Macao is rapidly re-inventing itself as the Las Vegas of the East, with 31 of the world’s glitziest casinos towering over the tiny peninsula off the coast of China. Where just decades ago there was farmland, you now see clusters of glass-covered sky-scrapers with names familiar from all those Hollywood heist movies flashing in the night — MGM Grand, Sands, Wynn…

But, it isn’t until I go up Colina da Penha, the quiet hill in South-Western Macau, that I really feel like I’ve hit the jackpot… culturally speaking, that is. Because, that’s where I begin to uncover the unusual history of this Chinese protectorate, where the past rubs shoulders with the present in a quirky and singularly charming mix.

Overlooking a glittering expanse of the Pearl River Delta is the peaceful old grey-stone church, Ermida da Penha, surrounded by a graceful old-world garden that’s all shaded nooks and stone benches. Originally built by Portuguese sailors in 1622, the church is the highest point in Macao, approached via narrow tree-lined streets that wind through charming European-style homes.

We are now, our guide tells us, in ‘Old Macao’, where the over 400-year-old colonial influence on the peninsula (Macao was under Portuguese control until 1999) lives on into the 21st Century. Nowhere is this more apparent than at the enchanting Senado Square (Largo do Senado), which has been Macao’s city centre for centuries and still houses several of its major administrative buildings.

Gorgeous old yellow, pink and white buildings in the distinctive Mediterranean neo-classical style surround the square with its quaint black-and-white mosaic flooring (brought from Portugal, my guide informs me) and its dancing fountains at the centre.

Delightful amalgam

Mc Donald’s and Starbucks, Levi and Gap (with Cantonese and Portuguese signs) stand alongside City Hall, and colourful little Chinese flea markets selling handkerchiefs and toys nestle in the picturesque cobbled lanes between buildings… it’s hard not to fall a little bit in love with this delightful amalgam of the modern and the colonial, the East and the West.

And so it continues, all along the sloping cobblestone streets of this historic core of Macao (recently declared as a World Heritage Site) — glass and steel structures by pastel-coloured row-type European buildings, old churches (such as St. Anthony’s) and pretty little squares to sit back and relax in (St. Augustine’s Square is particularly pleasing) peppered amongst aggressively-modern Chinese business houses.

If one structure stands out (literally) amongst all of this, it has to be the nearly-iconic ruins of the St. Paul’s Cathedral. Towering into the sky at the top of a long flight of broad steps, only the brooding grey façade of this 16th Century church and college remains, looking down upon a panoramic view of Old Macao. Although the building was destroyed in a fire in the 19th Century, the intricately detailed façade stands defiantly, as if by the will of God, with just signs and diagrams remaining where the rest of the structure ought to be — the effect is rather eerie.

So the next time you visit the glitzy new Macao, where the highest bungee and sky jump in the world (338 m, at the Macao Tower), the starry, super-opulent Venetian Macao resort and some of the world’s best casinos beckon, spend a little time at the place where the Macao-that-was still lives. It’s a visit back in time you won’t regret.

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