Dragon's own Lisbon


Dragon's own Lisbon

Few wooden boats, shampans, still bobbed on the water at the Pearl River Delta, much the same way Amitav Ghosh has described, so lyrically, in his novels on the Opium War of early 19th century.

While I was in the luxury of a high-speed catamaran, as it splashed and sprayed, riding the waves of South China Sea, racing away from Hong Kong International Airport towards Macau. The Portuguese have left Macau, their Far Eastern colony, but I was tempted to find their legacy.

“Are you going there to gamble in the casinos?” asked a congenial Chinese gentleman seated next to me in the catamaran. It is a natural ice-breaker for people heading for Macau. Thanks to the wealthy Chinese thronging from Hong Kong and the mainland, Macau has pipped Las Vegas to the top post in the amount of money wagered in the make-believe world of its giant casinos.

Portuguese influences

Portuguese imprint is spread across Macau. Like the Lilau Square in the southern part of Macau Island, where the first Portuguese residential quarters had come up. Little wonder then that the Portuguese still get sentimental about it. One who drinks from Lilau never forgets Macau, goes a Portuguese saying. Or St Lawrence’s Church on the southern coastline where the families of Portuguese sailors used to pray for their safe return. It is still referred to as the Hall of the Soothing Winds.

I took the bus which dropped me at Senado Square. And suddenly, I was immersed in another continent. The pastel coloured neo-classical buildings which surround the piazza bring the whiff of Tagus River about to pour out to the Atlantic. Am I in Lisbon? was my instinctive reaction. The solitary white among the pastels, Santa Casa da Misericórdia — Holy House of Mercy, was established way back in 1569, within just two decades of the first footprint of the Portuguese in the Cantonese speaking world. Since then, Portugal became integral to the identity of Macau, even though the last Portuguese Governor, Vasco Joaquim Rocha Vieira, returned to homeland after restoring the sovereignty back to China on December 20, 1999. But Português macaense — Macanese Portuguese was left behind as the dialect of Portuguese spoken in Macau where it enjoys the status of official language along with Cantonese-Chinese.

I took the north-eastern pass out of Senado Square and turned corner and as if mischievously hiding was the Baroque façade of St Dominic’s Church. In light yellow pastel. Again, a 16th century edifice. This is where the first Portuguese newspaper, A Abelha da China (The China Bee), was published on Chinese soil.

Epicurean delights

I turned right onto Rua de São Domingos, then left into R da Palha which, by the street signs, promised to take me to the pinnacle of Portuguese Macau. The street, however, got narrower, and the atmosphere, thicker. Aromas of street food wafted in to the mélange. I stopped and ventured for pork chop bun from a tiny roadside joint. If there is a pork-version of vada pav that the Portuguese gifted to Macau, this is it. And egg tart. These two snacky cousins of Portuguese ancestry show up everywhere, all over Macau.

I moved on, through the pedestrian alley with shops on both sides selling at least a dozen varieties of pork fillet. Roasted, hot-n-spicy, thick boar. And shoppers swarmed and clamoured to get their pick. I plucked a slice of pork neck fillet from the tasting tray, and did the same again, this time with cookies at Koi Kei Bakery, which seemed to be the most popular bakery chain. Hmm. I decided to buy a box of Portuguese-style mixed cookies.

The alley opened up to the base of a small hill with the imposing Ruins of St Paul’s at its apex, the most remarkable icon of not just Portuguese Macau, but of Macau itself, often referred to as its acropolis. The fire that destroyed the Church of Mater Dei, also known as St Paul’s, in 1835 took away the third dimension of the building. What remained, amazingly, was the 83-feet-high façade which sours up to the sky like a giant two-dimensional card board cut-out with hollows for windows, imparting an ethereal halo around it. The reverence it commands is palpable.

It was time for dinner and I settled down inside a quaint Portuguese restaurant in Rua do Almirante Sergio. Soon I was in two minds. Clams and seafood rice. Or bacalao (cod fish) with cream?

Travel tips

Macau is a Special Administrative Region of China, with its own currency and immigration laws. However, Hong Kong Dollar is accepted all over. Indians do not need visa to visit Macau.

Getting there:
Though Macau has an airport, Hong Kong Airport (HKIA) has more flight connections from India. Ferries from HKIA – without having to clear immigration – take one hour to Macau. Regular ferries between Macau and Hong Kong Island also take an hour.

Local transport:
Buses and taxis are aplenty. Many hotels run free bus services to important tourist hubs and ferry terminals.

Macau has a wide range of accommodation, from super luxury to Portuguese-style inns.

Nightlife: Being a casino hub, Macau has a vibrant nightlife with plenty of bars, restaurants, shops and casinos open all night.

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