Sunday, April 6, 2014

A Taste of Portugal

We just spent a weekend in Macau, where Bob and I were far more interested in the city's Portuguese roots than in the gambling culture that draws so many tours. We did visit the casinos, but never found the right place to gamble: baccarat too confusing, the buy-in for poker too high ($300 HK dollars at a minimum, which is too much for someone who doesn't know what he's doing), and the scene at the tables just too dull. No alcohol is served at the gambling tables, no food is available unless you want to go to a sit down restaurant (the American habit of constant snacking hasn't really caught on), and most gamblers are sitting rather quietly at the tables, puffing away at cigarettes, the one vice that's allowed.

We tried a couple of slots which took our money in less than three minutes.
And we saw one show, the House of Dancing Waters, which was a Cirque du Soleil sort of extravaganza with spectacular diving (is this where Olympic divers go?), stunning acrobatics, and some seriously nightmare-inducing motorcycle stunts. So while that was fun we soon tired of the crowds, clearly the hoards from the mainland over to gape at the gaudiness of the Venetian, take pictures of themselves in front of fountains, and yell at their husbands inside churches. I love my Zhongguo ren, with their bling-studded platform shoes, nylon dresses, and general cheerfulness, but we can see these folks on the streets of Beijing every day.

So we took a little tour to Portugal.
In fact, outside of the casinos, Macau is thoroughly Portuguese. Even the faces of the natives show their roots, and since the Portuguese have been in Macau since the 1600s, there has been plenty of time for the civilizations to blend. We stumbled upon one cemetery, St. Michael's, where grave stones showed families by the name of Luz and de Silva, but with pictures on the grave showing solemn Asian faces. Most native Macanese have beautiful bronze faces with dark almond shaped eyes.

It was also Qingming, or Tomb Sweeping, which meant that family members were in this Catholic cemetery to clean off the graves of their ancestors, burn incense, and even pray before some offerings that in one spot included apples and a roasted suckling pig.  This was a fascinating blend of religions, something I think Matteo Ricci would have approved.

Of course anyone who knows us knows that when we try to expand our cultural repertoire, what we really mean is that we try to expand our food repertoire (and our waistbands in the process). I mean, looking at colonial architecture, reading about history in a museum: all that goes just so far and then your stomach is growling.

So fortified with one of Macau's signature desserts -- the egg tart, so warm and fresh, not too sweet -- we headed off to Fernando's on the southern tip of Macau's other island. (Here's the recommendation from a friend who lived in Hong Kong: "Fernando's is a daytime thing. Lunch either early or late cuz it gets crowded. If late, order a bottle of vinho verde and watch the breeze roll in from the sea. Then order a second bottle, then a third. Nap.")

It was a $100 cab ride ( in HK dollars), but we finally got to a scrubby place where you put in your name and sat at the bar with a Super Bock beer and waited. We didn't have to wait long and ordered grilled sardines and a portion of roast suckling pig, both delicious.

On Sunday, after watching the end of a heartbreaking Wisconsin game in which the live streaming froze up at crucial moments, adding to our agony, we consoled ourselves at another hole in the wall Portuguese place, A Petisqueira. This place felt like Sunday dinner at Nana's, with red and white checked plastic tablecloths, and an old country feel that let us order green soup, seafood paella and grilled octopus, and two half bottles of vinho verde, and watch the Macau rain drizzle down on a lazy Sunday afternoon.

"I'd come back to Macau just for this restaurant," Bob said as we struggled to digest.

There are worse ways to spend a weekend.

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