For as long as I can remember, the allure of Goa has intrigued my traveller’s mind. Was it browsing National Geographics’ as a teenager; coveting photos of pristine beaches, glossy palm trees and ‘hippy hide-aways’ in a tropical paradise? Or perhaps that Goa, with its distinct Portuguese culture, architecture and cuisine, is said to feel like you aren’t really in India – so much like Pondicherry with its French history – a destination within a destination.
But of course Goa is part of the rich diversity of India, and its west coast location placed it in easy reach from our southern home in Bangalore. Naturally Goa beckoned and after two visits, I had most certainly fallen in love!
It wasn’t only the beaches that beguiled me, but the romance of that old Portuguese charm. Clanging church bells in quaint town squares, white spires reaching to palm-fringed skies, tangles of narrow crayon-hued streets and ageing villas, glorious even in decay. And the colour! I was utterly captivated by the embrace of colour; vivid, exuberant, unrelenting colour.
And infusing all of this is that Goan spirit of s u s e g a d. Derived from the Portuguese word sossegado for quiet, it evokes the laid back atmosphere that permeates Goan life.
The legacy of the Portuguese
Fontainhas, the old Latin Quarter within the city of Panjim (or Panaji), was love at first sight for me. During Portuguese rule, each urban resident was obliged to paint their house after the monsoon rains and it’s clear this tradition has continued. Many of the 18th and 19th century homes are still arrayed in pale yellows, ochres, greens and blues, with dashes of reds and whites. On two separate visits I stroll these streets until I’m intimate with the tidy back lanes, the tranquil siesta times, the aged villa from where gentle strains of violin drift, and the best verandah cafe for morning coffee. I also return often to Fontainhas’ lovely whitewashed chapel.
The pretty Chapel of St Sebastian, built in 1818, is white as mandated – the gaiety of colour was reserved for homes. The small church contains one of only a few relics remaining as testament to the Goan Inquisition, a crucifix that originally stood in the Palace of the Inquisition in Old Goa. It’s believed that Christ’s unusual open eyes struck fear into the hearts of ‘heretical’ suspects brought before the Inquisitors as they awaited their often tragic fate.
Nearby, in the heart of Panjim, the larger St. Mary’s Basilica is also striking, presiding over bustling streets from its hillside perch. A busy tourist spot, I overheard a conversation debating whether, with so many churches in Panjim, it was worth visiting the UNESCO Heritage site of old Goa. A bystander implored, “Oh yes, so many churches are there, so beautiful.” And so we went. And yes, one must!
We journeyed through small villages on windy roads, arriving in Old Goa to a dizzying collection of vast cathedrals, chapels and convents. Often framed by tall Cook pines, colossal palms and fringed by forest, the effect of so many religious buildings is unexpected and impressive. I understood why it was once referred to as Rome of the East.
The Portuguese made their headquarters here with the population reaching 200,000 by 1543. The number and scale of churches constructed to serve the settlement is staggering and our eye is drawn from dome, to spire, to bell-tower. Might I be in Rome, Lisbon, perhaps Barcelona? We wandered a few hours marvelling at the architecture, attempting to imagine ourselves in that distant, majestic past. Yet it was also a troubled one.
Malaria and cholera epidemics were especially cruel to this city. By 1775 a mere 1500 people remained. In 1759, the viceroy decreed a move to the future capital of Panjim, the once glorious city abandoned with the hope that 10 kilometres separation would make the difference between death and survival. The site became known as Velha Goa, old Goa, and Vasco de Gama who had first arrived to these shores in the late 15th century, surely would have been heartbroken to know the tragedy that had struck the settlement he had envisioned. His arrival, and then of Naval commander Albuquerque, to battle and usurp the ancient Hindu kingdom of the Kadamba and Vijayanagara, resulted in control of the regions’s lucrative spice routes. The predominately Catholic empire lived on until 1961 when Goa was annexed by India.
To the beaches
For many, the draw of Goa is its forty-some kilometre stretch of beaches. Yet deciding which beach to spend time on can be daunting. Between the north, central, and the south, the beach culture varies widely – lively with vibrant night life, atmospheric fishing beaches preserving something of local life, beaches that attract busloads of tourists, and the more soulful and reserved. For the most part, what were once tranquil fishing villages are now pulsing with tourists; nirvana found (and lost) as seekers commune with the Indian Ocean and each other. There is an overwhelming array of accommodations from simple huts to five-star grandeur.
For many locals, the quiet charm of Goa will not return.
“The beautiful is gone in Goa,” a taxi driver lamented one afternoon as we inched our way along a main stretch of road clogged with tourist buses, taxis and local traffic. “These roads were to get from village to village, now the world is here.”
