Paul's Travel Pics

Friday, June 10, 2016

Macau - Part 1: World Heritage Architecture

"What's the best day-trip from metropolitan Hong Kong?"

This article is my answer to the popular and difficult question. As much as I appreciate the quaint and colorful Cheung Chau or the laid-back vibe of Tai O, my top recommendation for any would-be visitor to Hong Kong is actually Macau.

That's right -- this isn't technically Hong Kong. But being only 60 minutes away by Hydrofoil from either Central District or Tsim Sha Tsui, Macau is arguably a logistically simpler day-trip than Lantau Island or the Fanling Heritage Trail, and with some world-class architecture and exceptional cuisine to boot.

Routinely dismissed by casual tourists as the Las Vegas of the Orient (the reverse of which is true, as Macau currently beats Vegas in terms of gambling revenue), the historic city of Macau boasts something neither Vegas nor Monte Carlo can compete with -- its cultural richness from 450 years of fusion between East and West.

For centuries this was the Portuguese Empire's easternmost stronghold and the missionary base of the Jesuits in the Sinosphere, the earliest and most lasting example of an intimate union between European and Chinese architectures. Amid its cityscape of 19th Century apartment blocks are countless unique gems that has become collectively declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Every time I end up in Macau, my first evening always includes a stroll to Largo do Senado and its surrounding cobblestone streets, flanked by the 16th Century Santa Casa de Misericordia and the Leal Senado. This is the epicentre of all major sights -- 2 minutes' walk to Igreja de Sao Domingos, Lou Kau Mansion or the Chinese shrine of Sam Kai Vui Kun, or a 7 minute hike to the unmistakeable Sao Paulo.

The photogenic Travessa de Sao Domingos leads to the Colegio Diocesano in the uphill direction, and across the square to the Yee Shun Milk Company and its famous Steamed Milk Custard in the downhill direction. While the custard has become more expensive over the years, it remains one of my favorite rituals when visiting Macau.

Gracing the cover of all tourist brochures is the 17th Century ruins of the Jesuit college of Sao Paulo, the first European university in the Far East. Merely 20m from the foot of the former Catholic college stands another World Heritage building of a different faith, the small but colorful Na Tcha Temple from the Qing Dynasty.

Overlooking the Grand Lisboa and the rest of the glittering casino strip, Sao Paolo and the adjacent Fortaleza do Monte are known to be popular with dating couples -- and apparently texting teenagers -- after dark.

Even older than Sao Paulo is the Igreja de Sao Domingos, a 16th Century Baroque gem that predates the fall of the Ming Dynasty. Interestingly here the bottom half was covered by a traditional Chinese bamboo scaffold and the classic sight of a red-white-blue nylon tarp, typical of renovation projects anywhere in Southern China.

The phrase Jiao E Zhi Wei (Prowess Renowned Among Sharks and Crocodiles) graces a Qing Dynasty wooden plaque overhanging the main hall at Sam Kai Vui Kun just to the west of Largo do Senado. The little shrine is dedicated to Guan Di, revered among businessmen, Triad members and police officers alike as the personification of the code of brotherhood.

Hidden in an alley to the northeast of Largo do Senado is the splendid former residence of Lou Kau, Macau's first casino (and allegedly opium) tycoon from late 19th Century.

One of the best preserved examples of courtyard houses from the Qing Dynasty, this mansion of imposing grey bricks was constructed in traditional Xiguan style, popular at the turn-of-the-century with the rich and famous from the regional capital of Guangzhou.

Even though admission is free-of-charge, the easily-missed entranceway apparently foils many unsuspecting tourists and the compact yet gorgeous mansion remains mostly uncrowded despite its central location. That said, there exists an even more stunning and yet lesser-visited traditional Chinese residence in town.

My favorite spot in Macau is an out-of-the-way Qing Dynasty complex known as the Mandarin's House, a ginormous mansion of multiple courtyards and over 60 rooms, situated in the hills between Largo do Senado and the A-ma Temple to the south. On this weekday afternoon we encountered no more than a dozen other visitors, which is virtually unheard-of at any UNESCO World Heritage Site anywhere in China.

Suspended above the magnificent greeting hall are the words Yu Qing, or Overflowing Fortunes, as quoted from the I Ching to remind the mansion's upper-class inhabitants, a locally prominent family of merchants and scholars, of the importance of charity and benevolence.

One member of the family, scholar-reformer Zheng Guanying, did benefit his countrymen with a legacy of influential ideas that would help nudge Feudal China into the modern age. It was during Zheng's time that the compound was expanded to 4,000 square feet of living quarters and courtyard gardens, interconnected by these elegant moon gates.

