With a plethora of UNESCO World Heritage buildings packed into a compact, historic centre, the old part of Macau makes for an enchanting walking tour, as our writer describes
A hawker sells ice cream to worshippers congregating at A-Ma Temple’s red gates while a young woman scolds her chubby son for running off. Thick, white snakes of incense billow in the wind, rising up from the coiled incense hanging under the dragon-winged roof of one of the pagodas. This sanctuary commemorates the goddess of the sea, revealing the time-long importance of the ocean to this one-time fishing village. Indeed, parts of Old Macau are still alive, tucked away in the quiet backstreets, waiting to be discovered by those with time to enjoy a stroll.
To the right of the temple, wandering up a side alley, the aroma of egg tarts and noodles wafts out from a few small cafés, their names written in both Portuguese and Chinese above the shopfronts. Overhead, the window grilles of apartment blocks (with names like ‘Nova Vila Cheong Seng’ – a strangely seductive amalgam of two patois) are festooned with washing. These residences line the street of tiny cul-de-sacs and patios as the lane meanders up the hill to reveal the decadent Moorish arches of the crenellated military Barracks.
The Mandarin's House
Further on, two old Chinese men chat around a table, drinking cans of Tsingtao beer below the ochre window frames of a white colonial house in Lilau Square, footing Penha Church. Under the shade of gnarled Banyan trees, the gurgling fountain in a corner of the square lays claim to a legend: those who drink from Lilau will always return to Macau (a saying that articulates a nostalgic attachment to the old neighbourhoods of the city).
The Ruins of St Paul's, one of Macau's UNESCO World Heritage sites
To the left of this tranquil square stands the grey edifice of the Mandarin’s House, whose architecture displays a classic fusion of East and West that is so characteristic here. The colourful relief ornamentations of its friezes and the detailing of its doors speak Chinese, while the Western-style arched doorways and the Indian mother-of-pearl window panels provide an accompanying reply of colonial empire.
Continuing up the hill punctuated with green Portuguese bollards and terracotta cobblestones, past the white and blue tiled plaque marking the Rua do Padre António, the lemon-yellow and white Baroque façade of St Lawrence’s Church appears, the cast-iron cross on its roof a testament to the 16th-century Jesuits who first brought their Catholic faith to the Orient.
Dom Pedro V Theatre
Meandering past a small gemstone store, several bakeries and a rundown noodle bar with red crates of empty Coca-Cola bottles piled up outside, the waft of steaming rice permeates the thick air as the road snakes up, down and around to the striped, mint-green candy columns of the imposing neoclassical Dom Pedro V Theatre, the first Western-style playhouse built in China. At the crest of the hill emerges the buttery exterior of St Augustine’s Church, and to its right, the orange egg-yolk frontage and latticed green gates of the Sir Robert Ho Tung Library, clustered around the square at the end of the cul-de-sac.
Twisting back down, the narrow streetscape opens onto the undulating, cream and black, mosaic-tiled waves of the wide and bustling Senado Square, Macau’s main plaza, which is flanked on three sides by grand Baroque structures. Throngs of tourists chatter loudly as they snap photos of the gleaming architecture, while shops selling the city’s famous almond cookies and pork-chop buns hawk their treats.
Mandarin Oriental, Macau organises four-hour guided city walks as part of its Macau Cultural Discovery package
Vanessa Moore is located in Macau, and writes about China, arts, culture and food. She also edits the international pages of the
Macau Daily Times