By Jonathan Evans
As the neon lights of Cotai’s casinos come into view, first-time visitors crossing the South China Sea in a ferry from Hong Kong might be tempted to assume that Macau is, on first appearances, little more than an East Asian Las Vegas. Certainly the two cities have been compared – and Macau has long since eclipsed the desert city as the world’s number-one casino destination in terms of annual revenue. But there’s far more to the former colony than the homogeneous sprawl of giant gambling dens, glitzy hotels and splashy shows that dominates this reclaimed strip between the islands of Coloane and Taipa.
Night View of Macau
Indeed, a bus journey north to peninsular Macau, near to the border with mainland China – the territory is largely surrounded by Guangdong province – reveals a far more diverse architectural landscape. The city’s most famous Chinese shrine, A-Ma Temple, is Unesco World Heritage-listed, and was built in 1488 by seafaring settlers from both Guangdong and Fujian provinces to commemorate Matsu, the Taoist goddess of the sea. Now the temple is a site of festivals as well as prayer – the A-Ma festival in April, and the Feasts of the Drunken Dragon and the Bathing of Lord Buddha, both in May.
Drunken Dragon Dance and A-Ma Temple (Right)
But this is just one element of the Historic Centre of Macau, a Unesco Heritage Site of more than 20 significant buildings, streets and squares that bear witness to the unique cross-fertilisation of Chinese and Portuguese cultures in this corner of Asia. Unquestionably the most recognisable spots are European in origin: Senado Square, an iconic urban parade with its swirling paving patterns and pastel-coloured, neoclassical buildings and porticos; and the Ruins of St Paul’s, the ornate southern façade and crypts of a 17th-century Catholic church that was largely destroyed by fire in 1835. But as demonstrated by the eclectic range of buildings in the vicinity such as the Fortaleza da Guia lighthouse, Moorish barracks and the Protestant cemetery, the history of Macau has been intertwined with many cultures across the centuries.
Ruins of St Paul’s
Guia Fortess and Moorish Barrack (Right)
Away from these historical landmarks, the densely populated streets of peninsular Macau (total area 9 sq km) offer little in the way of open space, so visitors prone to claustrophobia will take solace in the handful of gardens dotting the island. Camoes Garden’s 20,000 sq km expanse is named for Portugal’s most famous poet; the slightly larger Flora Garden contains attractive flowerbeds and a zoo; and Lou Lim Ieoc Garden is a distinctly Chinese affair with traditional landscaping, pavilions, bridges and ponds.
Lou Lim Ieoc Garden
Coloane, at the opposite end of Macau, makes another refreshing contrast to the concentrated urbanisation of the north – rather like hopping from Hong Kong Island to Lantau. On this largely rural island, which is ideal for hiking, the main village conjures a serene, nostalgic spell with its old Portuguese houses, narrow lanes, brightly coloured Chapel of St Francis Xavier and fine beaches, Hac Sa and Cheoc Van.
While the SAR is blessed with an abundance of historical structures, since the turn of the millennium architects have helped to reshape the landscape of the territory with ambitious building projects. One key addition in recent years has been the Macau Tower (2001), with its observation deck, skywalk and “skyjump” (the world’s highest). One of the territory’s most famous builders, Manuel Vicente, left behind many innovative works before he passed away in 2013. The Portuguese architect was responsible for the unmistakeable, 19-storey Macau World Trade Center (1996) and the reconfiguring of Praia Grande Bay, which in turn created the manmade Sai Van and Nam Van lakes.
Nam Van lake
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