Macau's uniqueness as crossroad of cultures is clearly evident at every corner of this exquisite residence -- Portuguese wooden shutters on the second floor, Chinese gourd-shaped windows on the ground floor, and a system of British plumbing pipes stylishly disguised in the shape of bamboos.

But the Mandarin's House hasn't always looked this immaculate. For decades this compound had disintegrated into a shanty town, with hundreds of impoverished tenants each divvying up a grimy corner of the former aristocratic residence. It took a lot of political will, not to mention 43 million patacas, to restore this extraordinary specimen from the colonial era.

Aside from its World Heritage architecture, Macau is better known among locals and Hong Kongers alike for its Portuguese fusion cuisine as well as its recipes of traditional Cantonese dishes, many of which have gone virtually extinct in Hong Kong. While it is possible to visit Macau as a day-trip from Hong Kong, I would recommend spending a couple night and fully appreciate its nostalgic ambience and exotic flavors, to be covered in the upcoming articles.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Renting a Cave House in Matera

Day 21 of 23 on our journey down Italy’s Adriatic Coast, and it all culminated in this highly anticipated climax at one of the world’s most ancient cities.

It is a commune of prehistoric cave dwellings continuously inhabited for tens of thousands of years, desolate and forbidding to outsiders only a generation ago, now slowly rediscovered by independent travelers as one of Southern Italy’s many hidden gems.

The very last of 12 UNESCO World Heritage Sites on our 1000 km journey, mysterious Matera made a fitting finale as we traveled from the Austrian border to the heel of Italy. Despite lacking the international prominence of glorious Venice, one could argue that it is equally inimitable in its own down-to-earth way.

From the surface -- and I mean in a literal sense, arriving at the beautifully crumbling town situated above the caves -- Matera seemed prototypical of this traditionally impoverished region of Southeastern Italy, dotted with dilapidated church facades and the occasional broken and bolted window of vacant homes.

A few steps towards the cliff and it revealed easily the most primitive city we had ever witnessed, a claustrophobic cluster of caverns burrowed into calcareous rocks along the edge of a steep ravine, partially disguised as something less prehistoric by concealing the caves with square entrances.

For years various filmmakers have casted this stunningly archaic townscape as exotic locales from 1st Century Jerusalem to King Arthur’s Camelot, which speaks to Matera’s uniqueness as possibly the most convincingly ancient city, at least in the Western world.

As spectacular as Matera would appear to any first time visitor, attracting the average foreign tourist remains challenging for this distant region of Basilicata, situated roughly at the ankle of the Italian boot, far away from the convenience of the Milan-Rome-Naples corridor of highways and high speed rail lines.

As of 2016 Matera remains cut off from the national rail network, turning away most would-be visitors who perhaps don’t realize the convenience of a narrow guage private rail which connects the town to the regional transportation hub of Bari.

Coming from our previous stop of Ostuni we took the national rail to Bari Centrale, then transferred to a surprisingly brand new, state-of-the-art commuter train on the privately operated Ferrovie Appulo Lucane and arrived at Matera’s underground train station in the early afternoon.

For independent travelers like us, Matera’s geographical isolation could just be its greatest asset in restricting the number of day-tripping tourists. While we did encounter the occasional multinational tour group upon our afternoon arrival, the first evening stroll was an absolutely magical experience of time traveling back 2000 years.

And that’s exactly why we rented a cave house at the heart of the Sassi, two neighborhoods carved out of stones in local terms, to fully immerse into this hauntingly ancient town and enjoy those early morning and evening walks with barely anyone else sharing those millennium-old cobblestone paths.

With dozens of old grottos now converted into anything from private rooms to extravagant designer hotels, booking a well-equipped cave house in Matera turned out relatively easy and cheap enough even for our modest accommodation budget.

Our main problem was in locating our apartment amongst the labyrinth of alleyways zigzagging down the steep terrain, all without calling the landlord (our Tre Italia SIM Card was data only)! After passing by our eventual apartment several times without finding the address, we finally resorted to an antiquated payphone.

Within 10 minutes our friendly landlord arrived, two umbrellas in hand to save us from the drizzly weather, and guided us through the bewildering maze to what would turn out to be the most spacious apartment of our 23-day trip.

Our grotto was actually the bottom level of a multi-storey cavern, a prehistoric palazzo so to speak, with the upper level occupied by the landlord. Just this level alone featured a ginormous 100 square meters of indoor living space, not to mention a crude outdoor patio.

