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Ciao, Macao

Mike Peters
Updated: Mar 30,2015 10:32 AM     China Daily

The Ruin of the Church of St. Paul is the grandest relic in Macao.[Photo by Bruno Maestrini/China Daily]

Alatecomer to the Maritime Silk Road’s history and lore, Macao made up for lost time quickly because of the 16th-century arrival of the Portuguese.

A mighty sea power that produced such navigators as Vasco da Gama and Ferdinand Magellan, Portugal took immediate advantage of the geographical position of the Macao-Manila route as a major gateway between China, Japan, India and the West.

By the late 1500s, Portuguese and other traders were taking silk, silver and porcelain from China to markets all over the globe.

The imprint of the seafaring Portuguese has made Macao a magnet for China’s new traveling class and for international tourists.

On arrival, we’re eager to walk what UNESCO has labeled the city’s historic center, with its colonial-style streets and residential, religious and public Portuguese and Chinese buildings.

The grandest is a relic: the Ruin of the Church of St. Paul.

Designed by an Italian Jesuit, the church was built in 1602 by Japanese Christian exiles and Chinese craftsmen. It was destroyed by fire in 1835-all except for the imposing facade, which has given the church a chance to live on in selfies taken by the tourists who swarm to see it.

China’s first Western-style theater, university, hospital, churches and fortresses are here. Many are still in use and standing side by side with equally compelling Chinese buildings. Such colonial architecture, from grand church edifices to charming residences in back lanes, sets this community apart from nearby Hong Kong and Guangzhou.

Like many visitors, we were surprised to find Macao is not a single island but has three distinct parts: the Macao Peninsula (where most of the historical sites are) and the islands of Taipa and Coloane.

One street-side food stall sells freshly made almond cakes.[Photo by Bruno Maestrini/China Daily]

An international airport perches on the northeastern tip of Taipa, and there is easy ferry access from Shenzhen, Hong Kong and Nansha (near Guangzhou). If you end a Hong Kong visit with a day trip to Macao, you can go straight to the Hong Kong airport if you’re organized and pack light.

Strolling from the St. Paul ruin on our way to lunch, we enjoyed the shopping district that runs along two charming streets in the old city: Rua dos Ervanarious and Rua de Nossa Senhora do Amparo.

Other nearby lanes overflowed with distinctive street food. Be warned: By the time you get to the bottom of the hill, you may have little appetite for a sit-down meal.

Irresistible snacks include silky Chinese milk pudding, savory or candy-sweet strips of cured meat, pork-chop buns stuffed with a juicy slab of deep-fried meat, and pot-stickers fried with a crispy bottom and fluffy top. These goodies may be served piping hot in paper or plastic bags, so handle with care.

Macao’s most famous morsel, of course, is the Portuguese egg tart.

These are popular at bakeries all over China, but buying one that’s freshly made and warm from the oven is a whole new experience, with its buttery, flaky pastry and a sweet custard filling with the silkiness of creme brulee. It’s hard to stop with just one. We found equally tasty versions right on the street and at Lord Stow’s shops.

Several museums are worth a look, depending on your time and route.

The Macao Museum offers good historical context before you start exploring-it’s located in Monte Fort, where Portuguese cannons now point toward the Grand Lisboa.

That lavish hotel towers over the city skyline with its flaming-torch silhouette, expansive casino, three-Michelin-starred Roubuchon a Galera and an award-winning list of more than 14,600 wines.

The hotel’s museum exhibits include immense carved jades and The Star of Stanley Ho, a 218.08-carat diamond experts say is “the largest cushion-shaped, internally flawless D-color diamond in the world”. You don’t really have to know what all that means to be impressed.

The Macao Museum of Art is a huge treasure trove of works by Chinese and Western artists-the latter including painter George Chinnery (1774-1852), who spent much of his adult life wielding a brush in Macao.

The Maritime Museum celebrates the city’s seafaring traditions, with a mock-up of an old Hakka fishing village and displays featuring dragon boats and the intriguing Feast of the Drunken Dragon.

We were too early in the year to see the real thing, which happens in May or June when a crew of cheerfully intoxicated men performs a dragon dance through markets and lanes. It’s a wet party, and though not clear from photos whether the onlookers are being sprayed with water or baijiu (traditional Chinese liquor), it’s good, mad fun.

Appropriately next door is the charming temple of A-Ma, known to Chinese as Tin Hau, the goddess of the sea.

The city’s contemporary traditions may seem driven by gambling.

Omnipresent billboards from Guangzhou to Hong Kong to Macao itself project the image of a tuxedoed David Beckham making himself at home at the Venetian. A fleet of Venetian courtesy buses ferries a constant stream of tourists to and from the resort and the ferries and airports. (If fortune smiles, you can also rent a helicopter.)

While you’re living the high life, don’t miss the Macallan Whisky Bar & Lounge at the Galaxy Hotel. In this warm cocoon of paneled oak, fine rugs and 400-plus whiskies, the finest malt is most enjoyable in front of the (real) fireplace.

When you’ve had enough glitzy fun, though, seek out the charms that Las Vegas will never know: the cobblestone lanes of the St. Lazarus district, a thriving artist’s colony; the Guia Fort, sporting the oldest lighthouse in China; unpretentious but classic dining at Alfonso III, Antonio or Litoral; a comfortable hike around the island on the Coloane Trail.

You don’t need to be a high-roller to enjoy every minute in Macao.