Part of the attraction is Goa’s beach shack culture. Not all shacks are created equal – some are fancy and others more plain. Yet seafood, and a drink or two, are the common denominators of the experience. We learned that the key is finding a shack that you like, spending much of your time in its environs and developing a relationship with the owner. So a swim in the ocean, a beach-combing stroll, some leisure on the loungers, and a ‘cool one’ in your preferred spot in the shade of the shack… susegad indeed!
We find a spot that we love, soak in the vibe, and let the feeling of susegad embrace us. Admittedly we’re not very good at it, sitting still, and we’re pleased when two of the ‘kids’ happen to be in the area and invite us to spend a day at a secluded beach. We cruise through the countryside on scooters, eventually climbing down a winding, stepped trail to what can only be described as, paradise. We spend the day free and joyful, and admittedly very sunburnt.
Scooting and strolling through the villages offers snapshots of tourism, eager entrepreneurs and thankfully, iconic glimpses of culture. A cow pokes his head into a bar, children help their moms in the family shop and a bare chested sage offers travelling prayers. I relish in these vignettes of Goan life and perhaps no where more so than in the small village of Majorda.
The charm of a village
During one of my visits with a good friend, Kristin and I find ourselves in the tranquil village of Majorda. We settle into Vivenda dos Palhacos, a restored 100 year-old Portuguese manor. The boutique hotel with its lovely communal areas, charming pool and the interesting ‘Lorry-Back Bar’, makes it very easy to while away a few days.
The joy is also its location. Tucked under the shade of tall coconut palms on a lane winding through the quiet village, it’s a place where early morning deliveries are announced with the squawk of a bike horn. Where chickens and piglets share the narrow byways. Where serenity is interrupted only by roosters and bells from the nearby parish church.
At VdP, we’re greeted by laconic basset hounds lazing on the welcoming verandah, and by owner Simon Hayward. Simon and his sister, are from a third generation of British family who have long called India home. Simon stops to chat as Kristin and I enjoy a late afternoon drink on the verandah. I’m soon asking about the photos of the Haywards that decorate the bar area and the many bottles of Hayward’s beer on display.
“My grandfather arrived first and lived in Calcutta, where my sister and I were born. It was a great life growing up in England and India. My father owned horse races. There were hunting trips into the forest of Bengal. We were fortunate to have been brought up in that era.”
I learn that Simon’s father, the late Sir Anthony Hayward, was knighted for his commercial acumen, with enterprises including a brewery and distillery. They also held the rights to import and distribute opium across the country – a practice started by the East India Company and passed down to the British Raj. The practice wasn’t outlawed until the 1950’s.
Simon relates finding his property and how he knew there was a certain charm to it, the buildings and location. “There was even a ‘piggy loo’ outback,” he laughs. “Yes, an outhouse where pigs cleaned things up.”
He hadn’t expected to return to India after a career in advertising in Hong Kong and New Zealand, yet Simon is a natural in these surroundings. Fittingly, he and his sister have been given the honourary status of persons of Indian origin. Goa is most definitely home.
“Sure Goa is a little different to the rest of India I once knew, but we’re part of the local community now. And there are some characters!”
I mention to Simon that the character of VdP seems a perfect mix of colonial and traditional Goan character.
“It’s turned out well. We don’t advertise the property, but rely on word of mouth. This seems to draw in some real characters who stay with us.”
Our time here is shared with expat families on holiday from Dubai and Hong Kong, and dinners in the lovely dining room are lively. The next afternoon, a BBC journalist arrives in time for cocktail hour having just finished researching a documentary about the impact that IT plays in Indian romance. When I relate that I’m a writer, the journalist’s response reads my mind perfectly.
“I could easily spend a week here writing, couldn’t you?”
Such an understatement and I lament that I hadn’t made Goa more of a getaway from Bangalore. I’m thankful for the three visits of the beautiful charm and colour… the Goan susegad!
If you go:
Stay at the heritage hotel, The Panjim Inn, in the heart of Fontanhas. Their restaurant, The Verandah, is also a good spot for coffee, and wine! panjiminn.com
Black Sheep Bistro in Panjim is a great spot.
Ciaran’s in Palolem, is on a busy beach with kayaking, local boat rides and fishing boats and was a great stay.
Local buses can take you cheaply to Old Goa or hire a car for about 1500 rupees return.
From Vivenda dos Palhaços, it’s a peaceful 15 minute walk to Goa’s longest beach vivendagoa.com
For more, check out Luke and Trixie’s tips on Goa, https://www.howlblog.ca/travel-guide/goa