Burrowed at an angle at the far end of the cave was essentially a master bedroom, though with no walls to separate itself from the rest of the house. The only two doors in the entire apartment belonged to the front entrance and the bathroom.

On the west side the cavern opens up into a split level design, with the bottom level serving as a small single room and the top level featuring a large walk-in closet.

Most essential during our stay was this functional kitchen equipped with a new induction stovetop and oven, a refrigerator and all the necessary pots and utensils. To our surprise there was even a small washing machine which we never tried out.

These were two very memorable nights in one of the most unique -- and quite possibly the oldest -- houses we’ve ever rented. And the lack of a TV (apparently the signal reception was very poor at the bottom of the Sassi) obliged us to immerse into this extraordinary hole-in-the-wall and enjoy our stint as modern troglodytes.

While our cave house was located near the bottom of Sasso Barisano, it was only a 3 minute hike up to Piazza del Sedile for groceries and possibly restaurants that we would have loved to try if we didn’t come down with stomach pains and slight fevers during our stay.

Perhaps it was too much pomodorini for breakfast or maybe the large amount of Fico d’India seeds that we ingested the night before, but our stomachs restricted us to only the lightest meals until our final lunch in town. That said, we did manage to get a taste of the two main local specialties:

Orecchiette con Cime di Rapa was one of my favorite memories of the Italian South, so much so that I’ve since learned the recipe from an Italian co-worker, who in turned inherited the recipe from his mother. There’s no magic to it -- just the perfect balance of slight bitterness from the Cime di Rapa, the savory essence of anchovies and most important of all, heaps and heaps of fresh garlic. This dish was an eye-opening experience that would likely serve me well for the rest of my life.

What sustained us during our two days of sickness was arguably Matera’s greatest contribution to the Italian food scene -- the famous Pane di Matera with its signature crunchy crust, pillowy soft interior and intense aroma of durum wheat. Needless to say it was among the best bread I’ve ever tasted, even with my reduced appetite and numbed tastebuds.

We bought our bread from the busiest Panificio I encountered anywhere in Italy -- by 08:30 I was already fighting with 20 or so housewives and grannies inside the tiny shop for a fresh loaf! For any reader planning on visiting Matera, definitely drop by Martino Casa di Pane (on the south side of Piazza Vittorio Veneto) and give your tastebuds a treat, as early in the morning as possible before the best selection is gone.

Despite our sickness we did manage some easy sightseeing inside this fascinating UNESCO World Heritage Site, starting off with the neighborhood of Sasso Barisano where we stayed.

The star attraction of the Sassi was its amazing collection of medieval rock hewn churches such as the 12th Century San Pietro Barisano, a massive subterranean hall that served as the heart and soul of the neighborhood until the 1950s.

Most of the churches originated from natural caves inhabited since stone age, expanded through centuries of digging into the soft rocks and some even became cavernous enough to feature multi-level catacombs that doubled as the town’s cemetery.

On the opposite side of Piazza del Sedile, narrow steps passed below the medieval arches to the other Sasso district known as Caveoso, an even more primitive-looking neighborhood of dense cave dwellings and rupestrian churches.

Across the ravine from Sasso Caveoso was a series of prehistoric caves once occupied by the first humans who settled in the area, some 9,000 years ago when Sassi Barisano and Caveoso were founded in the same way, before millennia of continuous inhabitation and adaptation developed them into this unmistakeably ancient and yet contemporary city.

This could just be Southern Italy’s greatest comeback story, transforming some of country’s poorest slums into a fashionable, internationally facing city of boutique cave hotels and restaurants. As the city readies itself to become the 2019 European Capital of Culture, one has to believe that the best is yet to come.

In the meantime, independent travelers like ourselves will keep enjoying Matera’s relatively anonymity for now while it flies under the radar from most organized tours. The only queues I ever encountered over three days were at the panificio and the supermercato, waiting behind the local housewives.

On our last day our landlord drove us to the train station in his little old Fiat, after which our flight out of the BRI airport was a mere 2 hours away by train. Access to this world class scenery wasn’t as inconvenient and time-consuming as most people think.

On our flight home I browsed through these photos and considered how Matera would rank among all the destinations we visited over 23 days. It’s certainly among my favorites along with beautiful Lecce, which tells you how much I loved this final week in Southern Italy. Our stomach pains did cease prior to arriving home, leaving us no excuse from settling into our 9-to-5 routine again, for another year before our next overseas trip.