Beyond the casinos and glitz of the Cotai Strip lies the real Macau, with its colours and noises, smells and people. It was in this real Macau that we discovered more of the territory’s history.
We’d woken on our second day to brilliant sunshine and it was tempting to just sit by the pool and enjoy a relaxing day. But this was our last day in the city so we left our hotel early (after another lazy breakfast in our suite). Fortunately, my stomach felt rather less dodgy too.
We grabbed a cab and made for Senado Square and the Lou Kau Mansion, built in the late 19th century by a successful local merchant. Like the Mandarin’s place we visited on our first day, it was a dark but cool space with fine carvings, tile work and sparse furnishings. Little courtyards provided room for air to move around on the stifling days of summer.
And it was heating up as we moved on to the Street of Happiness – the Rua de Felicidade. Featured in one of the Indiana Jones films, it was once the red light district of Macau and is lined with simple white-washed buildings with red shutters. But it was dead when we walked through, most of the eateries and little shops closed.
In fact, the narrow but busy streets nearby proved to be more fascinating. Full of market stalls, little cafes and restaurants, many with shop-fronts boasting garish neon signs and fish-tanks stocked with goodies, they buzzed with life. The streetscape was tatty by western standards but it was full of atmosphere, and the signs and menus featured hilariously translated Engrish.
This Macau was madly congested. Buildings had been wedged together and not an inch had been wasted. Rusting railings and ironwork, worn decorations and collapsing plasterwork were predominant features. Little balconies overflowed with plants and drying clothes.
We walked on to the St Lazarus Church District, an attractive part of town that’s managed to retain some of the older, colonial buildings. It’s been turned into something of an artistic enclave, its cobbled streets lined with vibrantly painted homes and work spaces. It made a change from the chaos elsewhere and reminded me of the Portugese capital, Lisbon.
And then we discovered St Michael’s, a tiny, pastel-green church surrounded by a calming cemetery. There wasn’t much to do other than walk round but it was a beautiful space, full of greenery and well-tended graves, many with photos of lost loved ones in pride of place.
We walked on in the heat, via the generally unremarkable Dr Sun Yat-Sen home, to the gondola lift that takes visitors up to Guia Hill. The highest point in Macau, the hill provided shade beneath the trees but no escape from the noise of helicopters hovering around the nearby maritime terminal and the sports cars circling the Grand Prix circuit below.
The hill is home to a still-functioning lighthouse and the abandoned Guia Fort. On its own there’s precious little to see other than an underground bunker but the attached chapel is a little treat, with recently discovered frescoes dating back centuries. We stopped to take in the views of Macau and beyond into China proper through the haze.
We walked down and trekked back towards the ludicrous Grand Lisboa hotel – our planned route blocked by the rumbling Grand Prix. While the hotels out on the Cotai Strip are full of bling, the Grand Lisboa takes things to a whole new level, and looks very 60s with it. So I was stunned to discover that it only opened in 2008. The opulence is astounding and the artworks on show in the lobby, including some incredible carved ivory, must be priceless.
We had lunch in one of the cafes and then went for a wander around the neighbourhood, before returning to our hotel for a beer and our constitutional afternoon nap.
In the evening we plumped for a Portugese restaurant at The Venetian, which was nothing special but the food was OK. Afterwards, we headed to the roulette tables again and discovered the casino absolutely rammed with weekend gamblers. G had a very successful time, coming away with healthy profits. I lost another $500HKG, proving that lady luck had deserted me on this holiday.
Gambling in Macau isn’t the best. There’s an air of determination and humourlessness about it, which I won’t miss. The fun atmosphere you get in Vegas and even London is definitely missing.
A few drinks later and it was back to bed, ready for Hong Kong.