The small state of Goa on India’s west coast was unlike anywhere else we had been in India. As we left Goa Airport, the most striking things were the abundance of coconut palms and the heat. It was 33 degrees and humid as we took a taxi towards the state capital, Panjim. There was immediately the feeling that here, the pace was slower. There was less traffic on the roads and noticeably less people in general. I’ve never been to the Caribbean, but Goa reminded me of pictures and documentaries I’d seen of that area of the world. It made sense I guess. Both locations were on more or less the same latitude and next to the sea, so it was feasible their climates and natural environments would be similar.
Our taxi driver took the coast road, giving us our first glimpse of the Arabian Sea, the large rusty barges docked at the shore and the colourful holiday residences scattered amongst the endless groves of coconut palms. Every now and then the Goan driver, a proclaimed Catholic, would point out a church, painted all-white and distinctly Portuguese in style. He suggested we try to visit some of them as they were very beautiful inside. Portuguese architecture was even more evident in Panjim, particularly around the area we stayed, in the Sao Tome old quarter. We’d booked in to Caravela Homestay which had simple but comfortable rooms and an excellent cafe. As soon as we arrived we turned on the fan and air-conditioner, plonked down on our beds and spent the early afternoon cooling down. The homestay was run by an amicable man called Carlos and his family, who thankfully appreciated the often misunderstood nuances of good hospitality.
For several weeks at least, due to gastro-intestinal problems, I had been approaching food with caution, but in Goa I found I could relax. There were so many places serving food prepared and cooked in the Portuguese style that I almost thought I was somewhere else. For the first time on the trip, I felt comfortable eating meat again and on our first night in Panjim, I happily indulged in a dish made with mildly-spiced Portuguese sausages.
The Sao Tome old quarter of Panjim is located near the banks of the Mandovi River and Ourem Creek. Across the river, looking towards North Goa, the natural forested hillsides are interrupted with a shameless display of big-brand advertising. Large signs, reminiscent of ‘Hollywood’ in Los Angeles, advertise everything from Kingfisher beer to Vodafone and Ray-Ban sunglasses. It made me think of all the things I’d heard previously about Goa as being some kind of shallow hedonist Mecca for party-only tourists on the world-wide rave circuit. Thankfully, we didn’t see or hear much of the party scene which tends to be centred along the beaches of Northern Goa, a place we chose to avoid.
During the day we would wander the narrow and quiet backstreets of the Sao Tome and Fountainhas old quarters, with their mediterranean-style buildings that harken back to earlier centuries of Portuguese rule. Many of the buildings have been carefully restored, painted in traditional tones of blue, green, yellow and ochre-red. Many are adorned with clay tiled roofs, narrow balconies and ornate wall tiles.
We visited the tranquil garden, Garcia de Orta, and the baroque Church of the Immaculate Conception nearby. Numerous churches, crosses and wall tiles throughout the region provide a constant reminder that a quarter of Goa’s population is Christian, a demographic quite unlike anything else we’d experienced in India.
It was in the old quarters that we happened upon a wonderful Portuguese restaurant called Viva Panjim where I had a delicious dish made with fish cooked in gravy along with some superbly made cocktails priced at the equivalent of £2 each. The restaurant had a traditional, even Latin, ambience that would have been just as at home in the old quarter of Lisbon.
During one afternoon we travelled by auto-rickshaw across the Mandovi River to the Museum of Goa, a private art gallery in the Bardez district. It was quite oddly located within an industrial zone and seemed to be in the middle of nowhere, yet still attracted a steady stream of visitors. The gallery had several levels, and at the time of our visit, much of the work on display was by Goan artists Subodh Kerkar and his father. Both artists seemed to celebrate the uniquely Goan way of life, particularly their relationship with the sea, with nature and the inevitable influx of Portuguese culture.
On another day we visited Old Goa, a historical city about ten kilometres east of Panjim. It used to be the capital of Goa during the early years of Portuguese rule and was the centre of Christianisation in the east until malaria and cholera epidemics forced the abandonment of the city in the 17th century. Today it contains a number of ruins and fine old Portuguese style churches and is still considered an important site for Roman Catholicism in the region.
We visited three of the old churches situated within a few hundred metres of each other amongst extensive lawns and palm trees. The Basilica of Bom Jesus (Bom means ‘good’) is over 400 years old, one of the oldest churches in India and one of the country’s best examples of baroque architecture. The other two churches we visited were Se Cathedral and the Church of St Francis of Assisi, before catching the local bus back to Panjim.
I was glad we had decided to spend the final ten days of our trip in Goa. It was calmer, cleaner, less populated and in my view had better food than other places we’d visited in the country. Goa was distinctly different with a culture and lifestyle heavily influenced by four centuries of Portuguese rule. Goan people we spoke to were proud of their heritage. They recognised their uniqueness, didn’t necessarily feel a strong connection to the rest of India and didn’t particularly like that they now lived under the jurisdiction of Indian rule.
Even still, life in Goa seemed to be good. It not only has a small population but the highest GDP per capita of any state in India. Together with great food, extensive beaches and lots of sunshine, it is not surprising to hear it described as the state with the best quality of life in the country.