Macau, beyond the gaming tables

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MACAU, China -- The former Portuguese colony of Macau is a hot destination, and it is getting hotter. Extra heat is generated by gaming and its prospects for growth. As one wit said, If Hong Kong is Asias New York, Macau is its Las Vegas.

Well, not quite yet, but it is one in the making.

However, my visit -- bracketed morning and evening by the one-hour ferry ride from Hong Kong -- was not about the casinos but about the Macau that was (mostly) there before the dice.

Macau is a peninsula with two associated islands, Taipa and Coloane, accessible by bridge and causeway.

On this tiny patch of earth (10.5 square miles), attractions with tourist appeal include churches, temples, dining, colonial architecture and museums.

Then, theres shopping, which is said to be more cost-effective than in the larger Hong Kong. The pataca is Macaus official currency, but the Hong Kong dollar is accepted, too.

Also, responding to the current fascination with towers where tourists risk their necks, or think they are, Macau has the 3-year-old, 1,109-foot Macau Tower, where visitors harness up for a walk around the outside at 709 feet up. (Part of a convention and entertainment complex, the tower also offers an observation deck and revolving restaurant.)

Aside from making the de-rigueur visit to admire a ruined church that has become an emblem for Macau, I was on the lookout for the colonial architecture but also found something not on my mental checklist -- boutique museums. Worth visiting are:

" St. Pauls Church. This 17th-century Jesuit church was destroyed in an 1835 fire, but the stone-carved front survived to stand dramatically alone on its hilltop at the head of broad and steep stairs.

The church front, which looks like the altarpiece some compare it with, tells the story of Christianity but also reflects how Christianity interacted with Asian traditions. Chrysanthemums represent Japan (Japanese stonemasons helped build the church), and some quotations appear in Chinese.

" Senado Square. To appreciate the Portuguese touch, architecturally speaking, the best place to start is at Senado Square, named for the original Senate building that still stands at one end of this open public space.

At the other end is St. Dominics Church, a fine example of 17th century baroque style.

Senado is paved in wave-patterned stone mosaic (a Portuguese paving trademark I remember best from Rio de Janeiro, in another former Portuguese colony).

The square offers the highest concentration of colonial buildings, but other examples are scattered around the city as well as on the neighboring islands.

Other old things European include forts, one of which (the 1629 Fortaleza da Barra) was converted to the 23-room, five-star Pousada de Sao Tiago, an establishment with character and quite apart from the high-rises seen with casinos or in the wings for the coming decade.

" Museums. Macau, for a population hovering around half a million, has a lot of boutique museums.

We visited the 9-year-old Wine Museum, in the basement of the Tourism Activities Centre.

It encompasses about 1,115 wines, mostly Portuguese, plus a wine tasting to wrap up the visit.

Behind and below St. Pauls, tourists visit the original crypt and an associated Museum of Sacred Art.

There are museums devoted to jade and to the gramophone, too, but I am most enchanted by the notion of a museum that honors the pawnshop.

In 2003, the Pawnshop Museum opened in a restored, century-old pawnshop. Built like a small fortress to protect valuable pawned items, the facility celebrates a 3,000-year-old Chinese tradition of pawnbroking.

This is not to say that it celebrates a dead tradition: As we rode past some very-much-alive pawnshops, our guide deadpanned that the establishments are handily located for the gambler who comes up short.

To contact the reporter who wrote this article, send e-mail to Nadine Godwin at [email protected].

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