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Tiled mural in Macau

Initial impressions of Macau? At ground level in the main central area you could be in a Mediterranean city. A little further away and you are definitely in China. Our room is on the eighth floor and from here you can clearly see that a few million gallons of whitewash would go a long way and would vastly improve the look and feel of the city. It simply looks grubby. Stef has gone for a haircut and I am sitting in in a square by the cathedral waiting for him. A Portuguese tiled floor and fountain sit amidst the risk of new, restored and dilapidated buildings. The pace of life here so far seems to be slower than that in Hong Kong and there does not seem to be the "money, money, money" edge. English will be less and less useful and we are both wary about the next few weeks in particular as most things will be written in Chinese characters and not the pinyin roman alphabet conversion. At least when we get to Vietnam and Laos we should be able to easily read everything even if we do not understand it!

Anyhow, back to our travels. We decided today to follow the walking tour of Macau set out in Lonely Planet. Rather than walking from our hotel along the main Avenida de Alemeida Ribeiro to Largo Senado, the main square, we took the back streets. They're like little rabbit warrens, narrow streets with buildings four or more storeys high either side. Wrought iron balconies jut out from the windows, except at second glance they are not balconies, they just seem to be cage like coverings, allowing air in, providing somewhere to hang clothes to dry but keeping others out.

The street we followed, Rua da Madeira, was full of little shops plying their wares. At one, tiles for Mah Jongg were made and displayed in the windows. Others were selling fruit and vegetables - pak choi style cabbage, tomatoes, huge carrots, onions - others fresh meat, and when I say fresh I mean fresh. They had cages full of live chickens. We were not around when someone bought one so I am not sure if people take them away live or whether they are killed before they leave the shop. I suspect the former. A shrine filled a small space in a corner of the street. The streets are lined either side with little scooters which have obviously taken the place of the bicycle. The odd car squeezes through but the roads are really too narrow for them.

The Largo Senado could be in any Mediterranean village. The floor is tiled in a typically Portuguese wave pattern and colonnaded three storey buildings line each side. Before the Portuguese handed the colony back to China in 1999 they spent over £40million on refurbishing Macau and there are now a few clean, characterful areas amidst the rest of the seedy, grubby looking mess that is Macau. The Largo is just one of the areas to benefit from this cash and the Chinese seem to be maintaining it (although looking out from inside the colonnades the paintwork is starting to peel here and there). As with Hong Kong, the process is underway for getting ready for Christmas. Garlands have been hung across the square and the tree and lights are going up over the site of the fountain, which accounts for the funny shape of the tree. Here though Christmas is not yet splashed across every shop window as it is in Hong Kong.

Keeping the old bits looking like new

We followed the Lonely Planet walking tour for most of the morning, firstly going up the Travessa da Sao Domingos, past the place we ate at last night and up to another square in front of the cathedral. Even just a short walk from the Largo, which was already busy with shoppers, t was a quiet and peaceful place. Backing onto the wall of the raised up square were beautiful tile scenes of old Macau and the boats that used to ply their trade here. The tour then takes you back down and through some of the man shopping streets. Global chains are on their way - Nine West, Clarks, Esprit) and there was clear evidence of a lack of acceptance of international copyright laws. The "Nice" shop, with a slightly stumpy tick as its logo, is a clear rip off of Nike.

We followed the road round to the Consulate General of Portugal, a large old colonial building well maintained in pristine gardens, all locked away behind a high fence, before heading to the Monte Fort, To get here it was a steep climb up the Calcada do Monte, a road where the pavement was steps all the way. A short cobbled hill off to the left leads up to the fort's entrance. Now all that remains are the outer walls. Originally built by the Jesuits as part of their overall church complex, it was designed so that they could survive a two year siege. Whilst not as large as the forts we saw on Canada's East coat, for the size of Macau I thought it was pretty big. Canons still line the fort on the side of the main entrance, some curiously just pointing at each other. A museum has now been set up n the fort site but it was shut today.

The fort provides great views across Macau. To the East there is much new development with big hotels and entertainment complexes going up. Most of the city though retains its dingy and dirty appearance looking like it either needs a good paint job or the for the demolition man to pay a visit. We found our hotel, one of the few high rise blocks to the west of Macau and even this looks as if it has seen better days. The fort introduced us, with full sound effects, to a local custom - spitting. Not just a quick spit of excess saliva but a real stomach churning clearing of the throat. Since the SARS outbreaks this is increasingly seen as a public health hazard and in Hong Kong fines can be levied for spitting in public. There have been a few "no spitting" signs here in Macau but as yet no evidence of fines if you do.

We made our way down to the ruins of the College of the Mother of God and the the Church of St Paul. Destroyed by fire, all that remains are the grand steps leading up to the facade of the church. It still puzzles me how the stone walls of a building burn. They have preserved the ruins and attempted to outline the former structure of the church. Unlike ruins elsewhere, here I had no sense that this was a former place of religious worship, despite many signs reinforcing this message and asking people to be respectful. There were simply too many groups of Japanese and Chinese tourists chattering away and having the inevitable many pictures taken of the same scene.

