souvenirs and treats before heading back to our apartment for the night.
This morning, we made another trip across the street for more congee before heading to the airport, and got back to Taipei by this afternoon! It was a lovely short trip to Macau – just the right amount of time, a stress-free kind of wandering around, and enough cultural and culinary delights to interest us.