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East meets West In Enclave Of Baccarat, African Chicken And Egg Tarts

MACAU (dpa) – “We could be in Europe, don’t you think?” remarked my friend as he sipped a glass of Mateus rose in the pavement cafe flanked by neo-classical white and yellow buildings with arched walkways.

“Possibly.. .” I said. But no sooner had the words, like the chilled Portuguese wine, passed my lips than the facade crumbled as a Chinese octogenarian staggered into view holding a small song bird.

To our left in Leal Senado Square, Macau, China, a group of old Chinese ladies huddled on a bench in the evening sunlight, chattering like the old man’s caged bird. A little further up was a noodle shop where we lunched hours before on delicious wonton noodles for 2 U.S. dollars a bowl.

Macau has a lot about it that’s European. The architecture, for one thing. Then there’s the relaxed atmosphere, its inherent love of food and wine and a strong Catholic presence marked by its beautiful European churches.

Which isn’t surprising when you consider Portugal ruled Macau for almost 450 years until December 1999 when this tiny enclave on the south eastern corner of China was handed back to the motherland.

Then it became a Special Administrative Region of China – “Special” because like neighbouring Hong Kong, it operates as part of China under a “one country, two systems” principle which guarantees its autonomy for the next 50 years at least.

To the tourist planning a short break, that means little and chances are if you’ve been or even heard of Macau – either before or after the handover – you’re someone who either likes motor racing (it has its own Grand Prix) or, more likely, a small gamble.

Macau is the undisputed Vegas of the Orient. It has 10 casinos spread over just 23.7 kilometres of land and official figures reckon up to three-quarters of last year’s 9.1 million visitors came here purely to try their luck.

But venture out from the dimly-lit world of the casinos and you’ll find enough amusements to fill at least a weekend.

Visually, Macau is a place of contrasts and contradictions. One minute you’re strolling down a European style tree-lined avenue passing an Italian-style church. Turn a corner and you’re in a narrow street of ramshackle Chinese houses, herbal medicine shops and restaurants where caged snakes and small mammals are offered as delicacies.

If talk of restaurants whets your appetite, bear in mind that while the British left nothing of any culinary note in Hong Kong, the Portuguese to their credit left Macanese food – a unique fusion of east and west.

Try the spicy African chicken at the Solmar Restaurant just around the corner from the Hotel Sintra off Avenida de D Joao, the noodles at Wong Chi Kei in Senado Square or the delicious croissants and pastries at Margaret’s Cafe on Rua Alm.

Afterwards, you can spend a couple of hours browsing the many antique shops lining the streets around the impressive ruins of the 17th century Church of St Paul’s. There you can pick up an authentic Chairman Mao propaganda poster, a dynasty vase or even a very reasonably priced antique cabinet from Shanghai – customised into a TV unit – for prices ranging from 150 to 400 U.S. dollars.

Macau also has museums, including ones dedicated to Portuguese wine, the Grand Prix and the excellent Museum of Macau next to St. Paul’s which features lots of hands-on exhibits for children.

If family amusements are what you are after, take a walk around Flora Garden with its blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cable car ride (reportedly the world’s shortest), lighthouse and mini-zoo featuring monkeys and a sad-looking bear rescued from an exotic restaurant menu a decade ago.

In the evening, you can wander the avenues admiring the illuminated buildings or take a detour down the back streets (try the red and white painted Rua da Felicidade or Happiness Street) to soak up the Chinese atmosphere. Later, head to the lively bars on Avienda Dr Sun Yat Sen close to the waterfront to sip cocktails and dance to a Filipino band.

But no matter how the tourist officials try to package Macau, the presence of the imposing Lisboa hotel and casino, lit-up like a glitzy wedding cake on the night skyline, leaves no ambiguities about Macau’s greatest attraction … gambling.

Even if you don’t indulge yourself, it’s worth a visit to the Lisboa just to take a glimpse into a world where gambling grannies and high-rollers in bad suits – not tuxedos – take the business of taking a punt very seriously indeed.

Before heading back to your hotel, stop for nightcap at the 24- hour coffee shop in the Lisboa’s basement shopping arcade. Here you can enjoy a cappuccino and a voyeuristic peek at the “industry” which thrives on the side-lines of Macau’s casinos.

“It’s a bit seedy but it’s all part of Macau,” I told my friend as we sat drinking Chinese beer next to a table of beautiful Russian ladies of the night. Outside in the arcade other prostitutes – some Eastern European, but mostly Chinese – pouted and promenaded as they tried their luck with passing gamblers.

“Which reminds me. There is something else you have got to try in Macau – the tarts. They’re famous,” I said, quickly adding: “The baked egg ones. They’re delicious!”

How to get there: Macau has an international airport with flights from major Asian destinations. Most international travellers arrive via sea from Hong Kong, which is one hour away by fast ferry (from 18 U.S. dollars one way). Visa on arrival for most nationalities.

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