The area around the church was again very Portuguese in style, it was simply the contents of the shops and the look of the people doing the selling that told a different story. Here we passed an old man in traditional Chinese dress. He would have made a great photo but we asked before we snapped and he declined. We have seen some strange blends of old and new here and in Hong Kong. Road signs that were definitely British but with directions and instructions written in Chinese characters. Construction workers in hard hats who  have cut out the crown of their wide brimmed straw hats and pulled the brim down over their hard hat to give them shade. This old chap was one of a small minority retaining old customs.

In the afternoon we headed down to Macau's islands, Taipa and Coloane. Waiting for the bus on Avenida da Aleira Ribeiro there was another Lonely Planet laden couple looking a bit lost. It was pretty obvious from the page they were at that they were headed in the same way and we got chatting. They were an Australian couple who seemed to have done a fair amount of travelling over the years. The bus came, a little minivan style thing and off we shot through town and over the Macau-Taipa bridge, one of several that now links the mainland with the island. They are pretty long and impressive bridges too.

We drove through Taipa and on to Coloane, not realising until we arrived at the Hac Sa beach that we had gone straight through Coloane villgae. We stayed on the bus to head back and finally got off at the village, only to find that where we really wanted to go was back at the beach. Arriving at the beach for the second time we made our way to Fernando's a Portuguese restaurant with a good reputation. A large extension and open air bar have been added to what was once a small seaside taverna. They were very geared up for western tourists here. The menu was in Portuguese and Cantonese but they also had a small picture book with photos of each of the dishes and an explanation in English. our meal was good but certainly nothing to rave about.

Ness with two giggling Chinese ladies

We went for a stroll along he beach, called Hac Sa because of its black sand. here too were busloads of Chinese and Japanese tourists. Most were smartly dressed, as if it was an afternoon trip away from the office as a reward for hitting sales targets. We were the only westerners and Stef, for the most of the time, was the only person paddling in the sea. It was funny to see them all crouching down at the water's edge to have their photos taken, one eye on the camera the other on the waves lapping at their feet. A woman came up to me with camera in hand indicating to take a photo. I though she was asking me to take the photo, but no, she and her friend wanted their photo taken with me.

From here we got the bus up to Taipa village. Its hard to get your bearings and to know where to get off when the place is unfamiliar. It was not helped because here they have bus stops on roundabouts. You think the bus will go left but it keeps going round to the right, stops to pick people up  and then carries on the way you expected it to. Finally seeing a sight we recognised from our map we hopped off the bus, as it turned out a stop or two too early. The benefit though was that we stumbled upon a superb little garden that was not in Lonely Planet or marked on our map from Tourist Information. It was funded by the outgoing Governor of Portugal and completed about a year before the handover back to China. There were small courtyards where people could practice their Tai Chi but the main feature was a large pond with fish, a pagoda looking over it and a bridge crossing the pond. As we learned in Canada, the bridge had turns in it to prevent evil spirits, who can only travel in straight lines, from crossing the water.

Taipa village is now a mass of high rise tower blocks but the original town has been preserved. Five Portuguese style buildings lining the waterfront have been turned into a museum (closed today). They, and the walls of the surrounding gardens have been painted a slightly garish peppermint green colour. The gardens here were really peaceful to wander through. A team of people were busily working n a new landscaped section, planting row upon row of highly scented lilies. The old Portuguese sections of Macau have all been awash with colour, ether the paint on the houses or the blooms in the ground. The stairs leading downhill past the church again carried the wave effect that is apparently typically Portuguese. Here though it was not tiled patterns in the floor but the steps themselves, some retreating waves, others advancing.

We followed the road along to the old market, stopping on the way to look at some local temples. There are no organised religious services, other than funerals, people simply stop by as and when they please. The temples always have an attendant there ready to sell incense. We took some photos and left a donation before moving on, noticing along the way small holders for incense sticks just wedged between buildings, something we have seen often in Macau.

A little further on was a small bakery and the old baker stopped us and gave us a sample of his wares. There are tow main types of biscuits sold ere. One is like a crepe, folded in half and then rolled around a metal rod and cooled to forma tube. Another is very small rosette shaped biscuits that are like a very dry, crumbly almond shortbread. A small bite zaps all the moisture from your mouth. The latter are made in copious volume so they must be very popular. Watching the process, the seem to steam the biscuit mix in big bamboo containers before moulding it into shape. In Macau we must have passed fifty shops all selling these biscuits, not bad for such a small place.

At the old market only the structure remains, an open sided building with a tiled rood. It must have been a bustling and busy place in its heyday. A new market has been built a short way away, a soulless concrete block which did have a much needed western loo! It was early evening by this time and it was difficult to get a feel for the place, some shops were opening up, others were closing down for the night. We ambled down to the Pak Tai Temple, easily spotted or rather sensed by the strong smell of incense, prevalent even though the doors seemed to be closed and locked. On the corner of the square was a very inviting looking bar so we popped in for a beer or two. It could have been anywhere and most if its customers seemed to be expat Brits and tourists. Te sight of fifty year old British business men out drinking in false conviviality made us both glad we have broken out of the loop for a while.

The number 33 bus dutifully took us back to Central Macau, now lit up for the night. Along the way the builders are out in force. A big new complex is going up in the north of Taipa bringing "the charm of Venice and the casino's of Las Vegas". Macau looks set to change greatly in the next few years.