February 24, 2013 by travelinggrits
The taxi jolted to a halt, and the car door and trunk sprung open simultaneously – reminiscent of the flying Ford Anglia from the Harry Potter series. We crawled inside with our backpacks across our laps, and the doors popped shut. My stomach gave an quick cartwheel as we careened into the left lane until I realized that we were dutifully obeying traffic laws.
Thus began the Magical Mystery Tour of Macau.
I pressed my face against the glass as we spun through a roundabout, taking in the Las Vegas of Asia. Thanks to my post-graduation trip to the Entertainment – or Gambling, take your pick – Capital of the World, I recognized some of the same casinos from the Strip: the Wynn, the Venetian, the MGM.
But my companion and I weren’t here to try our luck in the City of Dreams. After dumping our bags at our modest hotel, we sampled some African chicken and called it a night.
Originally rented by the Chinese to the Portuguese as a trading post, Macau holds the distinction of being the last European colony in mainland Asia until its return to the Chinese jurisdiction in 1999. During its maritime prime, Macau drew Catholic missionaries and sailors cruising from the shores of Africa and India. This has contributed to a menagerie of cultures. The architectural contrast of Portuguese and Chinese-style structures side-by-side is–well, magical.
Thus, UNESCO has charted an entire route of stops through the historic center of Macau. Map in hand, my companion and I set off on the hunt, determined to see them all. It was a captivating quest, marked only by modest green street signs, some of which pointed in confusing directions. But by day’s end, we had visited 24, count ’em, 24 UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Here they are, in order of appearance:
St. Lawrence’s Church
St. Augustine’s Square
Dom Pedro V Theatre
Sir Robert Ho Tung Library
St. Joseph’s Seminary
Leal Senado Building
Leal Senado Square
Holy House of Mercy
Lou Kau Mansion
St. Dominic’s Church
Sam Kai Vui Jun Temple
Ruins of St. Paul’s
Na Tcha Temple
Old City Walls
St. Anthony Church
Guia Fortress and Lighthouse
Exploring each site was like turning the page of a pop-up book, unfolding with distinct details that were only visible by peering inside. A historian more dedicated could most certainly devote an entire blog post to each one.
I’ll do these sites the disservice of narrowing it down to my favorite: the Mandarin’s House, the former home of Chinese scholar Zheng Guanying. During its brief tenure as an apartment complex, the house was badly damaged, but after massive restoration, the spacious residence is now open for visitors to marvel at the one-of-a-kind blend of Asian and Western design. Circular doorways, gourd-shaped windows, intricate “ice-splitting” designs… All this hidden down a side street.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention one other extraordinary discovery of the day: Macau’s famed Portuguese egg tart, a flaky pastry cup with egg custard and a caramelized top.
The next day we wandered through Fisherman’s Wharf – a deceptively plain name for a theme park of sorts with replicas of the Collosseum, a giant volcano and a Chinese fortress, among other things. But the streets of this fantasy town were nearly deserted, a strange sight for a tourist attraction.
We had only had one full day to burn in Macau. We gambled on historic beauty. I think we came up with the true treasure.
For our next destination, we took to the seas like the sailors before us and headed to Macau’s closest neighbor, a rival harbor just 40 minutes to the east. We would be spending dollars, but we wouldn’t see any Franklins–maybe just a (Union) Jack or two. Are you still following me, chums?